x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sri Lanka prepares for Bollywood's Academy Awards

The International Indian Film Academy Awards, one of the biggest events in Bollywood, will be held in Colombo next month.

An unusual request was made in Sri Lanka some weeks back: a call for 80 stretch limousines to transport some of Bollywood's biggest stars while they are in Colombo. "We don't have limousines of this magnitude, so the organisers made a request to the Sri Lankan public to provide BMWs, Mercedes Benz and other luxury cars," said Srilal Miththapala, the president of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka.

In an event akin to greeting several heads of state, the Sri Lankan government is pulling out all the stops in playing host to the 11th edition of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards next month. Everywhere you go in the capital of more than a million people, roads are being reconstructed, pavements remodelled and roundabouts spruced up with grass and flowers as Sri Lanka prepares for the event, to be held from June 3 to 5.

"There is huge, huge interest, and this is a tremendous boost for Sri Lanka," says Dileep Mudadeniya, the managing director of the state-owned Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, the main local coordinator of the event. Sri Lankans love Hindu movies and are looking forward to seeing their stars. The IIFA Awards are held in a different country every year. They were launched in 2000 at the Millennium Dome in London. Aimed at promoting Indian cinema worldwide, past ceremonies have been held in Malaysia, Singapore, the Netherlands, UAE, England, Thailand, South Africa and Macau. Next year, IIFA moves to Toronto.

The event is expected to draw 3,000 celebrities, guests, businessmen and others from India and around the world, including the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, who will serve as IIFA ambassador, and the former Miss World Aishwarya Rai. Other headliners include Shahrukh Khan and Kajol. There was intensive campaigning for the venue with South Africa, Australia and South Korea vying to host the event, which is expected to be viewed live by 600 million people worldwide.

Bachchan was in Colombo last month to announce the decision to hold this year's ceremony in Sri Lanka. He told reporters that he was moved by the warm welcome he received. "The size of a country is judged by the size of her heart, and Sri Lanka has a big heart." The event has been likened to Sri Lanka hosting the Non Aligned Movement Summit in Colombo in the early 1970s. With dozens of world leaders attending, it is so far the biggest event the country has hosted. "This is as big as that," Miththapala says.

The government is spending $9 million (Dh33m), all of which will come from private sponsorship, but is expecting a return of much more than that from increased tourist traffic, public relations and the promotional value of the event, Mudadeniya says. A special train service that will bring visitors from Colombo's international airport to the city in 30 minutes instead of about two hours by road, will be provided.

A few days after Bachchan returned from his trip to Colombo, Tamil groups protested outside his two homes in Mumbai, urging him to boycott the event and alleging that crimes have been perpetrated against Sri Lankan Tamils by the government. Government troops last year defeated Tamil rebels fighting for autonomy for their minority community, ending a nearly 30-year-long revolt that led to more than 80,000 deaths. The government has rejected allegations that many Tamil civilians died in the crossfire during the last stages of the conflict and is resisting a move by the United Nations to set up a war-crimes tribunal.

Despite the protest, IIFA organisers are going ahead with the event. Sri Lanka hopes the event will result in at least 100,000 more Indian tourists this year. The IIFA weekend includes a high-profile IIFA Global Business Forum, the IIFA Foundation Fashion Extravaganza, the IIFA Foundation Celebrity Cricket Match, world premieres of Indian films and the IIFA Film Workshop in addition to the awards.

More than 200 Indian business leaders are attending the Global Business Forum, while Star TV will broadcast the awards live across the world.