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In US coming out party, Bollywood finds curious fans

Dancers perform at the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida, April 23, 2014
Dancers perform at the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida, April 23, 2014

Teresita Alonso had never watched an Indian film until she browsed the home-order television service Netflix and, noticing the favorable reviews, took a chance on "My Name Is Khan."

Several years later, Alonso was wearing a T-shirt with the likeness of the 2010 drama's lead actor, superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and eagerly sat on a lawn chair as Bollywood's premier awards ceremony put on a public show in Tampa.

"I can't understand the language, but I just love the colors, the culture and the stories," said Alonso, who has since also seen other Indian films lighter than the politically charged "My Name is Khan."

The International Indian Film Academy has come to the city on Florida's west coast for its first-ever US edition, hoping to win over more fans like Alonso as the world's most prolific film industry looks to make inroads in the most lucrative box office.

Actress Vidya Balan and Sabbas Joseph, Director of the International Indian Film Academy, at a press conference in New York on March 11, 2014
Indian movie actress Vidya Balan and IIFA Director Sabbas Joseph attend a press conference to promote the upcoming International Indian Film Academy Weekend and Awards, in New York, March 11, 2014

Ahead of a star-studded awards ceremony on Saturday, Bollywood put on a free performance Wednesday with more than 1,000 spectators showing up to watch choreographed Indian dancers and DJs as the sun set over the central city's riverside Curtis Hixon Park.

While around half of the crowd appeared to be South Asian, the rest of the audience included both curious onlookers and budding Bollywood connoisseurs. Stands sold Indian dishes such as crispy masala dosas and red-hot plates of chole batura, while others sold American staples including tacos and Bud Light beer.

Alonso's brother Felipe, like his sister of Cuban descent, said that Indian films' narratives offered a refreshing change from US cinema and were generally "more clean" in their content.

"I don't really like to admit it, but the Indian films often make me cry," he said.

Bollywood star Anil Kapoor arrives for the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida on April 23, 2014
Bollywood star Anil Kapoor arrives for the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida on April 23, 2014

Drummer and DJ Ravi Jakhotia, who was raised in the city and performed a new song "Do Da Tampa" for Wednesday's party, said that Latinos offered a natural constituency for Indian culture.

"Lots of things Indian and Latin aren't too far off. They also like spicy food and big extravagant events. After Indian weddings, nothing's more raging than a Latin wedding," said Jakhotia, who performs under the name DJ Ravi Drums.

Jakhotia saw a turning point with the popularity of the film "Slumdog Millionaire." He performed at the 2009 Oscars as the British movie's track "Jai Ho," composed by Indian music legend A.R. Rahman, won Best Original Song.

The crowd cheers performers on stage during the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida on April 23, 2014
The crowd cheers performers on stage during the IIFA Stomp event, the opening act for the International Indian Film Academy Awards in Tampa, Florida on April 23, 2014

"I think when 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Jai Ho' caught fire the way they did, it revolutionized everybody's perspective globally on India," Jakhotia said.

Still, while the United States has topped Britain in recent years as the top overseas market for Bollywood, the growth has been due largely to the three million-strong Indian American community.

While the Tampa extravaganza charmed the non-South Asian audience that showed up, some suggested that Bollywood's appeal was mostly kitsch and unlikely to give Hollywood a run for its money in the world's largest box office.

"Bollywood is a great spectacle and great for its cheekiness. I enjoy it, but for many people it may take awhile," said Connie Franks, a theater performer in Tampa.

Ashley Martin, 22, said that younger Americans may be more interested in Bollywood but that it may be too foreign for much of the audience in the United States, where domestic films overwhelmingly dominate the market.

"These aren't action films or even independent films or French movies. Bollywood is totally different from what many people are used to," she said.

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