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Breaking Down TOIFA Vancouver: Was It Worth It?

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Was the Times of India Film Awards (TOIFA) worth it to B.C. taxpayers? Just over two months ago in a blog for The Huffington Post, I likened the B.C. Liberals' $11 million gambit to bring economic development -- and voter love -- to a Bollywood movie, rife with drama, intrigue and betrayal.

After the big event, I'd say it's more like one of those never-ending TV serials. We have to stay tuned for certain answers. But here's what we know so far:

THE SHOW

In the end, the only ones who called it completely right were TOIFA ticket buyers looking to be entertained at BC Place Saturday night. Depending on how much they spent, most got their money's worth from Bollywood's biggest stars and the creative producers.

The cherry blossom theme on stage was a nice homage to springtime in Vancouver. The use of young, local dancers in many numbers was also a smart touch.

Abhishek Bachchan made his way to the stage via a chariot through a screaming crowd, and promised to bring his dad Amitabh Bachchan (the real vocal and dance artiste) back to Vancouver on a future visit. Senior Bachchan was once infamously pelted with eggs while performing for a drunken Vancouver crowd in the early '80s. He vowed never to come back but eventually did. Still, we don't get to see enough of him.

Dance numbers from Priyanka Chopra and Katrina Kaif reminded us why they are currently Bollywood's sexiest sirens. It was a big night for Chopra, who along with her co-star Ranbir Kapoor, won acting awards for superhit, Barfi (nothing to do with barfing, I assure you).

One of the disappointments of the night was the wooden walk-through of a dance performed by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Wife to Abhishek - she's also a former Miss World and in the first decade of the millennium, the best dancer among Bollywood heroines.

After having a baby girl almost 18 months ago, she's maintained a lower profile and wasn't exactly busting moves last night. At times looking almost sheepish, Rai's performance was reminiscent of Britney Spears' VMA set in 2007 - without the substance abuse. Moving very tentatively and casually through some parts, she looked unrehearsed. It's a shame.

But Shahrukh Khan didn't leave his audience hanging. Claiming a shoulder injury, the 47-year-old apologized in advance for any dancing deficiencies, before proceeding through a medley of his greatest hits. He even had a Monkees moment, holding a guitar he clearly wasn't playing. The crowd screamed anyway. He was visibly exhausted by the end.

TAXPAYERS' CASH COLLISION

So everybody had a good time, but that wasn't the real reason the Clark government cut an $11 million cheque of taxpayer dollars to bring TOIFA to Vancouver. She argued it was an investment for a future economic payday. Critics argued it was to give her a platform to woo South Asian voters in the crucial weeks before B.C.'s May election.

I have argued, and continue to argue, that governments regardless of their political bent, should pursue these kinds of opportunities because Bollywood is big business. Hindi film producers are paying attention to how fan bases are reacting in countries like Japan when they consider new and exotic shooting locations. And an estimated 2011 gross domestic product of USD $4.4 trillion means Indians have money to spend abroad.

But what the B.C. Liberals showed in enthusiasm and zest, they appeared to lack in execution of their message to taxpayers and in their foresight to leverage opportunities. In short, it was a rushed job.

Where was the proof of performance? On the day of the awards show, Premier Christy Clark told reporters the measure of success wasn't just in whether the event sold out BC Place, but in future economic spinoff. There was chatter of film directors in town scoping locations and doing deals. If that was the case, why not line them up in a news conference to talk to British Columbians about it?

If TOIFA was meant to showcase British Columbia to Indian audiences as a tourism destination, where were the beautiful scenic cutaways during performance transitions for audiences watching in India? The opening promotional "Beautiful B.C." video was forgettable. I barely noticed it. We don't even know if it will make broadcast for Indian audiences to see at a later date.

(Canadian Bollywood producer Arjun Sablok did offer up a poignant opening piece -- named The Lucky Ones -- about the Indian immigrant experience in Canada. But it was not exactly a sales job.)

Where were the plugs from the Bollywood stars who found time to thank the premier? Where were the celebrity endorsements to visit www.hellobc.com, Tourism B.C.'s website? Why wasn't there more of an emphasis on B.C.?

History tells us that things that look a disaster in the short term sometimes turn out for the best. The province spent about $800 million on Expo '86. It ran a $311 million deficit, but brought billions back into B.C. in the ensuing years. Downtown Vancouver hotels and restaurants saw a bump in business during a slower time of year. Is it conceivable that B.C. might eventually make its money back and more? Yes. Will we see real proof of that in the short term, or in time for the provincial election May 14? No.

OBVIOUS POLITICAL INTERLUDE

Any remaining benefit of the doubt that the B.C. Liberals would keep TOIFA about the movies and not about the politics evaporated like burning celluloid during a long segment between character actor Boman Irani and Finance Minister Mike de Jong. For de Jong, a known Indophile, this may well have been one of the highlights of a 20 plus year career in politics - and perhaps a swansong. De Jong quipped on stage, "You never know when you'll be looking for work."

But it was also a transparent performance for votes. A journalist timed his presence on stage at 17 minutes, during which he attempted to recite Hindi film dialogue, dance filmi style (complete with pelvic thrusts), and hand out "toffee" awards (he meant TOIFA).

There was also no mistaking the Punjabi flavour of the broadcast. Knowing the South Asian diaspora in Metro Vancouver skews heavily Punjabi, producers wisely blended dance, poetry, and plenty of shout outs in the native style of that region into the show to keep the hometown audience happy.

But the politicians were playing to the Punjabis too. At one point Premier Clark, on stage with show choreographer Shiamak Davar greeted him in Punjabi. Davar is known to be most comfortable in English and Gujurati. Potential voters, on the other hand...

The B.C. Liberals viewed TOIFA as a box of ladoos (Indian sweets) they could deliver to hungry ethnic voters. Instead, it turned into a political grenade in their hands. Can they diffuse it in time for the election? We'll know soon enough.

TOIFA Vancouver Red Carpet Fashion
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post referred to the absence of a promotional Tourism B.C. video at the opening of the TOIFA awards ceremony. A "Beautiful B.C." clip was played at BC Place Saturday night.