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Raiders of the lost art: Pro Kabaddi’s TV success in has been refreshingly unexpected

Shahid Judge travels to three venues — Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur — to profile Indian sport’s sleeper hit of the season.

Written by Shahid Judge | Updated: August 24, 2014 12:31 pm
The lasers and other bells and whistles have enhanced the viewer experience of the Pro-Kabaddi League. (Source: Express Photo by Arul Horizon) The lasers and other bells and whistles have enhanced the viewer experience of the Pro-Kabaddi League. (Source: Express Photo by Arul Horizon)

Ray Ban aviators. The one accessory that is on top of every small-town boy’s wish-list when he visits Mumbai. The more obscure the brand the better till the time it’s been bought from Fashion Street or one of the many vendors plying their trade outside a local railway station.

When Anup Kumar, an inspector with the Haryana police hailing from the village of Palra, landed in the city back in late-June, his first priority too was to fetch himself a pair of sunglasses of the aviator-kind. One that would become a virtual part of his anatomy over the subsequent two months.

For he would don them incessantly, regardless of whether he was in the confines of a bus or a hired cab, on the streets in the night or in a dimly-lit press conference room facing the media as the inspirational skipper of U Mumba, the city-based Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) franchise.

That is except whenever 31-year-old Anup, an Arjuna awardee and a national kabaddi superstar, has been practising his trademark raids in training sessions or orchestrating one into the opposition half under the PKL spotlights during a match. Despite his enormous physique and his customary swagger, it’s Anup’s ‘aviators’ though that have become his trademark and also led to him being coined the ‘most stylish player’ of the PKL.

It’s a tagline that amuses Anup. His obsession for the fashionable glasses after all has nothing to do with stereotypical fads. Nor is it a style statement. The story behind the ‘aviators’ in fact has little drama about it. “My eyes get affected by light. They turn red. It has nothing to do with fashion actually, it’s more a necessity,” he says.

But inadvertantly, the 2010 Asian Games gold medallist has influenced a fashion trend of his own among the spectators who have been flocking the kabaddi arenas around the country, soaking in the unique sights and sounds of the desi sport’s urban revolution.

Unlike Anup, Bengaluru Bulls’ Ajay Thakur hasn’t required any branded accessory to create a furore. His patented ‘frog leap’ manoeuvre—where he jumps in the air with his feet splayed apart— has earned him fans not just in India but also got him a mention 7000km away during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

“Have you seen Ajay’s style? He is turning out to be quite a rage, and especially his ‘frog leap’. Wow, that is something,” says Nitin Pai, an Indian sports fan based in the UK.

Closer to home, in his native village in Tamil Nadu, Dharmaraj Cheralathan has been informed about timings for a local tournament being altered to ensure that everyone’s sitting in front of the television watching their local hero show off his wares in a Bulls jersey. He has also heard of a Bangalore-based cricket academy which has abandoned traditional warm-up routines and instead adapted a game of touch-kabaddi to get their players going.

While the likes of Anup, Thakur and Cheralathan are soaking in their new-found tryst with fame and recognition, Rakesh Kumar is no stranger to being hailed as a poster-boy.

If anything, prior to the PKL, the former India captain was the one setting kabaddi arenas alight with his style of play. But he’s only seen his fame sky-rocket over the last few weeks. And he would realize just by how much on Rakshabandhan day when he got a call from his team manager saying, ‘there’s a girl here to see you at the hotel lobby’.

If it’s a female scribe that the Patna Pirates skipper expected to be meet, he was to be pleasantly surprised.

“It was a fan. She told me that she had been watching our matches and had come here to tie me a rakhi. Then she made me feed her the mithai she had brought to complete the ritual. I was really touched,” he mentions humbly.

It’s not just in Patna that Rakesh has experienced the warmth that the PKL stars have been experiencing from their fast-growing fan base.

“When we first came to Mumbai, we got out of the airport, and a lot of the taxi drivers and airport staff saw and asked if I was the Patna Pirates captain. They had seen the posters and photographs,” he adds.

Amid all the fanfare, lies a confused South Korean from the Kolkata franchise. The language barrier ensures that Jang Kun Lee has little clue of what is being spoken around him, and especially what the chants from the crowd stand for. He does, however, recognise and acknowledge all the thumbs-up’s that are directed towards him.

When the 21-year-old first landed here, the biggest issue he faced was living out of a suitcase.

“It gets a little irritating to unpack and pack again,” he recalls. But then he hears the Bengal Warriors fans scream, “Lee, Lee,”, and quickly corrects himself. “But then the baggage problems aren’t so bad after all, when you hear them chant your name,” says Lee.

Team owners have been adjusting to the learning curve themselves, like first-timers would. The suspense of the player auction seems a distant memory now. Logistical concerns top the list now.

Uday Sinh Wala, owner of the Bangalore franchise explains that owners aren’t merely there to write cheques. “The person we report to is the coach. He tells us what we need to get organised for the players. Be it shoes, or a swimming pool,” he says. A simple consolatory gesture after a loss or a jubilant roar with a victory works well for the players too. “Players like that the owner is involved and passionate about the sport,” he adds.

After observing how contact sports like rugby, UFC, NFL and football, among others, were broadcast, they finally zeroed in on their team. Andrew Hornet, an Englishman equally oblivious to the sport, was picked to head the production team. After observing how contact sports like rugby, UFC, NFL and football, among others, were broadcast, they finally zeroed in on their team. Andrew Hornet, an Englishman equally oblivious to the sport, was picked to head the production team.

Abhishek Bachchan has gone beyond the cheer-leader’s role, and is often seen warming up with the team – running and stretching, always dressed in the team jersey or tracksuit.

Just short of taking to the mat, the Bollywood star has mingled with his team, and seamlessly moves from being one among the boys to the filmstar hosting the famous and mighty from showbiz at game nights.

Bangalore owners have gotten themselves jersey numbers penned onto their backs, while Ronnie Screwvala, who moved from high-profile movie production, is enjoying his time in sport’s biggest cross-over showbiz.

Patna Pirates’ owner Rajesh Shah finds himself rooted to the spot on a busy Mumbai street one sultry evening, while trying to steer his car and follow his team’s game (in Jaipur) at the same time. He sits in his car, eyes glued to the mobile phone that’s streaming live images from the match.

Close scores toward the end find Shah, a recent convert to superstitions, unable to move lest the change in position negatively influence his team’s four-point lead. His daughter raps on the window to check if he will ever get out. He sits still till the final whistle blows. “We are big fans at the end of the day, but stakes are higher for us,” he laughs.

How a sport is presented on the television can go a long way into determining its success. It has to look sexy on the screen and has to be crisply packaged to make it appealing to a larger audience.

The organisers have been smart enough to know this. They promised world-class coverage for the league but as they would soon realise, the task to deliver it would be enormous. With no Indian broadcaster having a prior experience of producing top-quality feed for contact sports, let along kabaddi, they had to go scouring around the world to get the right men for the job.

After observing how contact sports like rugby, UFC, NFL and football, among others, were broadcast, they finally zeroed in on their team. Andrew Hornet, an Englishman equally oblivious to the sport, was picked to head the production team.

The 45-year-old has been associated with sports production and has worked extensively on contact sport, football being his preferred choice. Decades of experience revolving around the realms of rugby, boxing and even darts came in handy, he says. “It’s a game that needs modernizing and that’s what’s happening,” he mentions.

Hornet and his team began their research well in advance, creating methods in which the terminology could be explained to viewers using simple graphics, sounds and the commentator’s description. Feedback and self-assessment after every evening helped them make alterations.

On its own, kabaddi provides a lot of action to keep the viewer interested. But the sharp camera angles have magnified the moves, making it look rather super-human at times, and the brightly-lit playing arena along with the over-enthusiastic presenters have enhanced the experience. And the results have been encouraging. According to the estimates provided by the organisers, the first eight days of the league attracted an unprecedented 72.5 million viewers.

The biggest challenge for the PKL organisers though will be to ensure the league’s sustainability.

With the first edition coming to an end on August 30, and season 2 scheduled for mid-2015, we’ll have to wait and see whether Anup’s aviators and Thakur’s frog-leap are still in vogue six months down the line. That is an issue that puts furrows on Star CEO Uday Shankar’s brow.

“One of the big things about football, baseball, NBA or NFL in the USA, is the volume of the sport that they supply. No matter how interesting I find it, if you show it to me for two or three weeks and don’t show it for 48-49 weeks, then I’ve forgotten about it,” he says.

Just for the record, the English Premier League runs from August to May, and the NFL in the US runs for close to 20 weeks.

In fact, most professional leagues are run for a period of close to eight to nine months. And having decided to add a ‘professional’ touch while naming their league, they might have to address this discrepancy. A sport like kabaddi, where its players are not worn down by hectic schedules, can actually aim to be a year-round phenomena.

“This is like selling something seasonally. Then shutting down the shop and going away. Now, this is January 31. This shop will now open next January. That is the biggest challenge we will face with kabaddi as well. It can’t be a few-week phenomena. They have to get used to the idea that they can come and watch kabaddi,” Shankar adds.

The PKL has brought the exoticity of kabaddi to urban India. As it grows in stature, the ones in-charge will also have to explore the possibility of replicating this euphoria surrounding kabaddi in the hinterlands, where it doesn’t really suffer for popularity.

But for now, as the PKL looks to break new barriers for India’s own contact-sport, it’ll be interesting to see if this remains a seasonal sale or can fly off the shelves the whole year round.

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