Bhangra dancers and Bollywood celebrities, a blur of sequins and eye-popping golden costumes, crowded the stage at a Vancouver media conference this week, facing a convention-centre ballroom packed with South Asian community leaders along with politicians and their handlers, eager to bask in a good-news announcement. Iconic Vancouver shots – the Lionsgate Bridge at sunset, kayaks on blue, blue water – flashed by on a giant screen.
And then, the main event, also carefully choreographed: the announcement of the brand-new Times of India Film Awards, its inaugural edition to be held in Vancouver. The TOIFAs, set for April, will be a three-day extravaganza with events across the Lower Mainland. The payoff? A chance to pull off something similar to what rival Toronto reaped with its Bollywood awards show two years ago – the prospect of millions injected into the British Columbia economy during the event and pumped-up Indian tourist dollars down the road.
The TOIFA awards statuette, revealed Tuesday along with a few event details, resembles a trumpeting elephant with a film reel at the end of its trunk. The symbolism could not be more apt: The TOIFAs are about film, sure, but they're also a lot about trumpeting.
"They reach over 90 million people every single day, most of them in India," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark, of the Times of India's media properties. "And that kind of exposure can garner tremendous opportunities for people in our province."
Bollywood is, by some measures, the largest film industry in the world. And it's growing both in its global outreach and its artistic development. A new, independent cinema is emerging, and young Indian directors are pushing far beyond the escapist, song-and-dance boy-meets-girl, villain-threatens-all, boy-gets-girl formula that has defined the art form. This was evident in some of the winners at last weekend's Filmfare Awards in Mumbai, such as Gangs of Wasseypur, about the epic struggle between three crime families that has drawn comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's work; and Paan Singh Tomar, the story of a real-life Indian athlete who became a notorious bandit. With the Indian diaspora an important target market for Bollywood studios, these alternative films often appeal to NRI (non-resident Indian) sensibilities – and are sometimes even shot or partly shot outside of India.
With Bollywood's growing global influence come opportunities in the diaspora. In B.C., the governing Liberals have secured an event that appeals to the large South Asian community and will take place days before the provincial-election campaign officially begins.
While the filmmaking itself may be getting more sophisticated, there's a chorus of voices here – you hear them on talk radio and read their comments online – suggesting the government spending $11-million to bring the event here is a crude strategy to attract the increasingly influential ethnic vote.
Meanwhile, the politics of Indian film awards themselves are also playing out here, with competing events – the TOIFAs and IIFAs – taking shots at one other.
The International Indian Film Academy awards – or IIFAs – made their North American debut with a splash in Toronto in June, 2011. The following November, a delegation set out from B.C. on a trade mission to Asia. While in India, the B.C. government announced it would formally bid to host the 2013 IIFAs.
In May, 2012, IIFA rejected the B.C. bid; B.C. wasn't offering enough money. An IIFA spokesperson says his event was offered "substantially less" than what B.C. is paying for TOIFA. "When I look back, there must be some reason why they would give a [new] event more money than an event that has been around for 13 years and has been established," said Sabbas Joseph, from Mumbai.
He suggests timing and politics may have been an issue. Before B.C. submitted its bid to host the event in June, Sabbas says the government inquired whether the event could be held earlier. "To which our response was: 'It can only be held in June or July. Or maybe May, but we don't do it in April, ever,'" he said.
"We were categorical about that. So possibly that didn't work in the interests of whoever was investing in the project," said Joseph, referencing "the political situation in British Columbia."
There is a provincial election May 14; the campaign begins mid-April, shortly after the TOIFAs.
In response to a question about this, the Premier's press secretary sent the rejection letter and the bid with the June dates, saying they speak for themselves.
Ironically, Joseph said another factor in rejecting the bid was the level of support, such as tax cuts, for Bollywood filmmakers looking to make movies in B.C. The B.C. film industry has been up in arms about the province spending millions to bring TOIFA to Vancouver; they say the money would be better spent improving tax incentives to bolster local production.
TOIFA vs IIFA
The growing importance of expat eyeballs for evolving Bollywood has created a marketplace for its awards shows outside of India, where popular films such as the romantic comedies Barfi! and Vicky Donor can be celebrated – and promoted. The IIFAs launched in 2000, and have become a big event for the industry.
In 2011, for example, Ontario spent $12-million to bring the IIFAs to Toronto, and in return gained more than 40,000 visitors and a worldwide broadcast audience of over 700 million viewers in 110 countries, according to the Ontario government. The Ontario Media Development Corporation says the province's continued relationship-building with India – including a trade mission that November – has resulted in multiple deals for co-ventures between Ontario and Indian companies.
Now the Times of India, which organizes the Filmfare Awards, wants a piece of that lucrative non-resident Indian action.
Before the TOIFA launch in Vancouver, IIFA issued a news release, calling the new awards a "copycat" event. But the Times Group's Filmfare Awards, dubbed the Bollywood Oscars by some, have actually been around far longer than the IIFAs.
"We have a legacy of 58 years of Filmfare awards, so any other award is actually an emulation of [our] awards," Sameer Soni with the Times of India Group told The Globe and Mail. "So if someone is saying that we are the copycats, the proof of the pudding is in eating it."
Soni approached that 2011 B.C. trade delegation not with a film-awards proposal at first, but with the objective of promoting travel to B.C. for India's fast-growing middle class. Out of that came the idea to use the film awards as a marketing platform.
Unlike the Filmfare Awards, which have categories for both juried and fan voting, TOIFA will rely exclusively on the popular vote, open to a global audience beginning in February.
It will be interesting to see how the so-called new Bollywood films will fare in the voting – thrillers and art-house films, often Western-influenced, where prancing young lovers don't pop up behind tree trunks, and the endings aren't necessarily happy.
The big winner at last weekend's Filmfare event was a commercially successful yet offbeat film called Barfi!, about a deaf and mute boy who falls for a woman who rejects him because of parental pressure. The film, directed by Anurag Basu, picked up six awards, most in the popular-vote categories, including best film, best actor and trendsetter of the year. While some have criticized the decision to make Barfi! India's official entry for best foreign-language film in this year's Oscars (it was not nominated), Surrey-based Indian film expert Kamal Sharma is a fan, and predicts it will be a big winner in Vancouver.
It's illuminating to view the divide between critical and popular winners at the Filmfare event. The critical and technical awards were dominated by films that may better exemplify the new Bollywood, such as the critically acclaimed thriller Kahaani, about a pregnant woman searching for her husband, and Gangs of Wasseypur, which premiered at Cannes and also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"The cinema in India has changed quite significantly. ... The emphasis is more on the substance," says Sharma, who owns Kamal's Video Palace in Surrey, and writes a newspaper column and hosts two TV shows about Bollywood. "Some new visionaries have come in this field."
Among those visionaries is prolific producer/director Karan Johar, who was at the TOIFA launch in Vancouver, and said he would scout locations for a film project when he's back for the awards in April. (The deal includes a guarantee that one Indian production will shoot in B.C.)
A few other Bollywood A-listers have also committed to the event, including superstar Shah Rukh Khan (a.k.a. "King Khan"), Barfi! star Ranbir Kapoor, and Katrina Kaif, whom Sharma calls the "box-office queen." Organizers promise there will be more.
But Sharma says April is a busy time for Bollywood productions, and it may be difficult for actors to leave their sets to fly all the way to Vancouver. Another concern Sharma raises about holding the event in early April: It's just over two months away. That leaves a very tight schedule to produce an event so huge organizers say they will bring some 600 people here to work on it.
B.C. is contributing $9.5-million toward producing the event, and $1.5-million for related activities, including a B.C.-India Global Business Forum. With the immediate economic benefit of the awards estimated to be between $13-million and $18-million according to a government press release, Clark clearly has rupee signs in her eyes.
"We're investing $12-million dollars in what we hope will be a long, durable and very profitable trade relationship for British Columbia," she told reporters. (Clark used the $12-million figure, but her office says $11-million.)
What's in it for the Times of India – India's largest media conglomerate, whose properties include print and broadcast media as well as events such as the Femina Miss India beauty pageant? "We establish a global IP," said Soni. "Intellectual property for us."
Sharma predicts great interest in the event, as the IIFAs in Toronto saw two years ago, when people partied in the streets and Bollywood culture was embraced by the mainstream – from fashion magazines to department-store windows. Sharma says he knows many people who flew to Toronto, paying up to $1,000 for a ticket to attend the event. "People were talking absolutely day and night about this," he says.
Call the TOIFAs what you will – upstart, copycat, political pandering – they are generating that same kind of buzz in the South-Asian community. "Just to give you an idea," says Sharma, "my phones have been ringing non-stop since these awards have been announced."
What else the TOIFAs will generate – tourism? trade? votes? – may or may not go according to script, may or may not produce one of those predictable, happy Bollywood endings for the people so driven to bring them here. But it sure makes for one heck of a plot.