In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of another sleepy Tampa week, an imported world dropped into the center of our own.
The Bollywood Oscars officially began.
We've hosted Super Bowls. We've had the Republican National Convention. But we've never had anything as glamorously unfamiliar as the Bollywood Oscars, the Indian film industry's signature event held before in places like Macau, Singapore and Toronto. Never the United States. Never Tampa.
The first in a long line of events kicked off Wednesday night in Tampa's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. And for the rest of the week, parties, expos and awards shows will afford locals a look into the show business side of Indian culture, at the country's versions of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence. And they'll give visitors a look at life in Tampa, expected to feel at least an $11 million economic impact from the events.
Momentum has been ramping up for days, but Wednesday brought the biggest contingent yet of stars landing at Tampa International Airport, sunglasses on and celebrity hair bouncing in front of screaming fans. Gasparilla krewe members in Tampa's trademark pirate costumes met them, grinning and wearing tricorn hats.
At the park Wednesday night, sandwiched between our iconic skylines of the University of Tampa and the Tampa Museum of Art, two worlds merged again for the International Indian Film Academy's Stomp, a raucous festival signaling the start of the awards. Indian music poured from the park, mixed with American songs like the Cupid Shuffle and several Indian food options, along with local favorite, the Taco Bus.
The event was one of the few activities open to the public for free. It drew people from across the street and around the world. Throngs of fans clomped past the Skypoint Condominiums where Indian music bounced off of the balconies. In the park, they posed for pictures at IIFA backdrops and danced around the rainbow-lit stage and the Budweiser beer tents. In the first hour, a choreographed Indian flash mob dance broke out in the center of the park.
"We always were confident that the people from the Indian community would be here," said Janak Vora, an IIFA organizer who has been working in Tampa for months. "But what we were also keen upon was that the broader community would be able to come in and see something of Bollywood without spending a single dollar."
Before the event, Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, known to U.S. audiences as the game show host in Slumdog Millionaire, walked through the park swarmed by fans. Mayor Bob Buckhorn hung out with Kapoor.
"Tampa's a cool place," Buckhorn said. "We're diverse and we can dance with the best of them. Except for me."
Tanya Devani came to Tampa from Alabama, seeking stars with her family. They called Bollywood and cricket the two passions of India, where they're from originally. But Bollywood movies combine both their Indian and American realities.
"It's a way to connect back to your identity," said Devani, 17. "And it's very similar to Hollywood, so it's easy to talk to your friends about."
They booked rooms in the Hilton Downtown Tampa, where the stars are staying. So far, they've spotted Shahid Kapoor, a Bollywood leading man compared to American heartthrob Channing Tatum.
"All drenched in sweat," Devani said. "Coming back from the gym."
Celebrity is celebrity, wherever you go. And for all its Indian flair, the first event of the Bollywood Oscars didn't feel that far away.
Carrie Rowland, 34, sat on a bench with her kids. She brought them to experience new things, she said — Indian dresses, Indian food, Indian music. And they did. But as they ate ice cream, Rowland said she was a little surprised.
In the end, everything sounded pretty familiar.
Staff writers Rick Danielson and Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected]