India’s biggest Bollywood stars led a triumphant celebration of dance, music and fashion at the International Indian Film Academy awards Saturday, cheered by thousands of ecstatic fans just outside New York.
The five-hour show at an American football stadium in New Jersey, where the glittering Manhattan skyline was visible from the parking lot, was a riot of color, glitz and stunning dance routines.
Best picture went to “Neerja,” a thriller based on the true story of a purser who helped save the lives of more than 350 passengers when Libyan-backed hijackers stormed Pan Am Flight 73 in Karachi in 1986.
The hijackers killed the purser and she posthumously became the youngest person to receive India’s highest civilian award for bravery.
“Udta Punjab,” a gritty crime drama spotlighting the huge problem of drug abuse among young people in Punjab, scooped Shahid Kapoor best actor and Alia Bhatt best actress in a leading role.
The movie angered politicians in the state and the filmmakers took India’s censor board to court over a number of cuts it tried to make.
The trio of serious-minded films winning major awards was rounded out by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury taking home the award for best director for “Pink,” about sexual violence against women.
The culmination of a three-day celebration of Indian cinema, the 18th edition of the awards ceremony was held just outside New York at the American football MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
‘Seduce more hearts’
The awards, which some have likened to the Oscars of Bollywood, is India’s biggest media event and one of the world’s most-watched annual entertainment shows, with an audience of nearly 800 million people.
Held in a different city overseas each year to showcase what is the most prolific film industry in the world and the soft power of India, the 2017 event comes with Indian film on the up in North America.
From a Donald Trump impersonator named Ronald Grump, to a closing song and dance routine from Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan, which had love-struck women screaming in delight, and signature Bollywood formation numbers with eye-popping costumes galore, it was a festive night.
Thousands of delighted fans, dressed to the nines in evening gowns, cocktail dresses, saris and jewel-encrusted shalwar kameez, shrieked with delight, declared love for stars and laughed at the jokes of funny men hosts, actor Saif Ali Khan and producer-director Karan Johar.
There was glamor from winner Alia Bhatt in a crystal-studded strapless ballgown and Katrina Kaif who shimmered in a lime-green bra top, spray-on black pants and silver tassels through an upbeat dance.
Actress Shilpa Shetty, who won fame for being subjected to alleged racist taunts and winning Britain’s “Celebrity Big Brother” in 2007, looked statuesque in shimmering one-shoulder peach lashed to the thigh.
The ceremony honored double-Oscar winner movie composer A.R. Rahman and treated the audience to a snippet of Hollywood production “The Black Prince” about Queen Victoria and the Last King of Punjab, Maharajah Duleep Singh, which goes on release in the US next week.
Indian film is growing in North America, thanks to a thriving Indian economy, an increasing and affluent South Asian diaspora, and growing popularity among Afghans, Arabs, Russians and Caribbean immigrants.
‘Watch this film’
But if there were few non-South Asians in sight Saturday, Bollywood heroes walking the green carpet welcomed the ceremony as a chance to further the industry internationally.
“Many others get exposed to this, that way we will seduce more hearts for Indian films,” said Bollywood actor Gulshan Grover.
Sonu Sood, who stars in action-adventure flick “Kung Fu Yoga” with Jackie Chan, said “all the actors are coming to Bollywood to do Indian movies and all the Indian Bollywood actors are going international.”
“So I think it’s a huge change and hopefully one day we’ll have one single industry,” Sood added.
IIFA selected gender equality as its cause of the year, despite a film industry often criticized for depicting women as meek and subjecting characters to aggressive methods of wooing by dominant male leads.
“Pink” not only won the best director award but also saw actress Taapsee Pannu, win the IIFA woman of the year award.
“The entire world should watch this film,” said director Chowdhury.
India’s treatment of women shot to the international spotlight in late 2012 when the fatal gang rape of a young student in the capital New Delhi sparked outrage over sexual abuse and gender inequality.