The International Indian Film Academy is conceptualised and produced by Wizcraft International Entertainment Pvt Ltd, of which Sabbas Joseph is founder-director. In this position, over the past 25 years, he has spearheaded and managed several events for the company, which included some of the best events India has witnessed in the past two decades. Joseph is also president of the Event and Entertainment Management Association, India&’s apex body for the industry.

IIFA recently announced the 17th edition of the most spectacular celebration of Indian cinema globally to be held in Madrid, the capital of Spain, from 23-26 June this year. As Bollywood prepares for its annual outing and fans wait in anticipation of what lies ahead, the man behind the IIFA saga expands freely on this journey. Excerpts from an interview:

How did the idea of IIFA come about?

The idea came through the desire to go out there and create the biggest media event of India for the world, but what we realised was that in doing so we had an opportunity to connect people, to connect businesses, to connect cinema and to connect communities. Joining these dots meant that we were really bringing the world closer together. So we defined our vision as building bridges in the spirit of one people-one world. That is how the journey of IIFA began and it has now travelled over 13 different countries, 16 different destinations and four continents. So it has been quite a journey from London to Toronto, and this year we are going to Madrid in Spain. The belief of IIFA is simply that while doing such events, you have an opportunity to connect people, communities and countries. And this inspiration has kept us going.

What are some of the contributing factors that, according to you, led to this overwhelming popularity and success of IIFA?

I think it&’s the impact of IIFA over the years that has led to this massive phenomenon. First, Indian cinema is being promoted. Second, the revenue for Indian films that came from the international market began to grow. Today, a large component of revenue of Indian films comes from the international market and that revenue, very interestingly, comes from the markets that IIFA has been to.

Were there some problems that IIFA faced when it started off?

I think the problem that IIFA faced initially was that people were not being able to understand why! I remember driving to the first IIFA with Dilip sahab (Dilip Kumar) and he was firing me. He asked me directly why I was doing something like this and I tried to explain to him. ‘You have called me all the way here to present a Lifetime Achievement Award, you have spent lakhs of rupees to bring me to this festival, you’re making me present an award to Sunil Dutt sahab who lives five minutes’ walk from my home, why are you doing something like this?’ So when you look at all of this, you understand that the task was to convince all parties, all communities and all countries to believe in the idea and share the goal that we shared. 

I explained to Dilip sahab that what we were doing was to showcase Indian cinema in a foreign destination. He replied, ‘The people who will come to watch will all be Indians, so how are you showcasing it to a different audience?’ He never really took me seriously till we arrived at the event. As we stopped the car ahead of the red carpet, he saw a huge crowd of fans, both Indians and foreigners. He prepared to get out of the car amidst all the glittering lights and I tell you, at that moment, all of a sudden, age vanished. Suddenly 20 years of Dilip sahab&’s life vanished and he was 20 years younger. When he stepped out of that car, he had a sense of belief on his face — there was a sense of pride and happiness in him that here was an event that was celebrating him and that such a huge gathering of fans, both Indian and foreigners, knew exactly who he was and loved to demonstrate their respect for him.

Is there any lasting impact of IIFA on the relationship between India and the country it is hosted in?

See, it is like this: India and Sri Lanka were not having the best of diplomatic relations after the war and all that stuff. IIFA went to Sri Lanka, it brought the two countries closer together. We sponsored 100 children with International Cricket Council and Unicef, we went on to build a village for the refugees of the war, we created an environment where India and Sri Lanka could actually sit and talk. 

There were 300 Indians who lived in Amsterdam. At that time there were no direct flights to Amsterdam. During the week of the IIFA weekend, the minister of civil aviation announced 36 flights! People from The Netherland began travelling to India. Toronto is a classic example — today it&’s so much better, so much richer, lots of Indian children are now going to Canada for education. You look at the graph, all of this is happening after the IIFA travelled to Toronto. Five-star hotels in Canada are now owned by Indians, you have more flights… the list goes on. It&’s a whole lot of opportunities beyond borders that brings people together. IIFA is easily the flag-bearer of India.

What all can the audience look forward to in this edition of IIFA?

This year we have decided to travel to Madrid, as has already been announced here in Delhi as well as in Spain. What is very special about this year is the fact that we are celebrating 60 years of India-Spain diplomatic relations. We are working together with the Union ministry of external affairs to make this interesting and culturally significant. You look at the stars as the major attraction. With Madrid, of course, one is excited about football. When our stars went to Madrid and met the footballers, they were equally excited — they filmed the entire meeting and put it on their website and it sort of exploded. People in Madrid are looking forward to IIFA just as we look forward to Madrid.