- Under pressure from human rights agencies, Sri Lanka wants to use Bollywood soft power to refurbish its image
- Hopes IIFA will help draw Indian tourism and real estate firms
- Wants Bollywood films to be shot at its locales, and joint film production to re-energise its flagging film industry
He had only read “what came out in the papers”, Amitabh Bachchan told Outlook laconically last month, when asked if he had followed Sri Lanka’s decades-old civil war that ended last year. To our next question: How do artistes relate to politics, his firm answer was: “I’m apolitical and I want to remain that way.” True to his word, Bachchan, on his one-day visit to the island on April 20, steered as far as he could from war or politics, focusing on the task of bringing Bollywood’s glitziest award ceremony to the Sri Lankan capital, even as, less than 400 km away from it, 3,00,000 war-displaced people are desperately trying to recover their lives.
Later that day, Bachchan, brand ambassador of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA), which will hold this year’s award ceremony in Colombo from June 3 to 5, met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa—himself a film buff—at the President’s House. Rajapaksa too was eager to meet Bachchan because IIFA, with its global TV reach, presents his government a sorely-needed opportunity for post-war image building. At a time when western human rights organisations are alleging that his government (as well as the militarily vanquished Tamil Tigers) flouted the rules of war, Bachchan telling the world how glad he was to be in Colombo was just what Rajapaksa wanted to hear.
However, as Bachchan boarded the plane back to India, the war was getting ready to reach his doorstep. On April 25, Tamil groups protested outside his houses in Mumbai, petitioning him to show solidarity with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause by not attending the Colombo event. Tamil organisations in Canada joined in, urging him not to give legitimacy to a regime that had, they alleged, perpetrated crimes against Tamils. “Sentiments of all must be respected and I hope we can plan and execute that with understanding, peace and grace,” Bachchan went on to write, unexceptionably but noncommittally, in his blog.
Wizcraft, the Mumbai-based event management company which is organising the ceremony, has maintained that Bachchan will show up next week. If he doesn’t, his absence from IIFA—after having launched the event—would be interpreted by the Rajapaksa regime as a show of support to his fans in the global Tamil community. That leaves Bachchan with a tough choice. New Delhi’s position, in fact that of most governments, is that Rajapaksa’s war was indeed a war against terror. The matter assumes even greater interest because Rajapaksa’s first post-war meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi is scheduled for June 8.
Meanwhile, Mani Ratnam’s bilingual film Raavan, starring Bachchan’s daughter-in-law Aishwarya and son Abhishek in the Hindi version, which was to be screened at IIFA Colombo, has been held back (it’s attributed to post-production delays); and a section of the local media here, for whom the impending awards fete is a big story, have been reproducing reports from Indian websites speculating that Aishwarya and Abhishek, who are usually a big presence at IIFA ceremonies, are likely to skip this one.
But IIFA-watchers, including the Sri Lankan government, can take heart from the presence of Shahrukh Khan, who is all set to perform at the grand finale at Colombo’s Sugathadasa Stadium. A jungle-themed performance, the set is being prepared by technicians from India and Germany. Besides, he will captain a B’wood T20 cricket team against the Sri Lankan side, led by its real skipper Kumara Sangakara.
Protests outside Big B’s house.
Meanwhile, business goals are intertwining with filmi razzle-dazzle, with the Sri Lankan government keen not just to use the event to transform its war-ravaged image, but also, in more concrete terms, to draw top Indian companies into its tourism and real estate sectors. Rebuilding the island’s north and east, especially, where the lack of infrastructure is crippling, is a Sri Lankan priority, one backed by the Indian government as well. A joint session of corporate bodies is being held on the margins of the IIFA function to facilitate this.
“A negative image of Sri Lanka was built up over the past 30 years. Through IIFA, we can tell people that things have changed,” says veteran Sri Lankan actor and ruling party member Ravindra Randeniya. Sri Lanka’s stunning views—its seas, hills, forests, wildlife—could be the perfect backdrop for Bollywood filmmakers, he argues. In happier times, Sri Lankans point out, even Hollywood was drawn to the emerald isle. David Lean’s classic Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and parts of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) were shot here.
Malani Fonseka, parliamentarian, queen of Sinhala cinema, an ardent Satyajit Ray fan and an actress who once worked with Sivaji Ganesan, hopes IIFA will open up avenues for Indo-Lankan productions. Twenty-six years of war has taken its toll on the Sri Lankan film industry; the country lacks modern cinema theatres, digital production facilities and funds for independent movie-making. Cinematographer M.D. Mahindapala does not believe, however, that IIFA is relevant to Sri Lankan cinema; he dismisses it as just a “tourist gimmick”.
If it does help tourism, though, it will mean a lot to Sri Lanka. This sector is among the country’s top five foreign exchange earners and has, according to the ministry of tourism, already seen an upswing since last year. Tourist inflows rose by 53.7 per cent in March this year, compared to 2009. And thanks to a new Look East policy, Indian tourists, rather than just those from the West, are a priority. The numbers have been encouraging: in 2008, even as the war peaked, nearly 86,000 Indians holidayed here, one-fifth of the total tourist traffic.
As the nodal agency for these IIFA awards, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau has promised that all government agencies will roll out the red carpet for Bollywood. That includes Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, discounted rates at luxury hotels, cleaner and freshly repaired roads. The Colombo municipal council is reported to have even harnessed the services of prisoners to get Colombo IIFA-ready. The Sri Lankan government is clearly overwhelmed by India’s soft power. Will Bollywood succeed where diplomacy has often failed?