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Stars of Bollywood double as tourist lures while filming in South Florida

Douglas Hanks
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Indian film star Shilpa Shetty, center, flashes a million-watt smile, April 2, 2008, during filming of "Dostana," a major Bollywood movie being filmed in Hollywood, Florida. (Marsha Halper/Miami Herald/MCT)

MIAMI - Bollywood has arrived in South Florida, and tourism boosters hope it will lure a significant chunk of India here, too.

Some of the biggest names in Indian cinema are camping out in a downtown hotel for six weeks to shoot "Dostana," a musical comedy set in Miami.

And along with syrupy love stories and extravagant dance numbers, filmmakers predict "Dostana" will bring Miami a new following in one of the world's fastest-growing travel markets.

"It becomes a postcard to an audience," said Prashant Shah, a producer for "Dostana." "Our goal is to showcase Miami to them."

The notion of "Dostana" as a travel commercial certainly helps Shah's pursuit of government support for the movie's $2 million shooting budget.

But others who follow Bollywood - the slang term for India's film industry - agree that the movies are helping shape travel plans among India's growing middle and upper classes.

Movies have long served as escapist entertainment in even India's poorest neighborhoods, with parents, children, aunts and uncles making regular cinema outings together. That passion has given Indian actors the kind of stardom and influence that even Hollywood's top A-Listers couldn't match, said Asal Masomi, a West Coast publicist with ties to the Indian film industry.

"In India, actors are worshiped. They're not just adored," said Masomi, who represents Bollywood actors and directors. "You can direct the attention of Indians to whatever you want through those films."

And with India's massive economy expanding rapidly - the Indian middle class is larger than the entire population of the United States - it has attracted the attention of tourism destinations around the world.

This decade, India has already posted the biggest growth in visitors to the United States, according to the Travel Industry Association, up 60 percent since 2000. The Commerce Department expects that pace to continue through 2011.

"People are looking for new places to go," said Itty Abraham, director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas. A Bollywood movie "is sort of the advance party."

Rolando Aedo, marketing chief for the Greater Miami tourism bureau, met with Bollywood producers last fall in Bombay as part of a delegation of U.S. travel marketers interested in luring more Indian vacationers. "The awareness of Miami is anticipated to be dramatically greater because of this movie," Aedo wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

"Dostana's" Miami will have a cosmopolitan feel, with its Indian leads pursuing careers and romance in the tropical city, filmmakers said.

"Miami projects to you the kind of lifestyle that youngsters want to live," the film's director, Tarun Mansukhani, said during a break from filming on Hollywood beach last week. "You must work hard, and you must party hard."

The partying seemed to be in full effect that afternoon. Actress Shilpa Shetty - whose receipt of a muscular embrace from actor Richard Gere at a New Delhi charity event last year sparked protests - sat behind a bearded biker on a Harley-Davidson.

For the musical sequence, Shetty lip-synced to a mix of Hindi and English while leading 11 other Harleys roaring down Hollywood's paved Broadwalk. Women in fishnet stockings and leather bodices rode with the other bikers, while American extras sunbathed and kicked a soccer ball on the beach behind them.

"Miami is an important character in the film," said John Abraham, 35, a Bollywood heartthrob sipping Chai tea in the tiki bar used as a staging ground for the crew. `You'll have the audiences looking at Miami, saying, `Wow, I've got to come.'"

Switzerland established itself as Indian vacationers' No. 1 European destination after Bollywood directors used its Alps as a substitute for scenes set in the dangerous Kashmir region.

Indian tourism to New Zealand surged 800 percent in the four years after the Bollywood hit "Say You Love Me" was filmed in Queenstown, according to a report by the British film agency.

The report also credited the "Bollywood effect" for nearly doubling Indian visits to Scotland between 2000 and 2003 after a "bumper crop" of eight Bollywood movies filmed there.

Still, the report cited a downside to Indian productions: They tend to spend far less than movies from other countries since they work on low budgets and avoid hiring local crews.

"Dostana" won permission from unions to bring production teams from India. They lunched on a spread of raita yogurt salad, tandoori fish, and a bhindi masala okra dish while the extras ate pizza.

The movie's $2 million local budget compares with an independent film or a major commercial, local production coordinators said. Florida's film commission has approved up to $440,000 in subsidies for "Dostana," depending on the movie's final budget.

Jeff Peel, Miami-Dade's film coordinator, said the movie's main payoff may come from luring more Bollywood filming to the region.

"My hope is that it really puts us on the map for Indian moviemaking," he said.


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