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Tampa zoo, other tourist hot spots prep for Bollywood visitors

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Published:   |   Updated: February 17, 2014 at 07:35 AM

TAMPA — The Lowry Park Zoo is ready for Bollywood.

In anticipation of the 30,000 visitors expected in Tampa for the International Indian Film Academy awards April 24-26, the zoo has produced maps and information sheets in Hindi, the national language of India.

“Our staff is used to welcoming cultures from around the world,” said Jason Davis, the zoo's marketing manager. Hillsborough County leaders hope businesses throughout the area follow the zoo's lead. To help in the process, the tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay is creating a 25-minute cultural awareness webinar on Indian customs called “Unlock India,” designed to educate customer-service workers and others. Look for it next month on its website.

The agency has developed tutorials before, including some for the 2012 Republican National Convention here.

More than 1,400 people have undergone training through the tourism agency, including the Lowry Park Zoo staff.

“Little things like being able to tell a guest where they can get a certain type of food or how to get to Busch Gardens are taught,” Davis said. “They're little but the guests appreciate them.”

Like the RNC, city and county leaders believe those traveling to Tampa for the Bollywood Oscars can change the area's landscape. Among the 30,000 visiting Tampa in April will be 120 international CEOs and thousands from the Bollywood industry.

The India tutorial will be different from the one produced for the RNC, though. It will be focused on cultural lessons and available for the first time on the internet.

Based on interviews with authorities on Indian culture, here are some of the lessons they hope are included:

* Don't be shocked by accents that aren't Indian.

India was under British rule almost a century, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Great Britain also had colonies in Africa, South Africa and the Caribbean and encouraged Indians to help develop these regions by offering financial stipends, free travel or land. Many Indians remained even after the colonies became independent. Cultural ties to their ancestral lands remain and many are fans of Bollywood film.

* Some Indians may not look very Indian.

India is made up of 28 states and is the seventh-largest country in the world by area. The language, music, dancing, diet and dress — even facial features — can differ from one state to the next.

Pawan Rattan, a founder of Tampa's Indo-U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tells a story about a visit to Tampa by the Indian consulate general from Houston, Texas.

“He looked Chinese,” said Rattan, a 65-year-old native of Punjab, India. “He must have noticed a surprise in my face as he added, 'I am from Assam.'” Assam in northeast Indian borders China.

“Those of us from India do not look, dress, eat or speak the same way. “We are a true melting pot.”

Indian tourists may worship in Catholic churches.

* While the primary religion in India is Hinduism, the nation also has the second-largest Catholic population in Asia with almost 20 million.

“Christians have lived in India for almost 2,000 years,” said Ram Jakhotia, 77, a native of Rajasthan, India, and founder of the Seniors Get-To-Gather, a program that provides Tampa's Indian seniors with free Indian meals and entertainment. “A lot of people do not know this. I am a Hindu but as a Hindu I have been taught to respect all religions equally.”

* Indians are Americanized.

Rahul Korlipara, a founder of the Tampa Bay India International Film Festival, said India's younger generation is well schooled on American culture.

As a child growing up in Andhra Pradesh, India, 37-year-old Korlipara said one of his favorite bands was Aerosmith. He was also raised on CNN, read books from American authors and enjoyed dining on American cuisine.

“This is true for a huge number of Indians in their 20s and 30s,” he said. “Consequently, you will find a lot of American influence in Indian films and music today. It is not apparent at first glance because India has a strong flavor of its own, but if you look closely at contemporary Indian music, films, food and fashion the influence is unmistakable.”

* The U.S. is “Indianized.”

Whether you realize it or not, Indian culture may already be part of your everyday life, said Santosh Govindaraju, who was curator of Demystifying India — an exhibit on display at the Museum of Science & Industry from 2006 to 2008 that documented 5,000 years of India's contributions to the world.

Govindaraju, a 38-year-old native of Karnataka, India, said India has made many contributions to American fashion, music, food and cinema, but perhaps best-known today is yoga.

“It originated in India as a way to focus on the mind, body and the soul,” he said. “In America a lot of people think it is only about the body, but in India the theory is that by having a more relaxed body you can better focus on your mind and then the soul.”

* Bollywood does not represent all Indian film.

Bollywood is the nickname given to Hindi-speaking films produced in Mumbai, the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Because Hindi is the national language of India, its films are the most viewed.

But Francis Vayalumkal, 34, a founder of the Tampa Bay India International Film Festival, said different regions in India have their own film industries focusing on local customs and filmed in the local language.

Tollywood, for instance, describes films made in the city Hyderabad where Telegu is the dominant language. Movies made in the city of Chennai's residential neighborhood Kodambakka are called “Kollywood” films and use the Tamil language.

Thirty types of Indian cinema are produced, representing the various cultures and languages.

“India has independent films as well,” said Vayalumkal, a native of Kerala, India. “In India they are called 'art house films.'

At Lowry Park Zoo, Davis said his staff will probably watch Visit Tampa Bay's India webinar and use any new tips they pick up in dealing with their Indian visitors.

That's just what Santiago Corrada wants to hear.

“Many may not have traveled to Florida or even the US before,” said Corrada, CEO and president of Visit Tampa Bay. “It is important that we understand and are aware of cultural differences. From dietary restrictions and travel customs to service-level expectations, we need to understand the differences in order to ensure an enjoyable stay in our community.”

Perhaps the most important lesson, Vayalumkal said, is that the average Indian is nothing like the people depicted in Bollywood cinema.

“If you think Bollywood defines India,” he chuckled, “you may think everyone in India is always suddenly breaking into song and dance. I assure you that we don't.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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