IIFA taps into Toronto's South Asian community

Bollywood starpower hit Toronto this week for a three-day film and business networking event culminating in the Intl. Indian Film Academy awards Saturday night, marking the North American bow of the 12-year-old traveling event designed to take Indian cinema global.

In January, 16,000 public tickets sold out in 10 minutes, “a phenomenal record,” according to Sabbas Joseph, a founding director of Mumbai-based Wizcraft, which runs the event.

But for Toronto’s half million-plus South Asian communitytuning in to the week-long pre-awards coverage on multicultural TV net Omni that reaches 22.7 million Canadians, the Bollywood love affair goes beyond the event and unspoolings of “Guru” and “Chandni Chowk to China.”

Grads of local Bollywood dance and acting schools have landed in Toronto-shot pics, including Akshay Kumar starrer “Thank You,” and may soon find more gigs once an official Canada-India film and TV production treaty is signed, opening the door to India’s $2.5 billion film industry.

This is particularly important as fewer U.S. projects are shooting in the area now that the Canadian dollar has reached parity with the greenback.

“The biggest challenge in Toronto is how to stay competitive and now that we’ve lost Hollywood suddenly there’s an opportunity for India to access our talent and facilities,” said entrepreneur Ajay Virmani, CEO of Canada’s largest cargo airline and exec producer on Toronto-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s “Water” plus a handful of Indian pics.

“But a movie can be made in India for 20% of what it would cost here, so there will be financial as well as cultural challenges,” added Virmani, whose latest pic, the $12.3 million “Breakaway,” is co-produced with Don Carmody and Frank Siracusa and stars Rob Lowe, Canadian comic Russell Peters and newcomer Vinay Virmani. The hockey-themed family comedy opens Sept. 30 in Canada (Alliance), the U.K. and India.

On Sunday, TIFF Bell Lightbox launches a 20-pic retro of Raj Kapoor films, the first in North America in 30 years, in partnership with IIFA and the Ontario government. It will likely hit the road after its six-week run.

“We have a multi-pronged strategy to engage the Indian film industry and to encourage greater participation from Toronto’s South Asian community,” said Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan, pointing to Toronto fest co-director Cameron Bailey’s efforts to preem more Indian pics.”There’s a growing integration between Hollywood and Bollywood and a great interest in the wider population in Hindi films but not many access points,” added Cowan. “This retrospective will reinforce the importance of Toronto for international premieres of Hindi cinema.”

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