TAMPA — The International Indian Film Academy on Tuesday brought two top Bollywood stars to Tampa, setting up a day of East-meets-West, naan-meets-grits juxtapositions.
"From an old country boy from Plant City, I want to say, 'Namaste, y'all,' " Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said at an IIFA news conference at the Tampa Theatre.
For Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, who has made forays into Hollywood with Slumdog Millionaire and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, it was a setting that inspired confidence for the IIFA awards weekend, scheduled for April 24-26.
"I just don't want to leave this place," Kapoor told a crowd of organizers, members of the bay area's Indian-American community, business leaders and journalists inside the historic Mediterranean-style downtown theater. "This theater is absolutely magnificent. It's fantastic. This city has a soul, and I can see that soul in this theater."
On her first visit to Tampa, Bollywood actor, pop singer and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra told the crowd she was excited to explore another part of Florida, her "favorite state in the whole U.S."
Organizers said that in the first hours of ticket sales, they had sold about 7,000 of 25,000 seats available at Raymond James Stadium for the weekend's awards ceremony on the night of April 26. The stadium seats more than 65,000, but organizers plan to have the audience face the stage, so they're not using one side of the stands.
Ticket prices range from $93 to $3,295 through Ticketmaster, and IIFA is selling three-day premium packages for up to $25,000 through iifabuzz.com.
Considering that IIFA hasn't done a lot of marketing, it's a good start, said Andre Timmins, a director of Wizcraft International Entertainment, the Mumbai-based company that puts on the awards.
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Along with bringing back Chopra for a what she promised would be a "visually spectacular" performance, IIFA announced that the hosts of this year's show are heartthrob actor-dancer Shahid Kapoor, who has been a co-host the past two years, and director, screenwriter, actor and singer Farhan Akhtar. The pair hosted the 2012 awards in Singapore.
Atop the list of performers is another former host, Shah Rukh Khan, the international "King of Bollywood" often touted to have a fan following upward of 3 billion. Others on the list include starlet Sonakshi Sinha, rapper Honey Singh and composer Pritam.
Khan has twice been detained for hours at customs during trips to the United States, a fact for which officials reportedly apologized in 2012 when he was held at an airport in White Plains, N.Y., while traveling to give a speech at Yale University.
"Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America," he said then in his speech.
IIFA plans to bring about 800 people from India, so making sure its stars get the travel permits they need is important. Timmins said the U.S. consulate in India has worked with IIFA and been supportive.
Organizers promised announcements about other stars as the event approaches. They also said that a new event, an "IIFA Stomp" Indian music and dance festival April 23 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, would be free and open to the public.
"It's like a welcome party," Timmins said.
But the idea of holding an exhibition cricket match has been scrubbed. Organizers needed Raymond James Stadium to meet the demand for tickets to the awards show. In all, organizers plan to host about 20 events over three days.
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Again and again Tuesday, speakers returned to the theme that an event like IIFA not only promotes Indian cinema and elevates Tampa's image, but brings India closer to North America.
"The medium of culture and art is the only way we can cross barriers of race, religion, caste and language," said Tampa cardiologist, businessman and philanthropist Kiran Patel. "The artists that are going to be here and what IIFA brings to us is that bridge of getting people together."
Patel believes in that enough that he has put up his own money to help make the event happen. He would not say how much, or whether it's more or less than the $12 million that the government of Ontario spent to bring the IIFA awards to Toronto in 2011.
"My commitment was enough to convince them to select Tampa," he said.
To the people of the bay area, Chopra promised an experience akin to Bollywood's on-screen mash-ups of romance, music, dance, comedy and action.
"It will touch you. It will make you feel emotions in all your senses as only Hindi movies can do," she said. "We make magic."
And she closed the news conference as Higginbotham had opened it, with a bit of India and a bit of Tampa.
"Namaste," she said. "Y'all."