During the 1990s, the Indian media would often speak of a thickening “nexus” between crime and politics, and Bollywood, and business, and so on. It was a maddeningly conspiratorial term, ominous sounding and yet vaguely scientific, but it also perfectly describes the symbiotic relationship that Bollywood and the IPL have developed of late.
Anyone following Shah Rukh Khan’s career of late will know what shrewd marketing ploys the man has employed to buttress his own popularity, showing up early and often to any location featuring the Indian team (and, some said, earning the BCCI’s ire). With the IPL, however, the connection has become more explicit and mature: actors and actresses use cricket to heighten their popularity, while cricket franchises use celebrities’ brand names to inspire loyalty among fans who, ordinarily wouldn’t care one way or the other about Kolkata or Chennai’s scorecards.
It’s a win-win for the involved stars, but it’s still opportunistic and shady, not to mention a distraction from the real match at hand. The question of “branding” cricket obscures the actual cricket as cricketers — at least the Indians — become stars first, and players second. On endorsements everywhere, Indian cricketers spill into the Indian consciousness again and again, and I worry that the link between the sport and its audience will become mediated by something other than simply viewing a player’s bat hit another player’s ball. To some extent, that’s been this blog’s thesis all along (that cricket is more than cricket), but we’re talking about more than culture and history here. We’re talking manipulation. We used to use cricket as a focal point for our cultural neuroses, but now, the process has reversed itself, with cricket deciding what’s important to us. In other words, our cricketers have become media phenomenons, rather than sportsmen.
There are two residual dangers involved:
The rampant “celebritification” helps both business and cricket, but it can cut both ways as well: first, cricketers will find themselves increasingly straitjacketed into specific frames, which their style of play and on-field behavior will need to solidify (Dravid being “The Wall,” i.e., Mr. Reliable; Yuvraj Singh being showy and aggressive, and so on).
Of course, as we all saw during the India-South Africa Test series, different pitches and situations call for different tactics and attitudes. Some players have shown remarkable agility — M.S. Dhoni moving from big-hitter to staid run-accumulator — but others, like Yuvraj, have spectacularly failed to move fluidly from the one-day arena to the Test context, and don’t even mention the weird vortex of nationalist pride and buffonery that Harbhajan Singh finds himself stuck in.
My point is that ideally, players’ styles should decide how they are branded, but brands are very specific and one-note messages, and they can, as countless celebrities have found out in other contexts, end up deciding players’ own fate. It’s amazing that no one has yet made the link between higher incidents of sledging with the perceived blips in national popularity; that famous picture of Harbhajan holding up the words, “Singh is King” written on the Indian tricolor explained more than any other factor what sledgers are really after: fame, notoriety, and public rapture.
Secondly, when Bollywood brings its own vast array of complex and deeply emotional images to Indian cricket, it’s adding on to an already potent cultural cocktail. Watching Shah Rukh Khan strut his stuff for the Kolkota Riders — declaring himself “too hot, too cool” — brought the typical masculine star’s elements to the fore of cricket: macho bravado; over-stylistic struts; the need for “attitood” and conflict (with the “too lame, too loser” contingent, I assume). This might not be a necessarily bad thing, but again, we’re seeing cricket lose control of its own image, as other non-players (actors, of all things!) get to decide cricket’s appearance. The colonial legacy; the racial issues; the national honor — that’s all still there, but it’s getting manipulated with this other branding, as a whole assorted cast not only seeks to feed on cricket (as politicians have always done at presentation ceremonies), but change its meaning as well.
And that’s what’s worrying: we’re moving from a time when on-field events tapped into deep-seated triggers of the pubic consciousness to another more, well, conspiracy-like moment where an unholy nexus of businessmen, stars, and brand managers begin to tell Indian fans just what cricket is all about. Cricket: coming to a theater near you.