In a Mumbai theater last weekend, about 80 travel agents, tour operators and travel writers sat down for a screening of Dostana, the latest blockbuster to hit Indian movie screens. The night’s sponsor: the Greater Miami tourism bureau, headquartered some 9,000 miles away.
Dostana’s opening scene explains why. Four of India’s biggest movie stars vamp for the camera with Miami’s skyline and South Florida beaches as backdrops.
”It really is one big postcard — it’s a powerful postcard,” Rolando Aedo, the bureau’s marketing chief, said of Dostana, the first ”Bollywood” movie shot entirely in South Florida.
That distinction, along with the Bollywood star power attached to the movie, has tourism officials hoping real-life Indians will follow their silver-screen idols to Miami.
Known as the ”Bollywood effect,” Indian movies set on location have been credited with spikes in vacationers from one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
A study by the British film agency said New Zealand saw Indian arrivals grow 800 percent in the four years after the Bollywood hit Say You Love Me was filmed in Queenstown. And Switzerland became India’s top European destination after a string of Bollywood films used the Alps as a backdrop.
Dostana centers around three young Indian professionals living in Miami.
The two men, played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, want to rent rooms in a deluxe Brickell Avenue apartment. But the landlady won’t let her single niece (former Miss India Priyanka Chopra) share the place with them.
To sign a lease, the guys pretend to be a gay couple with no possible romantic designs on the gorgeous niece — even though they’re both instantly smitten with her. That sexual tension fuels the movie, which unfolds in typical Bollywood style as a feature film interrupted by musical numbers.
But the gay story line has gotten the most attention in India, a country where homosexuality remains illegal. And though Dostana plays the gay ruse for laughs in a clumsy way offensive to some (lots of flouncing and eye batting), all the openly straight characters embrace the men’s relationship.
Indian film critics are hailing Dostana’s message of tolerance as a breakthrough, while local tourism officials see the plot as particularly fitting for one of gay America’s most popular vacation destinations.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has met with Dostana producers in India and sponsored screenings for travel professionals in Delhi as well as Mumbai. The movie, which applied for about $500,000 in state production subsidies, certainly emphasizes the selling points Miami likes to tout around the world.
There’s the pristine oceanfront: Shilpa Shetty, the Bollywood actress who gained Western fame when a forceful embrace by Richard Gere sparked protests in India, danced on Hollywood’s lush white beach (doubling for Miami Beach) in a cameo during the movie’s opening scene.
There’s the nightlife: The three leads wind up dancing on the bar at Mango’s during one wild night out on South Beach’s Ocean Drive, arriving in a pink convertible. And there’s the fashion: Chopra’s character works as an editor at a glossy women’s magazine headquartered in downtown Miami.
”I think it portrayed Miami as a fun, bright, interesting place to be,” said Jeff Peel, head of Miami-Dade’s film office. “Miami could have been a fourth character in the film. How bad could that be?”