Friday, March 16, 2018

Amid Patel family rift, 'Bollywood Oscars' is show that almost didn't go on

LUTZ — Just before midnight two Mondays ago, Chetan "Jason" Shah again prepared to leave his mansion to sleep on the floor of a small office in protest.

A hunger strike had failed to win an apology from his wealthy brother-in-law — Dr. Kiran Patel — and others Shah believed had taken credit for his work in luring the "Bollywood Oscars" to Tampa. But maybe another night on the floor would.

Shah, 48, unplugged his stone fountain, walked across the black-and-white marble floors and turned on the security system as he left the palatial lakefront home. He climbed into a dry cleaner delivery truck and drove off, to an office not far from Raymond James Stadium.

Five nights later, that stadium hosted the International Indian Film Academy's awards, the culmination of a four-day gala organizers said brought tens of thousands of visitors to Tampa Bay, $11 million in economic impact and invaluable exposure to hundreds of millions across the globe.

In the run-up to the April 26 show, tourism and elected officials gave prime credit to one man for making it happen: Patel, the cardiologist, health insurance entrepreneur and philanthropist who has donated tens of millions across the region.

"Can you believe?" Patel said at a news conference. "There were many skeptics, there were many people who thought it couldn't be pulled off. But it happened."

Originally, Patel himself was a skeptic, Shah the believer.

Then came a series of events late last year — many details of which are the subject of a lawsuit — that cut Shah out and vaulted Patel to the forefront.

The behind-the-scenes struggle — told here after the Tampa Bay Times reviewed dozens of documents, emails and text messages — nearly kept the Bollywood Oscars from coming here at all. Further, they exposed a deep and enduring rift in the bay area's most prominent Indian family.

Patel, 65, said he prevented disaster.

"It was falling apart and I felt I should intervene," he said. "My conscience is very clean. I have not cheated anybody, I have not hurt anybody."

People who planned the event agree. "Dr. K saved the day," said Andre Timmins, director of Wizcraft, which owns IIFA.

With the gala now in the past, Shah is making his battle to claim more of the credit public.

"Everybody in my own community . . . thinks of me as a loser," Shah said. "I'm like a soldier who went to the battleground, won the battle, came home and is stoned to death."

• • •

In the beginning, it was all Shah's idea.

When news surfaced last June that local tourism officials were courting IIFA, Patel was involved, officials said, but his lesser-known brother-in-law deserved most of the credit.

Shah and Patel had taken different paths to America from Ahmedabad, India — where Shah grew up, and where Patel met Shah's sister, Pallavi, at medical school. Patel was born in Zambia.

The future husband and wife came to the United States in the late 1970s, settling in Tampa Bay. As Patel built his fortune in medicine, his brother-in-law came to Florida in the late 1980s and tried less prestigious industries. He adopted "Jason," the Americanized mispronunciation of Chetan (Chay-than) that he gave up correcting.

Over the years, Shah has owned a Hallmark store and a moving company and dealt in real estate. He owned several cleaning stores that led to a lawsuit over allegations of missed rent. His company, Tampa Bay Drycleaner Inc., is seeking reorganization in bankruptcy court.

In late 2012, Shah came upon a chance for greatness. The IIFA awards, the annual celebration of the Indian film industry, wanted to come to the United States for the first time. An Orlando travel agent told Shah that Tampa Bay had a shot.

Shah consulted Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Visit Tampa Bay president Santiago Corrada. The price to get IIFA was $15 million. Local government wouldn't pay.

Shah said he could pull together private financing. Last July, he helped pay for a local delegation of 18 to fly to Macau, a Chinese gaming and tourist resort hosting the 2013 IIFA awards.

The group returned triumphantly. At a public announcement, Shah stood proudly behind the lectern. It was one of the last times organizers would feature him so prominently.

• • •

In Macau, Shah had signed several contracts with Wizcraft.

He had created a company — Go Bollywood — to serve as IIFA's host committee in Tampa. Go Bollywood would pay Wizcraft $15 million to bring the gala to Tampa. In exchange, Go Bollywood would get a cut of pay-per-view revenue for the awards show, could sell sponsorship rights to the events and could create "buzz" events leading up to the show and charge admission.

The contracts laid out a payment schedule: Go Bollywood owed $1 million in August, and would deposit the remaining $14 million in an escrow account in October. Wizcraft would withdraw scheduled payments the rest of the way.

Go Bollywood made the first payment, but when October came, Shah didn't have the $14 million.

Here's where conflicting narratives arise.

Shah asserts Wizcraft forced him to default. To raise that $14 million, he needed to start selling ticket packages. Wizcraft withheld the seating chart to the awards show, Shah said, and he ran out of money.

This created an opening for Patel to swoop in as savior, signing a new contract with Wizcraft.

This account is supported by the Orlando travel agent who expected business from Go Bollywood. The agent — Akarsh Kolaprath — has sued Wizcraft, Patel and others, alleging they colluded to make more money.

Patel "cut me and Chetan out, so he took it all himself," Kolaprath said in an interview.

Patel and Timmins, the Wizcraft director, offer a different account.

Timmins said Shah misled the company into thinking Patel had agreed to fund the awards from the beginning. It wasn't until after Go Bollywood defaulted that Timmins realized Patel had never agreed to that.

"We didn't do a proper background check" on Shah, Timmins said. "He would say, 'Don't worry, Dr. Kiran Patel is on board.' "

Patel, in an interview last week, said he was reluctant to get involved at first in luring IIFA. Shah told him he didn't need money, Patel said.

"According to him, my support as a community leader is what he was seeking . . . not financial commitment," Patel said. "I was always lukewarm on this project."

For several weeks late last year, Wizcraft seriously considered taking the show somewhere else.

Faced with that possibility — and the embarrassment it would cause his community — Patel said he decided he had no choice but to underwrite the show himself. But first he needed Shah to sign a release, allowing Patel and Wizcraft to forge a new agreement.

Shah relented.

In a meeting discussing the release, according to Shah, Patel humiliated him.

"He said, 'You are to sign this contract. You think you are in charge of this? You are a nobody. If you die on a footpath, no one will come for your body. I am in charge of this,' " Shah recalled, his voice breaking with emotion.

Patel denied saying those exact words.

"It's maybe partial truth. . . . I will not get into a he-said, he-said," Patel said. "This is very simple — if I don't step in, then the event goes."

Shah signed the release. Patel signed a new contract with Wizcraft for an undisclosed amount — but less than $15 million, Wizcraft officials said.

Patel declined to say how much of the cost he agreed to underwrite but says he does not expect to profit. Wizcraft said he might make money, since he is due a portion of the revenues.

While the release cut Shah out financially, Shah said he was promised officials would maintain the appearance he was involved with IIFA planning.

That didn't happen.

Timmins compared Shah to a child crying after losing his lollipop. Patel reacted similarly.

"Can you buy prestige, can you buy recognition?" Patel asked rhetorically. "No. . . . You have to earn it and let the community decide."

Commissioner Higginbotham supported that characterization.

"Chetan was the guy who had the idea," he said. "And he made a heck of an effort to raise the money to do this. And he failed."

• • •

Late last year, Shah noticed he was being treated differently. He was barred from entering a meeting at Patel's office to which he had driven Wizcraft officials. He waited in the parking lot of a nearby Burger King for three hours until he was called to pick up the Wizcraft officials.

On Jan. 13, Shah started sending long text messages to a group including Wizcraft, tourism and elected officials. A kickoff news conference was scheduled for the next day at the Tampa Theatre.

9:54 a.m.: "friends are calling me saying special invitations were sent . . . but we are not invited."

No one replied.

10:07 p.m.: "I know I am not invited. I accept it."

No one replied.

Jan. 14, 10:20 a.m.: "I totally disapprove not inviting me today. You all have been silent . . . At 3 p.m. I am going on liquid hunger strike at my office building . . . My family is hurt so much beyond imagination."

Higginbotham replied. His phone had been dead, the commissioner said.

Shah replied: "I have almost killed myself making iifa happen and the treatment is totally unfair . . . I am a leader and not a follower . . . Al thanks for responding."

4:45 p.m.: "media will get a hold of this story of you immorally dumping me . . . I got used."

Visit Tampa Bay's Corrada replied: "Chetan, I wish you would reconsider what you are doing. Everyone is working extremely hard and unselfishly . . . Let's be a little more humble and remember what this is all about."

In February, Shah was scheduled to speak at a panel discussion in Tampa about IIFA planning. Minutes before it started, Corrada had the placard with Shah's name removed from the table at the front of the room. Shah sat in the audience.

"It was awkward," Corrada said in an interview.

"This is common with large-scale events," he added. "People come in, make introductions, then the professionals take over."

• • •

It was after 1 a.m. when Shah arrived at his office, a small stone building just off Dale Mabry Highway. He used to own the larger building next door, he said, but it's in foreclosure.

In January, this office became his refuge. A pile of musty blankets and pillows in a corner formed a makeshift bed. In the refrigerator, he kept drinks his wife made from lemons and boiled beans that sustained him.

He ended the hunger strike after 17 days, he said, out of health concerns — a bad heart. He kept up the protest, though, by not sleeping at home. Occasionally, his wife, Shreya, spent the night. Shah explained the meaning of his protest.

"I am a very proud father," he said. "My children have seen me working extremely hard for IIFA to come. . . . For me to show my face to my children, who were okay for me to use their education fund (to finance the Macau trip) . . . I wanted them to learn when something in life is done not right to you, you protest. But there are ways of protesting. You do it quietly first, and start slowly."

It was nearly 2 a.m., but Shah had one more thing to do. He needed to drive by Raymond James Stadium to see the IIFA signs flapping from light poles. "I want to see my work," he said.

On the ride there, he talked about how he has heard people think he lost his mind and is suicidal. Ridiculous, he said. His dream of IIFA in Tampa had come true.

"It's like God has rewarded me," Shah said.

As the truck approached the stadium, Shah could see the outline of a sign in the darkness. He pointed and spoke in a whisper.

"There it is."

• • •

In July 2013, after returning from Macau, Shah sent a congratulatory email to everyone involved. In it, he compared himself and IIFA with Christopher Columbus and the New World.

Tourism official Corrada replied: "Chetan, Thank you, without you nothing happens."

Last Tuesday, Shah emailed Corrada, Higginbotham, Patel and 14 others. Shah had attended the big awards show with his family. He had hoped to hear his name over the loudspeakers. He had hoped to be called onto the stage, with his wife, to be honored.

"Can I beg for some recognition?" he wrote. "I am a small guy in every which way capability wise. This is the only outstanding thing I believe I have done. . . . Please consider me as a beggar on street and thro something at me. At this point I will even take a chewed chewing gum. . . . I have not done anything wrong."

Shah ended the email by asking Corrada to return a trophy Wizcraft gave them in Macau.

No one replied.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]

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