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Don’t smile! You’re on camera!

Shahid Judge and Mihir Vasavda peek behind the scenes to find how sportsmen cope when thrust under the spotlight of money and glamour.

Written by Mihir Vasavda, Shahid Judge |
July 12, 2015 12:01:30 am
ISL, Indian Super League, pro kabaddi league, kabaddi league, pro kabaddi, isl auction, pro kabaddi league 2015, isl 2015, isl football, kabaddi, football news, kabaddi news, cricket news, india news, sports news, sports The second season of the Pro Kabaddi League starts July 18.

Whether it is getting kabaddi’s superstars to fake aggression in ad campaigns, or decking up ISL stars in dapper suits, Indians are busy hardselling sport. Shahid Judge and Mihir Vasavda peek behind the scenes to find how sportsmen cope when thrust under the spotlight of money and glamour

Raju Bhavsar still vividly recalls his first – and only – call-up for a magazine interview. The meeting itself would be accompanied by a photo-shoot, so Bhavsar wasted no time in prepping his gear. Back in 1990, he was part of the Indian kabaddi team that won gold in the sport’s first ever Asian Games appearance. The medal hadn’t quite lost its shine, but he still decided to give it a quick polish anyway. His India uniform too had never before been meticulously laundered as it had been in preparation for the occasion.

It was a big moment for him after all — a kabaddi player poised to make it beyond vernacular newspapers and into the pages of a prominent media organisation, Illustrated Weekly in this case. To top it off, news that renowned photographer Jagdish Mali would be capturing frames of the raider further increased his excitement.

On the day of the shoot he posed diligently, exactly as he was told. “It wasn’t very difficult. I had to stand with my arms folded across the chest, and look casual,” he recalls. “The only strange thing they asked me to do was dip my face in water for some effect. But there was nothing more I had to do for expressions,” he adds.

For all the preparation, anxiety and the few hours of interviews and photo-shoots, nothing materialised.
Twenty-five years on though, as coach of the Air India team, Bhavsar’s wards Deepak Hooda, Ajay Thakur, Prashant Chavan and Rahul Chaudhari are making a splash on television sets for the second time in as many years — all as part of the advertisement campaign for the upcoming Pro Kabaddi League, starting July 18.

Bhavsar woke up many mornings back then in anticipation of the first brush with glamour, which never came. His wards though fetch up on loop in a multitude of shows, scavenging excerpts from last season’s action, even as the stars look uncomfortable in the garb of ill-fitted glamour.

Like you don’t mend what is not broken. you also shouldn’t be trying to sell what is already sold. To their credit, the broadcasters had pulled out every trick from the marketing book during the first season of the PKL to turn a bunch of rag-tag kabaddi players into household names. Yet, as the second season approaches, they might be risking it turning fatuous as they go about turning these stars into caricatured celebrities.

Incidentally, every show starts with the host reiterating its slogan, “Khel tabhi khel banta hai jab usme superstars ho (A sport becomes a sport only when it has superstars)” The PKL though had found its share in its inaugural foray itself, thanks mainly to its shrewd marketing campaign that focused on the novelty factor of its players and the sport’s enigmatic past. By getting these ‘superstars’ to indulge in reality-show themed gags, like arm-wrestling and Rasmalai-eating contests, they are eroding into their own product rather than polishing it.

AWE & AWW at auction

The first brush with glamour for India’s lesser known sportsmen propped up by the spurt of cash-rich leagues needn’t always be burlesque. Like was witnessed at football’s Indian Super League auction on Friday, the maiden foray into money and glamour, can also be genuinely endearing. The moment the auction price touched `40 lakh, Jackichand Singh leaped out of his chair and hugged Sunil Chhetri. On cue, the cameraman zoomed in, capturing his emotions, the moist eyes and beaming smile. Those images, which lasted barely five seconds, perfectly encapsulated the story of a player who began his career by buying used shoes for `100 and was now on the verge of being among the highest paid players in the Indian Super League.

First player to go under the hammer during Friday’s ISL auctions, the 23-year-old winger could hardly suppress his emotions as auctioneer Charlie Ross cajoled the franchisees to lift their paddle and step up the bid. Eventually bought by Pune City, a trembling Jackichand shook hands with the team’s co-owner Hrithik Roshan and manager David Platt.

The evening before, he stood in front of a mirror in his hotel room rehearsing his reactions and going through his speech. It had been quite a build up to the auction for the players. He, along with nine others who were centre-pieces of the auction had been delivered bespoke suits. Hair dressers had been called to get them to look suave.

And earlier in the week, they were made to ‘perform’ their trademark tricks for a promo shoot. “It felt strange. We usually wake up messy and directly go for a gym session. But here we were all suited up and wore boots, although of different kind,” said Thoi Singh, who looked in awe as he was led to the stage by Italian World Cup winner Marco Materazzi.

Despite being the showstoppers for the day, the players looked star-struck themselves in a room packed with World Cuppers, Bollywood superstars and business tycoons. Anas Edathodika, snapped up by Delhi Dynamos for `41 lakh, looked amused, and embarrassed, when Roberto Carlos said he aims to ‘learn a thing or two’ from the Indian defender. “It was surreal. We have grown up watching these players, trying to attempt what they did on the field. We could never imagine them playing or coaching in India. The fact that they were bidding for us to play in their team was hard to believe,” Anas said.

Aggressive ad campaign

Some of that gush felt by talented sportsmen who strike it big, though, feels contrived. The advertisement campaign employed to promote the PKL called for aggressive expressions on the faces of poster boys and billboard-scorchers. “It’s a contact sport so you have to be tough to play. Like in wrestling, you don’t want them to pose happy, you want them to look angry. Same works here,” says Bhavsar. Yet just as straightforward as the desired photography protocol describes, the more complicated the procedure proved to be.

Since most of the players hail from humble backgrounds, there was a level of hesitation when they were first put in front of the camera last year. “Practically all of them were new to posing for cameras in a certain way. So they were shy and there was a fear that they would make fools of themselves,” says Bengaluru Bulls owner Uday Sinh Wala. Subsequently, hours went by in an attempt to get a single shot right that might have taken a few minutes for a professional actor.

It was a new experience for players like Jackichand Singh, who were suited and booted for the ISL auction. Hair stylists were also called to make them look suave. It was a new experience for players like Jackichand Singh, who were suited and booted for the ISL auction. Hair stylists were also called to make them look suave.

Last year, walking into the studios for the first time itself had been an episode of bewilderment. “There were cameras all over the place. So when they asked me to pose for the camera the first time, I was actually looking into the wrong one. There were three or four of them in front of me and I couldn’t understand what was happening,” recalls Bengal Warriors’ Nitin Madane. Once the right piece of equipment was pointed out, getting the desired pose proved to be a tougher challenge. “When we’re playing those looks come naturally because we’re using a lot of force. But it’s hard to bring them up in just a pose. Especially since we weren’t used to it,” mentions Rishank Devadiga from U Mumba.

Getting the right ‘angry’ expression was a task in itself. Madane remembers the frustration of repeating each take several times over. “I’d try, and then they’d say I need to look more angry. Then try again, still nothing. Eventually I kept thinking ‘how much more angry do you want me to be?’” he recalls. Difficulties inside the studio though would prove to be much simpler compared to outdoor shoots.

U Mumba defender Jeeva Kumar explains the jitters he and his colleagues experienced during a shoot at a Mumbai beach. “People had gathered there to watch us and it felt quite awkward making those angry expressions or grunting sounds. That time people didn’t know who we were so it got embarrassing,” he adds.

Photography sessions, consequently, stretched over several hours. Kashiling Adake was once a part of a seven-hour ordeal, owing to his weak grasp of Hindi. “I had to say a few lines while making a stern face. It took me quite a bit to get the face right, but then I couldn’t get the dialogues. I eventually finished at 4 AM,” says the Dabang Delhi star.

Promotion for the second season went beyond the still photography employed in the inaugural edition. Two shows were put forward by broadcasters – Hey Buddy Khel Kabaddi and Kings of Kabaddi. The players had by now considerably shed the performance anxiety that had gripped them earlier.

Stunts and Gimmicks

Each show involved a series of stunts and gimmickry. Once, host Gunjan Utreja asked three sets of pairs to stare angrily at each other. Madane and Chaudhuri failed at the task, laughing uncontrollably before giving up. Bulls’ raider and Patna Pirates skippers Ajay Thakur and Rakesh Kumar too found no success, nor did Rakesh and Jaipur Pink Panthers defender Rohit Rana.

Despite the light mood that made for the setting of the dares, Rakesh claims the failure of his staring competition with Rana actually stood for something the sport has long propagated. “Rohit is a junior player and I’m a senior. If we were playing, he could have done something like that. But kabaddi is all about respecting your peers. So even though were all enjoying, he felt that even while acting he could not stare angrily at a senior. There are just some boundaries that players don’t cross,” says the India captain.
Dietary constraints though were ignored on the occasion. Anup, as an avid fan of Rasmalai, was offered a challenge of eating four pieces in 30 seconds. Similarly, Rakesh was asked to eat a plate of papaya, his favourite fruit, in the same timeframe.

Having steadily opened up to the video cameras, there is a sense of excitement that greets players whenever they watch the shows. “Being on television is one thing, but to be applauded for all our efforts on the kabaddi mat on air makes things much more special for us all,” says Rakesh. “Us senior players are already established. So this is a welcome novelty for us,” he adds.

The show’s tone and tenor though is more Kapil Sharma, than Ian Chappel.

‘Golden-boy’ Rahul Chaudhari’s chocolate-boy good looks have only gotten him embroiled in rather embarrassing scenarios, almost always involving a bunch of giggly girls. In one episode the affable raider is made to walk the ramp with two young women clutching his arms on either side. He completes the task sheepishly, struggling to hide his discomfort. In another episode, he’s made to star in an impromptu ‘The Bachelor’ show, with three girls proposing to him.

“Rahul there’s a mall nearby. Will you join me for a cup of coffee?” one of them asks.

“I won’t have coffee but I’ll come with you,” Chaudhari responds as both the girl and the anchor blush unabashedly. Another teen blurted out what sounded like a matrimonial but leaned towards commodification: you’re smart, you’re intelligent, you’re fair.

A promising raider, the 22-year-old’s twisting-turning-escapes are good enough to attract a considerable following, even without asking him about his relationship status. Prompting him to break into a high-five — on cue — would make even his coach Raju Bhavsar, who had to splash water on his face in his photo shoot two decades ago, wonder, if kabaddi really needs these extraneous giggles, or the forced sweat and tears.

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