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In Bollywood news, they are the news, as Indian Oscars get in gear

Shephali, left, and Nitish Rele publish Khaas Baat, a free newspaper that is distributed to about 14,000 Indian-Americans.
Shephali, left, and Nitish Rele publish Khaas Baat, a free newspaper that is distributed to about 14,000 Indian-Americans.
Published Sep. 18, 2013

NEW TAMPA —Not long after the news broke that Tampa will be the site of the International Indian Film Academy's Weekend & Awards, inquiries from fans flooded into the Tampa headquarters of the Indian-American newspaper Khaas Baat.

"We've been getting emails from all over North America," said Shephali Rele, 46, associate editor of the monthly publication that is distributed to about 14,000 people throughout Florida.

She and her husband, Nitish Rele, 51, editor and publisher, recently celebrated the ninth anniversary of the publication that keeps tabs on what's happening in the Indian-American community. Yet they were as surprised as anyone at the July announcement that Bollywood, as the Hindi-language film industry is informally called, is coming to Tampa, the first U.S. city to host the festival. The event in June is expected to draw 30,000 to 40,000 people, including the top stars of Indian cinema. It will be broadcast to 800 million viewers in 108 countries.

"We didn't even know we were in the running," Shephali said.

As Nitish pointed out, Tampa isn't even the largest enclave of the culture in Florida. With 23,526 Indian-Americans listed in the 2010 census, the Tampa-St. Petersburg area is third after South Florida and Orlando. The census counted 128,735 Indian-Americans in Florida.

The couple launched Khaas Baat, which loosely translates to "special news," after deciding they could do a better job than the now-defunct Orlando paper they got in the mail. In nine years, the paper has expanded to 28 pages from eight — up to 40 pages in the peak fall festival season. The free paper, which they mail to subscribers and also distribute to Indian restaurants and shops, is supported by paid advertisements.

Though the Reles say they will never get rich from it, the paper has made a profit from the start.

Its most valuable service, they think, is its guide to events around the state. Published on higher-quality newsprint, the paper is packed with notices of festivals, concerts, senior events, health fairs, lectures, networking meetings and other events for Indian-Americans. Volunteer columnists of Indian heritage write about arts, immigration, health, nutrition, taxes, fashion and astrology. Shephali reviews new Indian films. Nitish writes about cars in another column. (He also produces another newspaper for car events, called Motoring Tampa Bay.)

Both were born in India, though Shephali came to the United States at age 3 and grew up in Hannibal, Mo. Her parents taught her the language, history and culture of her native land. Nitish grew up in bustling Mumbai and came to the United States as a student at age 23. The two met at the University of Missouri, where they earned master's degrees in journalism. They have two sons, ages 17 and 11.

Nitish spent most of his career at the Tampa Tribune, working for nearly a decade as a news copy editor before moving to the marketing department. There, he produced special advertising sections and reviewed new cars. He was laid off in 2009 and since then has focused on making his two publications a success. That means selling the ads, writing the stories, editing the volunteer contributions and sending it all to the designer, Tim Lancaster, of Lancaster Design in Temple Terrace.

"I work 365 days a year," Nitish said, "and she gets mad at me."

Actively involved with the Indian-American community, the Reles already knew what was going on in Tampa. "The harder part was finding out what's going on in other cities," Shephali said.

They reached out to clubs, organizations and religious groups around the state and, over time, developed a list of contacts. "Then people started sending us stuff," Nitish said.

In addition to distributing the paper to Indian restaurants and shops in Tampa — a lot on Fowler Avenue, which Nitish calls India Avenue — they pay couriers to distribute bundles of papers to outlets in other cities.

Plentiful during the fall, the events start to slack off around Thanksgiving. The Reles are gearing up for the huge 26th annual India Festival on Oct. 26 at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

They've witnessed a steady increase in the population over the years. Many people find their way here as Nitish did. They attended college in the United States, liked it and decided to make it home. The largest population, 528,176 Indian-Americans, have settled in California. Next is New York, followed by New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and Florida.

In Florida, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area is first, with 41,334 Indian-Americans, and then Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, with 26,105.

"They are scattered all over," said Shephali, "but you will find them usually wherever there's good suburban communities and good school districts. They're family-oriented, so you'll find them in the 'burbs."

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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