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IIFA Awards

Buckle up, Toronto. Bollywood is coming Add to ...

If the hype is anywhere close to accurate, the royal wedding will seem like a staid little gathering, the Cannes Film Festival a lacklustre photo op, once the International Indian Film Academy awards come to Toronto this week with a show full of ecstatic, gyrating Bollywood song and dance.

Pearson Airport could be shut down by frenetic fans, some worry, if word gets out when exactly the flights carrying Bollywood's biggest stars are scheduled to arrive. Downtown, much of the Royal York will be cordoned off and occupied by the superstars and their press events.



Come next Saturday, if the buzz is to be believed, the Rogers Centre threatens to explode into full spectacle, with the awards show expected to be seen by 700 million people worldwide. Frantic publicists working the lead-up to the event, like Naomi Strasser at Aerial Communications, describe it as the biggest thing they've ever been involved with.

Being held for the first time in North America, the 12-year-old IIFA awards exist entirely to promote Bollywood internationally, even if some in Toronto may not know their Priyanka Chopra (the stunning, Indian cinema queen) from their Dharmendra (a veteran leading man).

The Ontario government has cottoned on though. To bring the event to Toronto, it bid $12-million to host the awards, in the hopes of getting back that sum many times over in publicity for the city and the province.

"The IIFA weekend and awards is about exposure for Ontario, it's about strengthening business ties and increasing tourism," said Mukunthan Paramalingham, spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Tourism and Culture. "India was second after China in the number of visitors that came to Toronto last year - a strong emerging market without a doubt. When India looks to Ontario and sees images of what we have to offer, I think we can take those tourism numbers to the next level in the years to come."

The ministry had been in discussions with IIFA's Mumbai-based organizers, Wizcraft, since 2007 when Ontario representatives first attended the awards show, held that year in Yorkshire, England. The bidding process culminated in 2009 with an announcement made during Premier Dalton McGuinty's visit to India that Toronto would host IIFA in 2011.

The awards weekend, which kicks off with a major press conference and the premiere of the highly commercial comedy Double Dhamaal on Thursday in Brampton, also has a serious business side. A three-day round of conventions, trade meetings and speaker sessions is being hosted by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade for up to 100 or so industry delegates from India and more than 250 business people from Toronto.

Among the 22,000 seats for the awards show, only 16,000 were available to the public. The rest are going to guests, sponsors and affiliated groups - in other words, come for the business meetings, stay for the show. It's a strong enticement. The 16,000 public tickets, for instance, were sold in two blocks. Each sold out in five minutes flat.

"The reality is that we have always wanted to get to North America to showcase India's cinema skills to Hollywood and right in the heart of Western cinema," said Sabbas Joseph, director of Wizcraft International Entertainment, by phone from Mumbai. "Showcasing in Toronto is perfect because [the city hosts]note> you host the spectacular Toronto International Film Festival, which is probably the most commercially influential film festival in the world. That's important and valuable."

Mr. Joseph said that this will be the biggest IIFA awards yet. Seven hundred media people from around the world are accredited, which ranks fairly close to the 1,100 journalists typically accredited for TIFF. The worldwide television audience watching the awards show will see a 3½-minute segment touting Ontario early in the broadcast.

Despite its international reach, Wizcraft is a small operation. Mr. Joseph answers press requests informally, often by e-mail or cellphone late into the night to accommodate the 9½-hour time difference. Much of the organizing in Toronto has been done locally. For instance, CIBC, one of the event sponsors, has put together some of the lead-up events, including a dance competition awarding the winners a place on stage Saturday, as well as open-air screenings of Bollywood movies nominated for awards in Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga and Markham.

For CIBC, which got involved after Toronto was announced as host city, the promotion is on par with the World Cup: "Within the South Asian community, this is very, very big news and a big event. We have more demand for these events than we can meet," said Stephen Forbes, executive vice-president of marketing at CIBC.

These competitions and screenings have been going on for days. This week, the official IIFA events accompanying the razzle-dazzle awards show on Saturday night include a three-day festival of hit movies from recent years, a workshop on popular Indian cinema songs for students and people in the industry, the IIFA Rocks charity fashion show and various green-carpet events. (The carpet is green, as opposed to red, to signify environmental awareness.) TIFF Bell Lightbox is also kicking off its retrospective of the pivotal Indian filmmaker Raj Kapoor, with a gala tied to IIFA on Sunday.

The accumulated media coverage of IIFA is expected to be huge. Last year, when the awards were held in Colombo, Sri Lanka - a more muted event than what is expected to hit Toronto - the media exposure was valued at around $85-million, according to Mr. Joseph, who added, "That's a very conservative estimate."

Yet why has IIFA taken so long to come to a city with such obvious South Asian and film connections as Toronto?

"Oh my God, it's early. In a lifespan of what we believe the IIFA's will finally encompass, coming to North America and coming to Toronto within the first 12 years, it's phenomenal," Mr. Joseph said.

"We don't know when we'll be back … the distance is daunting. The challenges of time [zones]and literally the flying hours to come that far are considerable. How soon IIFA will be back in North America is a good question."

Follow on Twitter: @Guy_Dixon

 

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