TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa — known for its proximity to sugar sand beaches, its football and its touch of Southern charm — has gone crazy for Bollywood.
The city is hosting the 15th annual International Indian Film Academy awards, the first time the extravaganza has been held in the United States. While the actual awards show isn't until Saturday, Bollywood celebrities, directors and fans have been streaming into Tampa all week in preparation for the main event. Some Hollywood stars are also expected: John Travolta and Kevin Spacey will make appearances Saturday, and actor Stephen Baldwin is already in town.
From the pre-teens at the airport screaming for autographs of their favorite Indian actors, to Gov. Rick Scott touting the economic benefits of the four-day event, Bollywood is everywhere. About 25,000 people are expected to attend the show at the city's NFL stadium.
"People didn't understand all of what was going to happen, but they do now," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn during a news conference on Thursday. "They're in love."
Moments later, a beaming Buckhorn boogied on stage alongside "Slumdog Millionaire" film star Anil Kapoor. The song? "Do Da Tampa," which was composed especially for the awards. It was written by an Indian-American drummer who went to high school in Tampa and has some salsa overtones, a nod to the city's Cuban heritage.
Much of downtown has been transformed by the event, with a dance party that drew thousands on Wednesday, a fashion show on Thursday and an ongoing business forum. It's a far cry from the Republican National Convention held here in the summer of 2012, when security and sweltering weather largely prevented people from enjoying the city's streets.
"Art and music has no barrier of race, religion, ethnicity or country," said Dr. Kiran Patel, an Indian-American cardiologist in Tampa who spent millions of his own money to help bring the IIFA awards to the city. "Many times, Americans think America is the world. These types of events, you can see there's something beyond Hollywood."
"Bollywood" is the term for the film industry based in Mumbai (Bombay). Although it is used mostly to refer to the lengthy song-and-dance movies in the Hindi language, it's become somewhat of a catchall term for Indian films. IIFA organizers say the Indian industry sells 3.6 billion movie tickets a year, about a quarter of them in the U.S.
Still, some Tampa residents seem puzzled by the big entourages commanded by Bollywood stars — not to mention hundreds of Indian reporters chronicling their every move — even though the actors are unknown to many Americans.
For Indian-Americans and Bollywood fanatics who live in the area, the event is a rare chance to glimpse their favorite stars in person.
An area has been set aside on the top floor of a parking garage at the Tampa International Airport for fans to greet the stars. On Thursday, actor Hrithik Roshan (who is known for starring in two of Bollywood's highest-grossing films of all-time and for an impressive set of six-pack abs) set Twitter afire when he posed for selfies with fans at the airport.
On Wednesday, a couple of hundred people screamed when actress Deepika Padukone showed up, looking impossibly fresh and gorgeous after a 30-hour flight from India.
One man held up a sign: "MARRY ME, DEEPIKA," it said.
She scrawled a few autographs and then left quickly after fans pushed over a small barrier.
Then there are the fans like Darshana Shah, of Dallas. Born in India, she's been in the U.S. 37 years. She's watched the IIFA events on TV for more than a decade, but had to come to Tampa. She bought tickets for all of the events and on Thursday, she was thrilled just to sit in on a news conference with the Bollywood stars and Florida Gov. Scott.
"This is a lifetime experience," she said.
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush