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Hooray for Bollywood

India's film industry, in its answer to the Oscars, airs a $3-million awards show from Malaysia, seen in 134 countries, complete with dances and long speeches.

April 10, 2002|KURT PITZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — At the extravagant film awards ceremony, a dazzling actress draped in sparkling rocks descended to the stage on a trapeze, to sing about diamonds being a girl's best friend, in tribute to Nicole Kidman in "Moulin Rouge." The audience included A-list celebrities and millions of TV viewers in many countries.

If it seems familiar, it should. Putting on its own version of the Oscars, the Indian film industry, widely known as Bollywood, last weekend feted its glitterati with Hollywood-style pomp and glamour. The dazzling, $3-million production included over-the-top dance numbers and, much like the recent Academy Awards, too many dull acceptance speeches.

Arriving celebs stepped out of limousines onto a red carpet, as thousands of cheering fans, held back by 300 police in riot helmets, strained for a better view. Journalists from around Asia murmured about the best and worst expressions of Indian fashion. The unlikely venue: a Las Vegas-style mega-resort here in the middle of the Malaysian jungle.

By far the world's most prolific film industry, producing more than 800 movies a year, Bollywood has been slow to mount a major awards show with international appeal. The International Indian Film Academy Awards are only in their third year. But as it seeks to emulate and compete with Hollywood, as well as reach out to millions of fans throughout Asia, the Middle East and in Hindi-speaking communities throughout the world, Indian cinema has pulled out all the stops.

The awards have been held in a different foreign locale each year, to promote Indian film to a more international audience. The first three have been held in areas with large Indian populations: Britain in 2000, South Africa last year and this year Malaysia, where 10% of the population is Indian. "Indian cinema is finally opening up to the rest of the world, and gaining more recognition abroad," said Amitabh Bachchan, who at 62 is both the grand old man of Indian film and still a heartthrob to millions of Hindi-speaking fans. "Our films have finally reached a status level where it makes sense to have awards with an Oscars-type appeal."

Not surprisingly, "Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India," nominated for a best foreign-language film at this year's Oscars, swept the Indian Academy Awards. Other honored films included a family-values drama, a love story and a nationalistic costume picture. True to Indian form, the plots revolve around extravagant, lip-synched song-and-dance routines. So along with categories for best picture, actors and director, awards were given for best choreography, best lyrics and best male and female playback singer.

The award, a golden stylized statue of a sun, has about the dimensions as an Oscar. But differences abound between the Hollywood and Bollywood versions of events.

When during the show, actress and former Miss Universe Sushmita Sen segued from performing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" into "Material Girl," it was a specially recorded version of the Madonna song using Indian instruments. The Indian Academy Awards included an on-stage Indian mahurat, when filmmakers shot the ritual breaking of a coconut to begin an enterprise, as the first frames of a movie called "Plan," which goes into production this summer.

Many of the stars spent several days before the awards ceremony at the 12,000-capacity Genting Highlands resort, where the awards were held. They attended a movie premiere and exclusive parties during the days and evenings, lending the event the feel of a celebrity summer camp. Despite the remoteness of the venue, thousands of fans traveled from around Malaysia to stake out the hotels where the stars stayed.

"To think that the biggest stars are here in our country, it's a dream come true!" gushed Nur Hanisah Isa, 17, who came with 11 friends from Kuala Lumpur. "If I go home with one autograph or picture, I'll be happy."

Some of the stars were generous with their attention, stopping on the red carpet to shake hands with fans cheering with the abandon of young girls at a Beatles concert. The awards, shown in 134 countries, were watched by an estimated 20 million people, according to event organizer Sabbas Joseph.

They come at a time when Indian films are receiving a wider world audience and increasing interest from Hollywood studios interested in distribution deals. More than a dozen Hindi films were released internationally with English subtitles last year, compared with two or three films several years ago, said Joseph.

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