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World's biggest stars descend on Vancouver for Bollywood film awards

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VANCOUVER - While some of Bollywood's biggest celebrities have descended on Vancouver for Hindi cinema's equivalent of the Academy Awards, most British Columbians wouldn't know the stars if they passed them on the street.

The South Asians aren't generating half the buzz a visit from Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber or Angelina Jolie would — though the Bollywood stars are arguably more famous, in light of India's 1.3-billion population and the millions scattered around the globe who call themselves fans.

But despite many Canadians' ho-hum attitude towards this weekend's inaugural Times of India Film Awards, the actors and actresses aren't without followers in B.C.

Hundreds of sari-and suit-clad fans flocked to Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum on Thursday for a colourful concert featuring the music and dance of Hindi cinema.

The concert kicked off three days of celebrations leading up to the first-ever TOIFA awards show, which honours film stars based on fan votes.

Twenty-one-year-old University of B.C. student Manila Subedi said she bought TOIFA tickets as soon as they went on sale.

"I was really excited when I heard they were coming," Subedi said. "The tickets went on sale at 10, and I was there at like, 9:50 waiting to buy the tickets."

She said the awards will be the one time she gets to see some of her idols in person.

"Shah Rukh Khan," Subedi gushed. "(He) would be like Brad Pitt ... I don't have any brown friends, so none of them think it's a big deal — but I thought it was a really big deal."

Actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, a film icon consistently ranked one of the world's most beautiful women in Internet polls, is also expected to make an appearance.

While the concert venue wasn't filled to capacity, some came from as far away as Oregon in the hopes of catching a glimpse of their favourite Bollywood heartthrobs.

"We watch (Bollywood awards shows) on TV all the time but it's not something you get to ... see in person," said American fan Anisha Patel.

Patel drove up to Vancouver for the weekend with three friends, who all said they plan to spend the weekend shopping, checking out the city's night life and attending other TOIFA events.

The province spent $11 million to host and promote the weekend events, according to a Ministry of Tourism news release. Money well spent, it said, in light of the estimated 400 million viewers who will tune in from India and around the world.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark first announced Vancouver would host the inaugural event amid flashing lights and brightly coloured South Asian dancers last January.

"This event is just part of what's going to inject millions into our economy as a result of our relationship with the Times of India Media Group. They reach over 90 million people every single day, most of them in India," Clark told the gathered media.

"That kind of opportunity can garner tremendous opportunities for people in our province," she added.

But the opposition New Democrats accused the Liberal government of trying to buy votes with the series of colourful photo opportunities, for what it said was essentially a "copycat" film award.

"They invented the whole new Bollywood awards show trademarked and sponsored solely by the B.C. government so (the Liberals) could hold the event in April," said NDP legislature member Spencer Chandra Herbert in a news release.

"As a taxpayer," NDP culture critic Raj Chouhan said, "I am ashamed at the partisan manner in which this government has represented us on an international stage."

More controversy followed when allegations surfaced that the provincial Liberal government had attempted to influence the timing of awards celebration, to occur before the May provincial election.

The Times of India group dismissed the claims, saying it was "dismayed" by what it called inaccurate statements over the event's timing.

The group said B.C. government officials never suggested the awards must be scheduled in the lead up to the provincial election, and that the company itself insisted on a date between late March and early April.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly attributed a quote to NDP Spencer Chandra Herbert instead of Raj Chouhan

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