x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bollywood's biggest night

Feature From the venue - the world's fourth-largest casino in Macau - to the star presence, there was nothing small about the International Indian Film Academy Awards.

From the venue - the world's fourth-largest casino in Macau - to the star presence, there was nothing small about the International Indian Film Academy Awards. Fionnuala McHugh reports on three days of glamour, glitz and culture dash.

In 1979, the Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan made a film called The Great Gambler, in which he visited Venice, sat in a gondola and serenaded his leading lady. Some cinematic historians - including Bachchan himself - view that as the moment Venice entered popular consciousness in India. Thirty years later, on May 8 2009, he stepped into another gondola. This one, however, was in Macau, a Special Administrative Region on China's southern coast approximately 9,000km east of Italy. It was floating inside The Venetian hotel which, as well as being the world's fourth-largest building and housing its own Grand Canal, also happens to contain the world's biggest casino. Bachchan's appearance was to promote the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA), for which he is the brand ambassador. Ever year since its London launch in 2000, IIFA has hosted an awards ceremony outside India (Dubai was the venue in 2006). The idea is to raise Indian cinema's profile on the international stage while nudging along tourism in the host country. And as Macau suffers the effects of the economic downturn, the timing for this 10th outing was ideal. "After 30 years," Bachchan announced, "IIFA is going to do the same for The Venetian in Macau as what the song from The Great Gambler did for Venice then."

A month later, video footage of Bollywood stars leaving Mumbai for Macau started appearing on Indian websites. By the time the three-day event began on June 11, at least 600 people from India's film industry, nearly 400 journalists, and 80 employees of Wizcraft International Entertainment, the event organiser, had gathered at The Venetian. And thousands of fans from all over the region had followed.

The day is hot and thundery, but within the vast spaces of The Venetian (slogan: Imagine A World Where Anything Is Possible), time, weather and national boundaries do not seem to exist. IIFA's opening press conference kicks off with a chorus line of gondoliers from the Philippines and China singing That's Amore. Reinforcing the harmonious theme, Sabbas Joseph, the director of Wizcraft and one of the three men who helped create IIFA a decade ago, says in a speech that the prime minister's office of one unnamed country made a bid to host the IIFA Awards as an attempt to thwart bombings. "That country talks about the period before IIFA and the period after IIFA," says Joseph. "They've never had a bombing since.

"And even if they have," he adds after a pause, "it's a minor incident." Speculation as to which country he means is lost amid the murmurs as Bachchan - named the superstar of the millennium in a 1999 BBC poll - takes his place on the podium. Bachchan, 66 and tiredly licking his lips under a mane of hair, has a leonine quality that is perhaps appropriate here, as The Venetian's logo of Venice's winged lion is everywhere, including the plaster columns, notepaper and bottles of water. Occasionally, though, Bachchan has had to mute his roar. He made some ill-advised comments on his blog about Slumdog Millionaire before it went on to win eight Oscars, and he's since been obliged to embrace its success publicly. And so, in the first line of his speech - one that echoes the weekend's theme about how IIFA builds bridges - he pays homage to Resul Pookutty, who won the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing and who is sitting in the front row. In fact, it's difficult to escape Slumdog Millionaire's shadow: the children who played middle Jamal, middle Latika and middle Salim, and Anil Kapoor, who plays the quiz-show host, are also in the hotel, and AR Rahman, who won the Oscar for Best Score, is scheduled to give a workshop.

Event organisers have divided the media centre into three segments - India, Hong Kong/Macau/China and the rest of the world - and different conversations are taking place in each. To a Bollywood fan, the star presence might seem high (Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai, Priyanka Chopra, Govinda and Sushmita Sen are all in attendance), but the Indian press are pondering the absence of Kareena Kapoor, Akshay Kumar ("Though if I'd made Chandni Chowk To China, I wouldn't appear in Macau either," someone says) and the Khans - Salman, Aamir and, most significantly, Shah Rukh, who used to be an IIFA regular but appears to have had a falling out with the Bachchan clan.

The Hong Kong/Macau/Chinese press, having freely admitted they haven't a clue who anyone is, are seeking help with identification. And the rest of the world wants to know what on earth Peter Andre - the Australian singer, UK reality show stalwart and, until last month, husband of the glamour model Katie Price (formerly known as Jordan) - is doing in southern China. Even Andre, whom Joseph introduces as an American at the press conference, seems to have lost his geographical bearings. "Here's little old me," he says. "My parents are Greek, I was born in England and grew up in Australia - and here I am in Hong Kong, representing the Indian film awards."

Meanwhile, fans are gathering by the indoor carpet along which the stars will stroll past a Madame Tussauds figure of Bachchan on their way to a Cirque du Soleil show. To signal IIFA's concerns about global warming the carpet is green, not red, although you feel years could be added to the planet's lifespan if The Venetian simply turned its air conditioning up a few degrees. (A few of the frozen journalists covetously eye the waxwork Bachchan's shawl.)

The fans, who only number several hundred at this stage, are pleasantly solicitous. "It's nice for them to be here," says one fan from Mumbai, who's been on holiday in China, about his city's actors. "They can roam about freely, which they can't do in India." And, indeed, the stars, when they finally appear, amble along the green strip as if in a safari park, occasionally pausing in front of the television cameras for sound bites. Sen is even wearing leopard-print chiffon, and a strong herd instinct is clearly at work. Apart from Bachchan's father, son and daughter-in-law, Anil Kapoor's daughter, Sonam, is here (she is also the only Indian in the just-published special issue of the Hollywood Reporter, which is devoted to the next generation of Asian actors); so is Roshan's director father, Rakesh, and Neil Nitin Mukesh and his father, the singer Nitin Mukesh.

But perhaps it's Sanjay Khan who best exemplifies the tight intricacy of the IIFA network: his brother, Feroz, who died earlier this year, played the Amitabh Bachchan character at the beginning of Slumdog, and his son, Zayed, will host the fashion show tomorrow that includes jewellery designed by his daughter Farah and modelled by his other daughter, Susanne, and her husband - Hrithik Roshan. Still, it can take a while to adjust to fame's circus. Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, who played Slumdog's middle Salim, is in a crowd that thrusts cameras and pieces of paper at him. "I've been given a map of the hotel," he says, "but I still have no clue where I am."

A day of one-on-one interviews. One-on-one, in this context, means cramming as many print journalists and television crews as possible into one room so they can take turns asking the talent the same question - usually, "How does it feel to be at the IIFAs?" No interview ever starts on time, and because of the peculiarly suspended nature of The Venetian, with its Truman Show blue sky and frigid air, it feels as if anything could be happening in the outside world (in fact, the WHO has declared a world pandemic, but this news never intrudes on proceedings).

A Chinese television crew, waiting to interview Bachchan, is advised that one of its pre-submitted questions, what do you hope to achieve with your blog?, should be changed; Mr Bachchan doesn't like the word "achieve". After some baffled debate, the question is rejigged to what's the idea behind your blog? "I guess he thinks he doesn't have to achieve anything more," remarks a bystander. At the other end of the achievement spectrum, the model Anushka Sharma, aged 21, tells a room crammed with photographers "I'm very comfortable to be myself." Asked if she found her single film, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which co-starred Shah Rukh Khan, difficult, she replies with the calm indifference of successful youth, "Why difficult? If you can act, you can act."

In an adjacent room, Sonam Kapoor, Anil's daughter, discusses her new film, Delhi 6, co-starring Abhishek Bachchan, in which she dances with a pigeon in her hair. "Actually, there were two of them," she says cheerfully. "Twins, like Mary-Kate and Ashley. One was supposed to stay on my shoulder but it wouldn't leave my head." Of the Hollywood Reporter, she says, "It is quite important, I think. Not for me, but any Indian on a world platform is a nice thing. I don't believe in Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood - it's world cinema."

In the twilight zone of The Venetian's ballrooms, two forthcoming releases are being promoted. David Dhawan's comedy Do Knot Disturb has the distinction of starring a brace of Miss Universes - Sen and Lara Dutta - and of being partly filmed in Abu Dhabi. "The people are very lovely," says Dutta. "In all probability we'll go back." Next door, Mugdha Godse, who plays Neil Nitin Mukesh's loyal girlfriend in the drama Jail, says helplessly, "Good evening, good afternoon - is it good morning?"

Jail's producer, Shailendra Singh, also seems dazed by the incarceration, the aimless hours and the violent pecking order of the event. "No, I'm not crazy about film festivals," he says. "But we're hoping Jail will go international." What has gone international is PeterAndre's presence. There's speculation that he's become tired and emotional in his suite and won't perform at the evening's fashion show, so Britain's News Of The World has dispatched a reporter and a photographer from Hong Kong, an hour's ferry ride away. It's the city where, judging by his tweets, Andre still thinks he's based ("Hi everyone, I'm in Hong Kong getting ready to perform at the IIFA").

The show, co-hosted by Zayed Khan and Sophie Chaudhary, feels eternal (even Bachchan says on his blog the next day that it was "too long") and most of the audience has left by 12.24am - which is when Andre bounces perkily onstage singing, with nice irony, Outta Control. Then he performs his about-to-be-released single, Call The Doctor, and invites textual analysis of the words ("It's much too late, I've got to leave her/Doctor, doctor, this is an emergency"). "Anyone who's into lyrics will understand these lyrics, especially in the UK," he promises. A couple of hundred remaining Bollywood fans, unaware of Andre's domestic drama, clap with weary politeness.

The website of the British tabloid The Mirror bears the mysterious headline, "Peter Andre in singing attack on Katie Price in front of 600 million" ("Five weeks of simmering rage exploded over the Far East last night," the story begins). The IIFA awards gala, and possibly some of the fashion show, will be shown on STAR TV, which does indeed claim 600 million viewers. But it won't be broadcast until July 5. (This, incidentally, along with its oft-mentioned sponsors, is how IIFA turns a profit - about Dh7.3 million, according to India's Business Standard, making it the safest bet in Macau.)

Despite - or possibly because of - the UK coverage, Andre has decided to give an interview in his suite. It's the smallest media gathering of the event - just four journalists on a sofa, two photographers and a camera man who turns out to be filming Andre's forthcoming British reality show, Peter Andre: The Next Chapter. Andre, bright-eyed and affable, says he's awed at meeting Bachchan ("He had this aura about him. He was, like? those religious people who get up on stage and speak"), and anxious to resurrect his career ("I can't be releasing cheesy pop songs any more"). His manager won't let him utter a word about his personal life, apart from many affectionate references to his children; presumably it's all being saved up for the privacy of his television series.

By contrast, Hrithik Roshan's interview in his suite is so crowded that he has to take a break to have his brow mopped. His eyes may be bright but, as he's wearing dark glasses, no one can tell. He's understandably flummoxed by the questions ("What's it like to be a star?"), and his answers emerge from some parallel zone of contemplation. "Being an actor is used by some people to fill up that empty void, which is a bottomless pit, known as the ego? I live by my truths."

Downstairs, in the Sicily Ballroom, Rahman is a no-show, so Kapoor and Pookutty host a Slumdog workshop. The two men provide the weekend's perfect example of what happens when fantasy collides with reality. Kapoor, currently cultivating a bouffant hairstyle and goatee for the role, will appear in the eighth season of 24 as a Middle Eastern leader visiting the United States on a peace mission; Pookutty, on the other hand, describes being questioned as a suspected terrorist by a US Immigration official at Los Angeles International Airport the week before the Oscars. "The moment I said 'Slumdog Millionaire', the expression on his face changed," Pookutty says.

At the awards show, 8,000 ecstatic fans fill The Venetian's Cotai Arena. Most of them are from Hong Kong's Indian community; despite all the talk about bridge building, there are almost no Chinese faces in the crowd, apart from gondoliers holding up IIFA signs. As IIFA's awards are voted for by Bollywood's fans, the results aren't surprising. Jodhaa Akbar wins Best Film, Roshan wins Best Actor and Chopra is Best Actress. Sonam Kapoor survives her first stage performance amid an aviary of fake birds, and Andre (having thrilled the British tabloids by walking the green carpet with Sophie Chaudhary) appears in a sherwani to present the Best Playback Singer award.

It's Bachchan's son Abhishek, however, who is the revelation. By far the most charismatic performer of the night, he seems to be the cub emerging from the lion's side into his own limelight. He whips the crowd into a frenzy that lasts until 2.45am, when the front of the stage explodes. It may be a stormy night in Macau but inside The Venetian, it's raining sequins and spangles.