Mumbai: Bollywood goes to Sri Lanka later this week for its glitzy annual awards ceremony, but the decision to hold the event in the capital Colombo has sparked a backlash from minority Tamils in India.
The International Indian Film Academy (IIFA), which has been held overseas every year since 2000, begins on Thursday and is designed to celebrate the popular Hindi-language film industry and win new audiences abroad.
The secretary to Sri Lanka’s tourism ministry, George Michael, said the three-day festival was a “wonderful opportunity to showcase the unique and exotic aspects of Sri Lanka to the rest of the world”.
IIFA says it will help “bridge boundaries” between the neighbouring countries, helping to promote discussion on economic and political issues in the wake of Sri Lanka’s civil war that ended a year ago.
But Tamil opposition has grown ever since the venue was announced in April and some top Bollywood stars may not attend to avoid controversy.
Opponents argue that far from providing a post-conflict economic boost and being a positive statement for the war-torn island, Bollywood’s presence in Sri Lanka legitimises President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government.
Rajapakse is under pressure to submit to an international probe into alleged war crimes after his forces defeated the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year.
The United Nations estimates that at least 7,000 civilians died in the final months of fighting, which ended a separatist Tamil struggle that lasted nearly 40 years.
Leading the calls for a boycott, the pro-rebel tamilnet website headlined a recent article: “IIFA showbiz event blamed for promoting ‘paradise of genocide´.”
The brand ambassador of IIFA, screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, and his actor son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai — Bollywood’s leading couple — have not yet confirmed their participation.
Media reports suggested that megastar Shah Rukh Khan may also opt out, citing a busy work schedule.
“There is a lot of protest from the (Tamil) Tiger lobby in Tamil Nadu to the Bollywood fraternity to boycott the IIFA Colombo awards,” Sri Lanka’s junior economic development minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene said on Monday.
He was referring to the southern Indian state that is home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees.
“But we will go ahead with the event as planned,” Abeywardene told reporters.
Amid Tamil suspicion that India is using the awards to spread corporate influence in Sri Lanka, attempts have been made to dissuade top Bollywood stars from attending the event in solidarity with their legions of Tamil fans.
Protests have been held outside Amitabh Bachchan’s homes in Mumbai, while some filmmakers in Tamil Nadu have called for an awards boycott.
“The united boycott of the Indian film society will prove to be a lesson to the Sinhalese regime, which aspires to seek fame while hiding its treachery,” the Tamil Nadu Film Society said, referring to the Sri Lankan government.
With just two days until the start of the normally star-studded event, who will turn up is anyone’s guess.
Leading actor-producer-directors Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, whose hit film “3 Idiots” could sweep the board after being nominated in most categories, are still slated to appear in a charity cricket match.
Glamour couple Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai are a major draw at celebrity events, and their absence would be a major blow.
The pair’s new film “Raavan” — a modern take on The Ramayana epic of Hindu mythology in which Raavan, ruler of Sri Lanka, abducts the wife of Lord Ram, Sita — was to have been shown at the IIFAs but is said to have been pulled.
An IIFA spokeswoman told AFP on Monday: “It’s all tentative right now. We can’t confirm anybody’s attendance.”
Amitabh Bachchan, who met Rajapakse in Colombo in his capacity as IIFA ambassador, has sought to steer clear of the rows but vowed to meet the protesters to discuss their concerns.