Friday, 4 June 2010

IIFA Awards 2010 - To be there...or not to be there...

Aaaah...what a lovely picture. The distinguished Mr Bachchan, head tilted, slightly stooped in deference. The slinky, sexy Jacqueline Fernandez (whose skin has the consistency of triple cream mixed with Fireweed honey), traditional Jasmine in her hair, dazzling in up-country Sri Lankan sari, greeting the Sri Lankan President. Picture was taken last month as Bachchan, the ambassador of the International Indian Film Academy Awards, unveiled Colombo as the venue for this year’s IIFA Awards, to be held this weekend.

The Island’s resplendent beauty was - unsurprisingly - a deciding a factor in the country being chosen to host the 2010 edition of the popular awards; the other shortlisted locations were Cape Town, Seoul, Sydney and Abu Dhabi. When he visited Sri Lanka in 1890, Mark Twain is alleged to have exclaimed, “Dear me! It is beautiful; all harmonious, all in perfect taste!”

It's a massive coup for the organizers, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board and will doubtless help put right the country's battered image, coming just a year after the end of one of the bloodiest and longest running Civil Wars in history.

In the run up to the event however, some activists and commentators - in South India and even in faraway East London - have stepped up calls for a boycott of the festival by Bollywood; saying it is inappropriate for the likes of Bachchan, numerous Khans, Dutts and Shetty's to be fraternizing with a government responsible for widespread repression of the media and the imposition of a ‘moral code’ on filmmakers. Others have even called for a total boycott of the awards ceremony (and Sri Lanka as a whole) given the treatment meted out to journalists, members of the opposition and anyone who criticizes the president’s choice of cufflinks, the president's brother's interview etiquette or the president's son's lack of decorum.

Journalists and ordinary Tamils in London are up in arms, saying it is hypocritical (not to mention insensitive) to be getting up in your most glamorous outfit and gyrating to Sonu Nigam when thousands of people continue to suffer, gyrating their way through barbed-wire enclosed internment camps.

Idealism is all well and good in our cosy little (Western) corner of the world where freedoms abound but Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have suffered enough for 30 years. It is true that the end of the Civil War has brought with it a host of new problems. It is also true thousands still languish in squalid camps as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ in a country the size of Southeast England.

However, boycotting the awards ceremony would only impose further torment on the people of Sri Lanka and what’s the point in that? The European Union recently withdrew trade concessions for Sri Lanka’s apparel industry, citing the government’s human rights record. Who will ultimately suffer due this decision? The 2.5 million workers – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims – who rely on an industry that supplies everything from Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Marks and Spencer shirts, that’s who.

Remember the sanctions on Iraq in the 1990’s? While the scale and consequences may differ, Sri Lanka is in a similar situation. The people suffer while governments posture.

A boycott of the event would also be a slap in the face for the army of employees of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Board who have worked tirelessly to bring IIFA to Colombo. It’s essentially a private organization staffed by some of the brightest marketers and communicators in Sri Lanka; people tasked with promoting a country that has long been viewed as a scarred paradise. They are people from various backgrounds – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers – who all share a deep affection for this tiny island of ours. It’s a love that drives them to promote Sri Lanka in spite of the bad image, in spite of all the calamities – natural and man-made – in spite of tight budgets. And it’s a job they’ve done staggeringly well, whether it is inside Sri Lanka or outside.

The ceremony itself will result in a massive increase in the number of visitors to the country this year. Boycotting IIFA will therefore be a body blow to the thousands of people – again Tamil, Sinhala, Muslim – who work in the tourism industry; from the major hotel chains to the little guest houses, from the owner of the swanky restaurant to the handicraft seller on the beach.

The choice between good and evil has long been an unattainable luxury for Sri Lankans whose lot has instead been about choosing the least malevolent from a multitude of evils. The country and its people sorely need the opportunity to shine and the IIFA awards ceremony is as good an opportunity as there ever will be.

Those journalists and visitors who have travelled to Sri Lanka should, by all means shed light on the negatives; it will hopefully cajole the powers that be (outside and inside Sri Lanka) to change tack.

But also write about how the warmth of the sun envelopes you; how the people make you feel at home; write about the food and the colour and vibrancy. Write about how the astonishing beauty and vibe of this little place transports you. Because ultimately it will only help the people of Sri Lanka; revitalize them and give them hope.

And then be thankful for the choices we have.

- Vijitha Alles