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Bollywood Oscars ‘full circle’ moment for Tampa journalist

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Published:   |   Updated: March 16, 2014 at 09:11 PM

TAMPA — For local fans of Indian cinema, meeting Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor when he arrives in the city for the International Indian Film Academy Celebrations & Awards would be the equivalent to Hollywood fans meeting Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt.

For Tampa’s Nitish Rele, founder and publisher of Khaas Baat — the Tampa-based statewide monthly Indian newspaper — talking with the actor would be a “life has come full circle” moment.

Rele credits Bollywood for launching his journalistic career. And when the event dubbed the Bollywood Oscars is held in Tampa from April 23-26, it could further his career once again.

During the academy weekend and the weeks that follow it, he knows more eyes will be on his newspaper and its website than ever before, looking for the unique coverage an Indian newspaper in the event’s host city may provide.

“It’s hectic,” he said. “We’re a small staff and this is a big event. But I am confident we’ll do fine. It’s hectic fun. It’s why we get into this business.”

Over 30 years ago, as a teenager in the Bollywood capital of Mumbai, Rele, now 51, broke into the newspaper business by interviewing and writing articles about the famous Indian actors and directors living and working in the city. One of those early celebrity interviews was Kapoor, then a little-known actor with big dreams, and now one of the hottest A-list actors in Bollywood.

Kapoor will be in Tampa for the awards — and is rumoured as the star of a Bollywood movie that could be filmed at the University of South Florida. Rele is hopeful he will be able to renew acquaintances and get a good interview for his publication.

“I doubt he remembers me,” Rele said. “That was so long ago and he has probably been interviewed by hundreds of reporters and met countless people since then.”

Kapoor has more than 100 Bollywood acting credits to his name and has crossed over into American television, portraying President Omar Hassan in “24.”

Rele’s career has also come a long way since his days as a cub reporter when he first met Kapoor.

Khaas Baat, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in August, serves more than 25,000 readers a month throughout Florida. It has become the go-to publication for Indian news in Florida — events, music, food, fashion and, of course, film.

“We’ve always covered any Bollywood films showing in the area,” Rele said. “But I never thought Bollywood would become the center of my world again.”

Rele, who was born and raised in Mumbai, was inspired to become a journalist by his father, an editor of a successful bimonthly magazine, The Industrial Times, which covered India’s economic news.

“I would see my father writing at home and how respected he was and wanted to be like him,” Rele said.

Although popular then, Bollywood was not the mega-industry it is today, Rele said, so sets were more accessible to reporters, even those with limited experience.

The first celebrity interview he conducted, he said, was with the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee, one of India’s most respected directors, who did not take long to second-guess agreeing to an interview with the young Rele.

“Here is a legend of Indian cinema, and the first question I asked him was a novice one: ‘Why did you get into film?’ He rolled his eyes and shook his head like I was wasting his time,” said Rele, who thinks he was 15 at the time. “It was embarrassing.”

But he learned from the mistake, he said, and made sure he was better prepared for future interviews.

By the time he was 18, he was an oft-published Bollywood reporter.

The list of stars coming to Tampa for the awards ceremony that he has interviewed include Shabana Azmi, Shatrughan Sinha, Randhir Kapoor, Sridevi, Govinda and Anupam Kher.

Rele also wrote a Bollywood gossip column under a pen name.

“I was always on sets, but no one knew I was the gossip writer,” Rele said.

After graduating from the University of Bombay, he moved to the United States and attended graduate school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In 1989, he took a copy editing job with The Tampa Tribune.

The idea for Khaas Baat, which means “Special News” in Hindi, was conceived in 2003.

His wife, Shephali, who had a successful career as a radio reporter in Tampa, saw a newspaper in Orlando that covered its Indian community. She showed it to her husband and suggested they do the same.

Tampa’s Indian community had grown into the tens of thousands, with plenty of success stories and cultural events.

The first edition was published in August 2004. It was mostly black and white, consisted of eight pages and covered only news of Tampa’s Indian community.

With a limited budget, the Reles wrote and edited the publication themselves, as well as sold the ads. Their sole employee was a page designer.

“It was not easy,” Nitish Rele. “I did not know what the future held for it. I just took a month-to-month approach.”

Rele said the Indian community rallied behind the publication through paid ads and unpaid columns. Within six months, they expanded to Orlando. Within two years, the newspaper had enough advertisements to support its current 20- to 24-page color format and expand to cities throughout Florida.

When the Bollywood Oscars arrive, that readership will experience a growth he said he never could have imagined for the newspaper.

“We will be printing more copies of the paper for IIFA attendees to pick up, which will mean more exposure for us during that weekend,” he said. “Indeed, it is a tremendous boost. We are ready.”

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