April 26, 2001

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'I Try to Do Something Different Each Year'

Som Chivukula

Kamal DandonaWhen Kamal Dandona was growing up in 1950s Bombay, he was fond of Hindi movies -- like millions of other Indians.

But he wasn't at all star-struck.

He could not have been, even if he had wanted to.

Dandona grew up in Pali Hill, the affluent Bombay neighbourhood that was home to many movie stars and film-makers.

"Ravi Chopra (BR's son) was a classmate," Dandona, now 53, recalled recently. "I went to Sacred Heart Boys School with Rakesh Roshan. So I grew up in an environment of Bollywood!"

This weekend, some of Bollywood's top stars, including Karisma Kapoor, will be coming to meet him -- at the Nassau Coliseum in New York, where he will be producing the third annual Bollywood Awards.

But movies and star shows were not on his mind when he began working. He wanted to make a career in flying after learning the craft in England.

Dandona became a pilot for Air-India and went on to become its flight operations manager overseas for nearly a decade. "I was responsible for working with pilots on their flight journeys, advising them about the heights at which to fly, speeds, routes and dealing with turbulence," Dandona said.

His advice was also sought elsewhere. His friend and classmate Rajiv Gandhi asked him to run a chapter of the Congress party in America. Dandona, who had immigrated to New York upon receiving his green card in the 1980s, was only too happy to oblige his friend.

He also started an electronics import and export business that he ran until two years ago. His interest in politics had considerably lessened by then.

Bollywood Music Awards 2000In 1999 he decided it was time to recognize the artistes with whom he had had a close relationship over the years. There were many film awards in India, but Dandona wanted to set up awards to be given in the entertainment capital of the world.

The New York awards would be televised across the world. And he would get Hollywood stars and pop singers for the event. Audiences across the world would be invited to vote for their favourite actors, director and film -- to name a few categories.

Dandona knew the event would draw wide support. "The movies are the one constant link between the immigrants and India," he said. He had also noticed that in recent years Bollywood movies had received a big boost when over 40 movie houses across America had started showing them.

"I had two main goals: bring Bollywood to mainstream America and recognize the contributions of the NRIs with the People's Choice Awards," Dandona noted. "I think the timing was right because Indians were becoming more affluent, vibrant and becoming mainstream."

He managed to get Michael Jackson and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber [Cats, Evita] for the awards. This year, he has Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. Van Damme [Double Impact] might not have had a hit in a decade, but Seagal is on the mend. After several lean years, he scored a medium hit, Exit Wounds, a few weeks ago.

The award shows have been a big hit. Articles about the show have appeared in several American newspapers, while Newsday ran a big feature on Dandona and the awards on Tuesday.

The show even inspired a spin-off in the form of the Bollywood Music Awards held last November. The inaugural Bollywood Fashion Awards will be held this Friday in New York. Dandona's daughter Sonia, a Columbia University student, is in charge.

"I try to do something different each year," Dandona said. "We have a galaxy of stars come here from India. Then we invite mainstream American stars too."

Last year Richard Gere was honoured for his support for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees. This year, in addition to Seagal and Van Damme, there is the celebrated singer Chaka Khan.

From India there will also be Tabu, Mahima Chaudhury, Sonali Bendre, Saif Ali Khan, Twinkle Khanna, Prabhu Deva, Lucky Ali and Sukhbir.

There are several firsts associated with the awards.

"Lara Dutta made her first public appearance as Miss Universe at the Bollywood Awards last year," he beamed. "This year, Priyanka Chopra [Miss World 2001] will be making her first trip to the United States. There are also some surprises in store."

Dandona with Miss Universe 2000Dandona says the real reason for the popularity of the events is the presence of big number of South Asians in the New York Tri-state area. Besides, there are thousands of people of Indian origin from Fiji, Trinidad and Guyana who are crazy after Indian movies -- even though they know so little of the Hindi their great grandparents took with them in the 19th century when they were taken as indentured labour from India.

"With Indian movies, people have a connection," he said. "People from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India come on one common platform and enjoy the stars and the show."

Stars from the hit desi English movie American Desi will also be on hand to witness the extravaganza this year.

Dandona is excited about the number of stars he has roped in. He is in awe of Karisma Kapoor. He remembers her great-grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor. He remembers her grandfather Raj Kapoor. He might have bumped into her parents, Randhir and Babita. But Dandona had no show to feature them.

But this weekend Karisma is going to make up for that.

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