B.C.’s Political Bollywood Brawl

Published: January 24, 2013

By Shachi Kurl

Timing is everything in BC politics. And wouldn’t you know –it’s also the essence of thousands of Bollywood films. 

A chance meeting that develops into forbidden love? Bollywood. The moment the evil uncle clunks granny on the head and makes off with the family fortune, leaving the heroine a pauper? Bollywood.

But who thought Bollywood, India’s prolific Hindi-film industry, would be at the centre of a dramatic saga of its own, playing out on location over the next five months across British Columbia’s political soundstage?

In an election year, the announcement of an $11 million investment from the BC Government to host the first-ever Times of India Film Awards was inevitably going to be high-profile – and contentious.

And so – cue the fight scene. The premier, her cabinet, and her party, against BC’s home grown film industry, and the opposition BC New Democrats. Sitting in darkness, watching the tableau, popcorn in hand, are BC voters, especially those belonging to the South Asian diaspora.

Now this wouldn’t be a true Bollywood saga unless there were three or four storylines running concurrent. So too is the case when arguing the value of bringing this awards show to Vancouver. Allow me to separate them out.

The Policy

There are those (including me) who say this is the exactly the type of thing all governments should be doing in the name of economic development. India is a huge market, with a 2011 estimated GDPof $4.4 trillion US.

The country boasts a booming middle class – more nouveau riche than even Dubai can entertain, and a healthy relationship with Canada, and particularly BC and Ontario, as a result of large émigré communities settled here.

In pursuing economic payoffs– previous governments have spent more. BC’s spent $925 million to host the 2010 Olympic Games. The games broke even, according to VANOC. The full economic effects of having the world’s eyes trained on us have yet to be tallied.

We spent about $800 million on Expo 86. It ran a $311 million deficit, but brought billions back into BC in the ensuing years.

The BC government is estimating a payoff of $13-18 million in spending during the awards. TOIFA board member A.P Parigi, speaking on the Bill Good Show, predicted an economic multiplier effect that will be seen in two to three years, when millions of moneyed Indians choose Vancouver as a tourism destination.

Could $11 million be spent on other more pressing needs? Yes. But if we agree that you sometimes have to spend money to make money, and as long as this is money being

spent wisely, it’s the responsibility of any government to pursue economic gain where and when it can. Indeed, the bid for the 2010 Olympics was a process started by then-NDP Premier Glen Clark. His government opened a trade office in India too.

The Politics

Having read all that, you think it would be case closed, roll credits, but for the horror-show optics surrounding this announcement. The politics of telling people you’re spending a whack of cash to draw foreign filmmakers and crew to BC while 4000 BC-based film industry employees gather to protest the decline of their trade doesn’t make for happy endings. People who live in BC will vote in May’s general election. People from Mumbai won’t.

This billion dollar industry claims it’s dying. The Clark government says it’s put $285 million in tax credits and won’t spend any more. Meantime, those incentives, originally offered to lure productions north of the border from Hollywood grow bigger in Ontario and Quebec as they seek to undercut BC’s offerings. It’s never good when we fight amongst ourselves.

Whether BC’s film industry can sustain this as a wedge issue during the election campaign remains to be seen.  And if the BC Liberals can’t find a way to appease the industry, it may walk away and yield ground on this issue to the NDP, seeking other voters instead…. which brings us back to Bollywood, and one hell of a photo-op.

No matter which side of the political divide you’re on, pictures with India’s biggest celluloid stars are valuable currency to politicians wooing votes in the South Asian community. Or, at least, that’s the thinking. In an age of global celebrity, there are elements of truth to it. The premier smiling with a Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan trumps the opposition leader smiling with a local community do-gooder on the interest-o-meter every time.

But will it be enough? Liberal strategists following what they believe to be outgoing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s path to electoral victory may be disappointed. His government brought the International Indian Film Academy Awards to Toronto in 2011, and the Liberal leader mugged for every possible photo call he could. Did South Asian Bollywood fans cheer him like a matinee idol when he walked on stage yes? Would they have probably cheered if it had been Gary Bettman or Oscar the Grouch? Yes. It’s the IIFAs! Everyone’s in a good mood!

It’s also worth pointing out that big moves were made on that campaign, notably, the cancellation of a controversial contract to build a power plant in Mississauga. The cost of that cancellation: $180 million, ended McGuinty’s premiership. In other words, Bollywood ain’t no magic bullet.

NDP insiders find themselves rather bemused by the whole thing. After all, they reason, New Democrats have a longer relationship with and deeper reach into the community. They have more South Asian candidates running in this election than the Liberals. Will it be enough to beat the star power a Priyanka Chopra might bring to the ballot box? We’ll see.

The Pricecheck

So put the politics aside, and let’s go back to check the promised benefits of bringing TOIFA to BC, against reality.

One of the carrots being dangled is bringing Hindi film production to BC. Newsflash: that’s been going on for years, under both NDP and Liberal governments. Consider 1997’s Pardes– shot in Vancouver, along with Koi Mil Gaya, released in 2003, and 2011’s Thank You. Chances are though; BC’s economy will thank Bollywood if more decide to come.

The premier touts the Times of India Group’s reach, 90 million people, who will be influenced by all the lovely things it will say about Vancouver. But a check of the Times of India main webpage the day after the announcement reveals no mention of the awards or our fair city. Maybe it will. Hopefully soon.

Finally, that $13-18 million anticipated payoff? It’s based on projections from Ontario hosting the IIFA’s, a much more established awards show. Though the TOIFAs are being hailed in BC media as the “Bollywood Oscars”,that honour actually belongs to the 58-year-old Filmfare awards, handed out just days ago. The IIFA’s might be compared to the Golden Globes. The awards coming to Vancouver may be better described as the MTV Video Music Awards.

The good news is people love awards shows. As long as fans and stars turn up, it may not much matter. But in an industry where starlets and heroes exit stage left weekly, the pressure is on for TOI to deliver the biggest luminaries and headliners to ensure the Clark government achieves its projected ROI.

The Pronouncement

Still with me? Emotionally spent? Worn out? Welcome to Bollywood. No flick ever less than 2.5 hours. Ever. So how does this story conclude? If it’s a happy ending for BC taxpayers, you’ll hear about it. If it’s a happy ending for the BC Liberals, you’ll hear about it. And if it’s not – well – you’ll hear about that too. Because tragedy or comedy, there’s always plenty of Dhoom! Dham! Dshoom! and Dhamaka! in Bollywood. And in BC politics too.




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