India International Film Festival opens Feb. 17 in Tampa and points to growth of the South Asian community

A film festival explores the identity and culture of its people.
Francis Vayalumkal, 32, is the founder and executive director of the India International Film Festival, now in its third year in Tampa. “Films are one of the easiest ways to learn about a culture,” Vayalumkal said. The three-day event opens tonight at Channelside Bay Plaza in downtown Tampa. STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON   |   Times
Francis Vayalumkal, 32, is the founder and executive director of the India International Film Festival, now in its third year in Tampa. “Films are one of the easiest ways to learn about a culture,” Vayalumkal said. The three-day event opens tonight at Channelside Bay Plaza in downtown Tampa.STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times
Published February 16 2012

The goal was to expose Tampa Bay to Indian culture.

Francis Vayalumkal, who grew up in India before he attended the University of South Florida, wanted to see more of his heritage in Hillsborough County. He wanted to create better networking opportunities for South Asian-owned businesses and highlight the Bollywood that Indians love to an America in love with Hollywood.

The result was the India International Film Festival, which begins today at Channelside Bay Plaza. In just its third year, the event has grown surprisingly fast, emphasizing the South Asian community's strong growth in Tampa Bay as well as its impact in the entertainment world.

Last year, about 2,500 people attended the film festival, which received 130 submissions of independent films from around the world — a surprising number for such a young festival.

"To be where they are at this point is absolutely amazing," said Paul Guzzo, 36, a Tampa filmmaker who has helped launch other local film festivals. "For a niche film festival, they've grown head over heels as fast as they could. Not many cities have a film fest for the Indian community. It's just phenomenal."

In Tampa Bay, the Indian population grew by nearly 2 percent between 2004 and 2007 to 22,850, according to the Census Bureau, although the Indian International Film Festival estimates are higher, saying that more than 35,000 people of Indian origin call Tampa Bay home. Statewide, Indian immigrants and their descendants are Florida's largest Asian group with more than 128,000 residents, up 80 percent in the past decade, according to 2010 census data.

Indian movies draw enough customers in Tampa to be screened at Channelside Cinemas 10 and Britton 8 theater in South Tampa. The Indian film industry is one of the world's largest, acting much like Hollywood, depicting — sometimes distorting — the country's cultural trends and issues. Whereas the United States ranks first in box office revenue, India ranks third, just behind Japan, and the popularity of Indian films keeps growing.

"It's something unique to reach out more to the community and to connect with all the people in Tampa Bay," said Vayalumkal, 32, who lives in Valrico and runs an IT company. "Films are one of the easiest ways to learn about a culture rather than going to a country. Indie films give you a more realistic view of the culture rather than Bollywood stuff that you see. When you understand a person's culture, you understand them more."

The growth of the India International Film Festival also coincides at a time when at least one South Asian actor from Tampa Bay is making his mark in Hollywood.

Before he appeared in Spider-Man 2 and became a well-known Daily Show comedy correspondent, Aasif Mandvi was an Indian kid living in northern Hillsborough's Northdale area in the 1980s. He attended Chamberlain High School, then USF, where he studied theater.

"Tampa actually had a great theater community of artists, both at USF and in the community at large," said Mandvi, who moved to Tampa from England. "That was a great place to begin for me."

In November 2010, Mandvi screened his film Today's Special at Tampa Theatre. Co-written by Mandvi, it also featured him playing an aspiring chef who takes over his father's neighborhood Indian restaurant out of obligation and, after much hesitation, fully embraces his family and culture.

"It was great to show the film at Tampa Theatre, one of the greatest moments for me in my career to bring my movie to Tampa," he said. "The reception was wonderful and supportive, and I would absolutely bring any future films I make to Tampa."

It's this sort of success that Vayalumkal would love to see replicated from Tampa Bay's Indian community and another reason he started the film festival. This year, the festival put on a weekend film school, or boot camp, to nurture young local filmmakers. About 15 students learned the basics of scriptwriting, pre- and postproduction and camera work culminating in a film the group made together on the final day.

But the film festival's main draw are the 27 acclaimed, mostly independent films that will be screened over the weekend about Indians or made by filmmakers of Indian heritage from all over the world.

The three-day festival, which includes a red carpet VIP reception, courtyard music and dance performances, and Indian food, will open with the film Love, Wrinkle-Free, a lighthearted and offbeat love story. Other movies include Adwait Sangeet, about two legendary Indian classical musical artists; Aadukalam (The Arena), a Tamil language feature; and A Little Revolution: A Story of Suicides and Dreams, which follows a filmmaker from the rural villages of Punjab to New Delhi with children of farmers who've committed suicide. Most movies were filmed in English, though a few were filmed in Indian languages and have subtitles.

Although Mandvi and his film are not part of this year's festival, he supports its goals and sees great potential for other South Asians in Tampa Bay to become entertainers as well.

"I think it's great for the Tampa Bay community to be exposed to some of the great filmmaking talent that comes out of India and some of the great filmmakers that are emerging from the diaspora," he said. "If it inspires kids in Tampa to become filmmakers, then that's great."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]