Last weekend, a group of girlfriends met for brunch to catch up and spend some time together. One of the women announced that she has two tickets to the IIFA Awards on the weekend.

Her friends squealed in disbelief and start peppering her with questions about how she came up with these hard-to-get tickets.

Their reaction was two parts excitement and one part desperate hope that one of them would be the lucky recipient of the the other ticket and get to attend the glamorous award ceremony. I know this because I was one of the friends secretly hoping.

Now, maybe some of you reading this may not be familiar with the IIFA Awards. Put simply, they are the most anticipated prizes and ceremonies of the International Indian Film Academy — in other words, Bollywood.

And for a couple of billion people on the planet, they are bigger than the Hollywood Oscars, the Grammys, the Tonys and the Emmys combined.

When my friend, the lucky IIFA ticket holder, started listing the celebrities that are confirmed to attend the events — stars such as Shilpa Shetty, Priyanka Chopra and Salman Khan — she might as well have said Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt.


More than just glamour. Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty poses during the making of her 2009 movie The Desire, a co-production with China and Chinese actors. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

For those of us who have grown up on Bollywood blockbusters, it doesn't get any bigger than this.

More than the glitz

This year, for the first time, the IIFA Awards are happening in Toronto where Indian flavour is now everywhere.

The big department stores have dedicated their displays to saris and shalwaars. The Royal Ontario Museum has an exhibit dedicated to Bollywood movie posters. Public areas like Yonge and Dundas Square are loaded with Bollywood dance troops. Bhangra music is pumping out windows all over the city.

With all of its glitz and glamour, with the flawlessly fair-skinned, on-screen Indian goddesses, and the ubiquitous dance crews of young men chasing their love interests through forests, it's easy to dismiss Bollywood as just a big song and dance — literally.

But that would be an unfair, and incomplete assessment of what Bollywood offers to the world.

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Mumbai, India's film-making capital, for a series of radio documentaries.

During that time I found that the worst-paying, least prestigious, most menial jobs generally went to Muslims. Except in one place — Bollywood.

An allegory for tolerance

In general, Muslims comprise more than 80 per cent of all the slum dwellers in India and tend to live in separate areas from the Hindu majority, often because Hindu landlords refuse to rent homes to people with Muslim names.

It was not always this way. Partition, in 1947, not only divided India into pieces, it created divisions within what was left.


A cinema poster in Mumbai at one of the many local cinemas. (Natasha Fatah/CBC)

But since the early days of Indian cinema, which were pre-partition, Muslims, who are a minority in the general society, have had a disproportionately high representation in Indian filmmaking.

Many of the most influential actors, singers, songwriters and directors have been Muslims, including the Academy Award-winning songwriter A.R. Rahman.

In fact, while most of the dialogue in Indian films is in Hindi, the songs are usually composed in the more romantic, Urdu, which is very similar when spoken but still a language specifically associated with Muslims.

What's more, many directors have used their Bollywood platform to combat these religious divisions.

I'll never forget this one movie that my parents had that I must have watched a hundred times called Amar, Akbar, Anthony.

The plot revolved around three brothers who were separated in their youth and raised with three different religions. Amar the Hindu, Akbar the Muslim and Anthony (played by the greatest actor to ever live, Amitabh Bachchan) the Christian.

By the end of the movie the three have reunited and despite their differences find that they are still brothers who love each other.

It's an allegory for India itself and how the artists of Indian cinema work diligently to promote tolerance between the communities. I remember that even the title was offered in Hindi, Urdu and English for each of the respective communities.

Film City

While in India, I had the good fortune to spend time where many Bollywood productions are made, an area called, appropriately enough, Film City.

Aside from its glamour and sentimental meaning, it also has a personal connection for me.

My paternal grandfather was a talented singer and artist, and was friends with many Bollywood actors, including comedian Johnny Walker, villain Ajit and lead actress Nargis.

My grandfather was never permitted to be in the movies himself, according to family lore (it wasn't considered a "respectable" career). But his friendships with these stars continued even after partition and after my grandfather's family moved from Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) to Karachi.

In the 1950s, Pakistani and Indian actors would play what were called friendly cricket matches in Bombay and Karachi and my father remembers the Indian stars visiting their home during these matches.

This long-standing spirit of Bollywood tolerance continues to this day and seems to apply even to Western filmmakers who create movies with an Indian theme.

Take, for example, Danny Boyle's 2008 movie Slumdog Millionaire, which featured the love affair between the wide-eyed Muslim boy Jamal and the beautiful Hindu girl Latika. It was awarded eight Academy Awards, including best picture.

See, Bollywood's magic really is contagious.

So no matter who wins best actor or best director this year at the IIFA Awards in Toronto, the real reward is for all of us who enjoy the big spectacle. That is, for all of us who like to watch Bollywood tear away at religious divides and try to bring all of India's children together.


Muslims celebrate the release of Shah Rukh Khan's newest film 'My name is Khan' in New Delih in February 2010, following protests from a hard-line Hindu group. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)