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IIFA Pageant Channels Bollywood Promotional Power

Awards weekend gives equal billing to stars, sponsors and social issues

MACAU — Midway through the ‘IIFA Weekend’ being held this year in Macau and the annual Bollywood award show has donned its familiar mantle, that of a genial and chaotic holiday camp whose evening treat is a daily twist on the variety show format.

But the often tacky showmanship of the International Indian Film Academy awards cloaks a well-oiled PR machine for the global promotion of mainstream Hindi cinema.

The show is now in its 14th frame, having been started with a bang in 2000 at London’s Millennium Dome by events management firm Wizcraft International.

“We could see that India was going global, that more Indians were appearing on ‘Rich Lists’ in the UK, US and elsewhere, and we wanted to create a platform that celebrates this Indian-ness,” says Wizcraft boss Sabbas Joseph. “It was the Millennium year, we wanted to take on the world.”

It has done so by taking its show on the road to destinations including Sun City (South Africa), Yorkshire (UK), Bangkok (Thailand), Toronto (Canada) Sri Lanka, Amsterdam (Netherlands), Dubai (UAE), and Singapore.

Joseph peppers his dialog with talk of “building bridges” and connections and says that cinema and the IIFA shows connect Indian cinema with other countries. “When you go into a movie you share emotions in a collective experience. It is only when the lights go up that you look around and see that your fellow audience members are black or white or of a different denomination.”

He says that Wizcraft usually works two years in advance of a show and that IIFA normally conducts extensive community outreach programs in the months before the pageant lands in each city. This year there was less opportunity for outreach as the show had initially been set to go to South Africa, but Joseph took a view on Nelson Mandela’s health and carefully decided to return the event to China’s casino capital, Macau, where it had previously been held in 2009.

While the main emphasis is on cinema promotion, numerous other good causes get swept along. This year these include the ‘The Power of 49,’ a campaign to get India’s women to exercise their democratic rights, and environmental awareness. The red carpet has been replaced with a green one for the past five or six events.

Joseph says the IIFAs are able to nudge the needle on social issues. “With a television audience of 800 million we can entertain, but we also need to be relevant,” he says.

It does so by harnessing the massive star power of Bollywood’s top names. When superstar Amitabh Bachchan campaigned on Polio awareness government and public alike were forced to listen. Ditto when Aishwarya Rai, the former Miss World with stunning green eyes, campaigned for eye donation, India focused on the problem. Green issues, Joseph argues, disproportionately affect poor countries like India and the poorest layers of society and needed to be put on the national political agenda.

But Joseph and team do not miss a chance to build their own brand alongside the stars and the consumer goods brands they endorse. The phrases “IIFA Weekend,” “IIFA Experience,” and “IIFA Journey” are mouthed as regularly by the thesps as they are by Wizcraft’s PR pack. The name-checking of sponsors is just as regular and systematic.

Joseph says that the IIFA business model involves the destination city agreeing to provide “X amount of value covering hotels and flights,” while Wizcraft enjoys revenues from broadcast rights and sponsorship. The host benefits from the publicity and shares the ticket sales.

This year the center of activities is the cavernous Venetian Macao resort hotel, which is large enough to house one of the world’s largest casinos, a massive permanent theater, ballrooms aplenty and the Cotai Arena, a 15,000-seater venue capable of welcoming Beyonce, Rihanna or the Harlem Globetrotters.

Daytimes during the three-day weekend are a series of junkets and presentations, while the evenings are about glamour and ostentation.

There are pre-release junkets for a handful of individual films, but they tend to be more gleeful than they are informative. And India’s local language and Hindi independent scenes barely get a look in here. This is absolutely mainstream stuff.

In the Venetian’s endless suites of meeting rooms, a small army of publicists set up one-on-one meetings between the stars and the scores of journalists brought in from Indian diaspora spots around the world, including Canada, the UK and Kenya. Indian film writers skew young, fawning and adulatory, repeatedly taking snapshot photos of themselves with the stars.

More impressive are the weekend’s master-classes. The first this weekend was a two hour show put on by Anupam Kher, co-star of “Silver Linings Playbook,” who back home in India teaches a class called The Actor Prepares. Kher makes the point that acting is more about doing than thinking and by way of demonstration pulls out unwitting audience members to join him. He makes his point brilliantly by launching into a Hindi-Cantonese conversation, where neither participant understands the other’s language, but where within seconds they are collaborating and empathizing. A second class Saturday examined the importance of music in Indian cinema.

The evenings involve green carpet parades where crowds are kept behind resilient crush barriers and the stars turn up fashionably late – nearly four hours late in the case of ‘The King of Bollywood’ Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, his co-star in the upcoming “Chennai Express” – before a prolonged floor show. Last night’s IIFA Rocks show was a confabulation of minor awards, promotion, celebration and narcissistic media self-referencing.

Tonight’s main IIFA Awards show is likely to be even glitzier and the performances on stage will involve more of the A-list stars. SRK is co-hosting and unlikely to be so tardy today, though that won’t prevent the show running well past midnight and the after-party continuing till dawn.

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