He brought Bollywood to Tampa Bay before it was cool

Mahesh Patel couldn't believe what he wasn't hearing.

On a weekly WMNF-FM program in 1987 promising Music of the World, Patel hadn't heard from his corner of it.

"One day I picked up the phone and said: 'You guys don't have any Indian songs or anything?' " Patel, 61, recalled. "This guy was smart, boy. He said, 'Sir, would you like to come on my show?' "

Patel accepted the invitation, which led to an avocation, then a cause.

For more than two decades, he hosted Radio Asia on low-watt AM stations, spotlighting Indian culture — especially his beloved Bollywood — for an expanding local populace. Through the '90s, Patel booked Hindi-language movies in a small Tampa multiplex and produced concerts across Florida featuring Indian stars.

Local interest in Bollywood culture is bursting with the upcoming International Indian Film Academy awards and events in Tampa, which will be April 23-26. What that affair promises to deliver, Patel brought to the bay area decades ago.

The IIFA event could be viewed as a reincarnation of Patel's communal showmanship. Flashier and far more outreaching, but the same at heart.

"That's why I'm not excited about IIFA at all, to be really honest," Patel said. "I've done this, I've seen this, I know what they're going to do here."

Patel said his eldest daughter, Roshni, "gets very upset" when he talks like that. She carries his legacy into the 21st century as founder of UrbanAsian.com, focused on Bollywood stars, music and fashion. IIFA is her site's lode of celebrity information, this time practically in their Westchase backyard.

Roshni Patel, 29, grew up attending her father's concerts and movies, listening to radio shows and learning from his show biz experiences. She thinks new media technology would have benefited Patel's old media career.

"If he had the tools, it would have been bigger," she said. "Not just big but at large."

Small is how it began in 1987, buying a Sunday hour of radio time for $150, then another when it worked. During one show, Patel played a cassette tape of a decades-old Bollywood song his father always hummed.

Driving home from work, Tampa physician Pawan Rattan flipped a radio dial and heard his past. Rattan asked his receptionist to discover the music's source and wrote a $500 check to keep him on the air.

"I said we have to support it," Rattan, 65, recalled. "Absolutely, this is needed for the community. … Every weekend (on Radio Asia) we were reminded of our culture, our rules, our beautiful music and our Bollywood."

Indian cinema provided most of the show's music, so presenting it was a logical next enterprise.

Patel secured space at the former AMC Twin Bays 4 in South Tampa, renting Bollywood film prints for a weekend, sharing expenses with partners in Orlando and Miami. Prints would be assembled, shown, torn down then driven to the next city.

On one occasion, Patel transported the first half of a particularly long movie from Tampa to Lakeland while the second half played, followed by another courier, to squeeze in another sold-out show.

"Whether the movie was good or bad, people just wanted to see an Indian movie, period, in a big theater on a big screen," Patel said. "It was a day out for their family, you know? Kids, adults, everybody loved it."

Word reached a New York promoter with a lineup of Bollywood stars on eight-week visas, booking concert tour dates.

Patel's first production in 1988 — his lone Tampa concert — starred Bollywood singer Mahesh Kumar and more than a dozen musicians. The event drew nearly 500 fans, held in a Chamberlain High School auditorium rented for $800. The school loaned band instruments to several musicians whose baggage was delayed in New York.

Later concerts attracting three times as many fans were held in Orlando for easier access statewide, and Miami for its chic Indian population. Patel promoted eight shows by 2001, including an Orlando date starring famed actor Madhuri Dixit and her rising Tezaab co-star Anil Kapoor, now an IIFA ambassador to Tampa.

Gradually, paying to see Bollywood stars in person and on screen lost favor as the Internet, DVDs and India's expanding television industry spread performances worldwide.

"Nobody was interested," Patel said. "And the actors were asking (for) too much money. Seventy, eighty thousand dollars is the most we ever paid (to produce) a concert. Now that's one actor's price."

After show biz and owning a grocery store, Patel settled into working as a clinical pharmacy technician. Radio Asia broadcasts ended in 2012, his final 17 years in three-hour blocs on Pinellas County's WXYB-AM.

Patel gets a kick out of seeing Bollywood hits now showing daily at nearby AMC Veterans 24, sometimes three at once: "Can you believe that? It's amazing, you know?" He doesn't plan to attend any IIFA events, but the global business forum April 24 and 25 could change his mind "just to hear their plans for the future."

Amid a celebration of Indian music, movies and culture echoing Mahesh Patel's past.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.

He brought Bollywood to Tampa Bay before it was cool 04/11/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2014 9:32pm]

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