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An excerpt from Kabaddi by Nature by Vivek Chaudhary which charts the transformation of the nation’s true national game, its role in the freedom struggle and wider significance to Indians wherever they might be.
Located in midtown Manhattan, the Harvard Club is one of New York’s most regal and historical buildings. Its rich, ornate interiors are suffused with a rarefied air befitting an institution that was established more than 120 years ago by the alumni of one of the world’s premier universities. Membership is only open to them, making it one of the Big Apple’s most exclusive haunts that offers a fine variety of top-end dining options, luxurious accommodation, a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a library with a choice of 30,000 books. It is a place lost in time, steeped in history and exclusivity; it refuses to bow to the modern age. The club enforces a strict dress code with jeans (no fashionable tears) only permitted in what is appropriately called ‘the jeans room’. Mobile phones are only allowed in designated areas.
He was already at his table as Shankar breezed in and sat down opposite, as a deferential, white-gloved waiter surreptitiously busied around them, laying out napkins on laps, pouring mineral water and handing out menus. Shankar got down to business quickly and there was only one item on his agenda.
A deal had already been signed between Mashal and Star which both diplomatically now describe as ‘far from lucrative.’ But Shankar was convinced that Star Sports could do more, much more than just televise the Pro Kabaddi League and produce some associated programming.
And so, this is how two of India’s most powerful figures from the world of business and media who both feature on the list of the nation’s top 100 most influential people, found themselves seated face to face, discussing a sport as desi as dal or butter chicken, in the stately splendour of the Harvard Club. In truth, it was not a very long discussion; not the most important part of it at least, which Shankar tells me, was done and dusted even before starters arrived.
‘I said you want to do something with kabaddi and so do I. So let’s do something together.’
The two men shook hands. And now for the difficult bit.
‘I told Anand that I wanted to approach this whole thing very differently. Kabaddi would be given only one chance and we had to make it work from the very off. This was a sport that was totally out of the sight of civil society and urban India. It had been reduced to being a sport for the poor and destitute. A sport poor farmers would play after they returned from the fields. It was meant for people who couldn’t afford anything better. Anybody who was anybody in India didn’t take kabaddi seriously.
This was a sport that was totally out of the sight of civil society and urban India. It had been reduced to being a sport for the poor and destitute.
‘We had to make it big. We had to blow them away. We had to make it hip and cool. We had to make it a sport that urban India didn’t feel embarrassed to embrace. We had to make it aspirational. But we would have only one chance to do this. And if we got it wrong, we could have ended up as a laughing stock. We couldn’t afford to get this wrong and had to do everything in our power to get it right and make it as big as we could.’
Mahindra’s eyes lit up with disbelief when Shankar told him that he had already been to see the two men he refers to as his ‘bosses’ – Rupert Murdoch, whose powerful global media empire includes 21st Century Fox and his son James, chief executive of the company, to share with them what he had in mind for kabaddi.
‘It’s going to be the the second biggest to cricket in India,’ Shankar vowed to the Murdochs.
‘Have you been smoking something illegal like me?’ asked an incredulous Mahindra. Kabaddi? Second to cricket? Too preposterous even for an ‘out of the box’ risk-taker like him. But an unperturbed Shankar was driven by faith in his vision. He conceded that Star’s limited financial deal with Mashal did not leave much scope for this, offering further independent investment from its own coffers and substantially more production time and quality in return for a minority 25 per cent stake in the league.
How do you explain Kabaddi to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it? “It’s a bit like tag,” they told him. “And a bit like wrestling.”
The starters arrived but Mahindra was too busy digesting what Shankar had just served. He hadn’t envisaged a league on this scale or this level of investment; while there was no talk of specific figures he was savvy enough to understand that it was significantly more than what he had in mind. This was, after all, just a personal ‘punt’ that could go horribly wrong. But now it was his turn to catch his lunch partner by surprise. He offered Star a majority share in Mashal Sports, telling Shankar that they should be in the driving seat to ensure its success because he’s never been a ‘big fan’ of 50-50 partnerships.
Mahindra also professed that he was convinced that if any broadcaster could do something special with kabaddi, then it was Star. The two shook hands again. The deal had been struck.
‘It’s a bit like tag,’ Shankar told him. ‘And it’s a bit like wrestling.’ Rupert appeared confused. As did James. They had gathered at the headquarters of 21st Century Fox in Manhattan, not that far from the Harvard Club, for an insight into India’s most traditional sport.
‘It was very difficult,’ recalls Shankar of the meeting with the Murdochs prior to his lunch date with Mahindra. ‘How do you explain kabaddi to somebody who knows absolutely nothing about it?’
But try as they might, they just could not get their heads around kabaddi. An urbane man with a reputation for choosing his words carefully, there was, Shankar insisted, one thing that he could guarantee: he would make it India’s number two sport. It was not received with the same incredulity as it was by Mahindra over lunch, a few hours later; because if there was one thing the Murdochs could be sure of, it was that he was a cool head not given to idle boasts.
‘If that’s what you want to do, then go ahead,’ they told him, no doubt relieved that the conversation was moving on to matters easier for them to understand.
Now all Shankar needed to do was to deliver on his promise to the world’s most powerful media moguls.