IIFA bash more kitsch than culture: Deepa Mehta

Canadian director Deepa Mehta says the Bollywood spectacle hitting Toronto later this week does not represent Indian culture.

Canadian director Deepa Mehta says the Bollywood spectacle hitting Toronto later this week does not represent Indian culture.

The three-day festival — put on by the International Indian Film Academy — is more like "Indian kitsch," notes the Oscar-nominated movie-maker.

"Bollywood is not Indian culture, it's pop culture. There's a big difference," Mehta said  Tuesday as Indian celebs began streaming into the city for the weekend party.

"It's like saying Canadian culture can only be promoted by Justin Bieber."

'Bollywood is not Indian culture, it's pop culture. There's a big difference,' says Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Some of the biggest stars in Bollywood arrive in Toronto this week for the touring showcase of South Asian song and dance commonly known as the IIFAs.

The annual party includes a film festival, music workshop, fashion show, business forums and a performance-laden awards show. 

Mehta, who received an achievement award from the IIFAs in 2007, says the event is a great salute to Indian glamour and entertainment, noting she plans to attend Saturday's awards bash at the Rogers Centre.

But she says the celebrations do not offer a serious picture of what Indian culture is really about. 

"IIFA is what it is, which is pure entertainment. I think it's sort of dicey when you start thinking of it as something serious," says Mehta, whose weighty features include the Oscar-nominated Water and her upcoming adaptation of the Salman Rushdie novel Midnight's Children.

"They are there for a purpose — they galvanize a nation for a period of time into really thinking about popular culture and that's fun." 

Each year, the IIFAs travel to a new city to promote Bollywood fare abroad. Previous hosts include London, Singapore, Johannesburg, Amsterdam and Dubai.

The Toronto stop marks its North American debut, but Mehta questioned whether film audiences here can add much to Bollywood's bottom line.

"It's hardly relevant," Mehta said of the potential audience beyond expatriate fans.

"Of course there's a [North American] audience but it's a very limited audience. It's an audience that really is comprised of Southeast Asians."

Using Bollywood to market India

Indo-Canadian actress Lisa Ray, who will be among the presenters at Saturday's awards ceremony, said she has mixed feelings about highlighting Bollywood's penchant for  heightened emotion and over-the-top glitz.

But she says IIFA has proven adept at using Bollywood to market India and its burgeoning economy to a wide audience.

"You have to understand it in terms of pushing the overall brand of India," says Ray, whose films include Water and Cooking With Stella.

"If that's what gets people talking, if that's what the first hit is, I also say, 'Fine. Use it.' You may as well use it because it's all in a cause."

"Bollywood is one of the most potent pop cultures in the world."

IIFA project head Noreen Khan says the 12-year-old festival has been a key factor in broadening the global fanbase of Indian film. She describes Toronto as particularly well-suited to finding more fans in North America due to the city's vibrant South Asian community and reputation as host of the Toronto International Film Festival.

"People are paying attention now to Bollywood and Indian cinema, whether or not they understand the language," says Khan. 

"Indian film is full of music [and] that's the universal language that people can enjoy regardless of whether or not they understand the [spoken] language."

Celebrations for the International Indian Film Academy run Thursday through Saturday.