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Kabaddi Goes Glam

“Kabaddi? You mean that ganwar game played in small towns, where young, strapping hulks take off their (eeeek) shirt and end up (yuk) rolling in the mud.

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Mention Kabaddi in polite circles — read: high society, elitist, culturally, intellectually and socially superior — and expressions vary from shock, surprise, disgust and amusement.

“Kabaddi? You mean that ganwar game played in small towns, where young, strapping hulks take off their (eeeek) shirt and end up (yuk) rolling in the mud, pinning down one poor sod while grunting and yelling their heads off! “God, it’s the pits, yaar! It’s so down market, weird and vulgar!”

Not any more, dude. Sharp, designer tees and shorts, air conditioned surroundings, pink mats, disco lights, fireworks, thumping music — welcome to the glitzy ambience of the newly launched Pro-Kabaddi League! The man, brain and driving force behind this makeover, determined to turn the humble, desi, unglamorous chant of Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi echoing in smaller metros, cities and villages into a triumphant war-cry in, you heard right, Mumbai is none other than the sophisticated, urbane and well-respected sports commentator Charu Sharma.

A sharp, sports entrepreneur, Sharma informs us that even Tendulkar-city, “Mumbai has over 800 registered Kabaddi clubs! Actually, there is a fairly decent groundswell supporting the sport but because it has little patronage from the media, it remains off the radar for most sports enthusiasts. Our launching PKL will hopefully give it the focus and attention it deserves.”

Sharma reckons that the sport has been given short shrift for two basic reasons. “One, the popular perception of it being a physically-driven, crude and dirty small-town sport fielding rough-tough, desi types, high on kushti and brute force, rolling in the mud with remote demonstration of skill. Two, a complete lack of any focused publicity, promotion or marketing of kabaddi to attract the curious for at least, a test-run.

“We at PKL are determined to address these problems with quality and speed by packaging these events as slick, international offerings by our brilliant broadcast partners, Star India. Matches will be played not on dirty muddy surfaces but air-conditioned surroundings where the players will find themselves sweating aesthetically in promo TV campaigns!”

The players are in a state of shock. The IPL-isation of this hatta-katta sport has completely spun them out to a different, unknown, unfamiliar, even undreamt of, stratosphere. For many players, a list of firsts marks their entry into this space — first flight, first 5-star hotel stay, first glimpse of big bucks!

Says 31-year-old Asian Gold Medalist Jasmer Singh “Frankly, I have never seen money before a game ever, earlier.” The champ was purchased by the Delhi franchise for a cool Rs. 11 lakh plus. In fact, none of the 6 players who’ve been bought for Rs.10 lakhs plus, ever really had a clue about their true worth.

Their diet, as part of the new lifestyle, has changed dramatically too. The days of drinking doodh (milk) with crushed badaam (almonds) for strength-building is history. Juice, protein-shakes and at least three liters of milk is the new menu. Hostels are out as are buses. Air conditioned hotels and cars are in. Slowly gearing up to their new life, the players are also hoping their sport gets recognition, respect and acceptance from the masses and terms like Baithi (toe-touch) and Kaichi (scissor-hold grip) are known and understood by spectators.

Champ Rakesh Kumar confesses that he would be thrilled if his famous “lion jump,” in which he jumps over his opponents’ heads to reach the touch line, catches the public imagination as much as M.S. Dhoni’s “Helicopter shot.”

As the Pro Kabaddi League kicks off and gains momentum — amidst huge, glitzy fanfare — everyone involved seems bullish about its future. Starting with Abhishek Bachchan (who purchased the Jaipur Pink Panthers team) and Sonakshi Sinha, the opening was a glamorous star-filled affair in Mumbai. Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan, Sachin Tendulkar with wife were only some big ticket dazzlers who graced the event with the media having a field day. The players in turn — unaccustomed to this kind of freak-out atmosphere — rose to the occasion to present a scintillating contest where the U Mumbai team socked it to Junior Bachchan’s team Jaipur Pink Panther 45-31 to emerge victorious.

Social commentator Santosh Mehta however offers a reality check by tamping down the temperature, pointing to some simple ground realities before jumping into the arena to yell Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi and declare it a grand success: “What works for cricket might not work for other sports. Packaging can never be the be-all and end-all of promoting a sport. Sustained interest in any sport cannot be determined by how much entertainment surrounds it, but how much meaning lies imbued within it.”

Desai goes on to explain that the process needs to be nurtured over a period of time to familiarize the masses with its DNA — rules, conventions and meanings. Also critical is a shared vocabulary to describe the sport and its constituent action. Further it needs to be populated with enough colorful and eye-catching events — sixes, fours, wickets, catches, run-outs, fouls, free-kicks, penalties — to generate excitement, controversy and buzz. Over time it needs its own history and mythology, new heroes and narratives for people to connect with, in an enduring manner. “Contrary to appearances, developing a sport is neither about commerce nor entertainment. It’s about infecting people with passion and belief.”

Desai is spot-on. While Charu Sharma, Abhishek Bachchan, Sonakshi Sinha and Star India’s initiatives are commendable in trying to reboot this popular desi sport from have-not land into the mainstream, at the end of the day, the focus has to be about identifying ways that can co-opt the viewers to enjoy it and give it a place in their lives. As sports needs a market, the market too needs to figure out ways, avenues and means to engage with the sport.

In promoting this earthy, homespun, grounded and unglamorous sport, Sharma and gang have a real opportunity and an exciting, challenging task to lift Kabaddi from its down-market and desi image to a thrilling, competitive, drama-filled, neo-WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) event that is truly a spectator sport. Will they be able ot pull it off? Shhhh … Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi!

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Sports | Bollywood | Life | August 2014

Image gallery

Bengaluru Bulls v Bengal Warriors during a Pro Kabaddi League match. Bengal Warriors v Telugu Titans. Celebrities power the Professional Kabaddi League. Bengal Warriors and Dabang Delhi. Bengal Warriors v Puneri Paltan.

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