An extraordinarily complex sport involving a group of burley, sweaty men hustling each other around a court may not be the kind of world immediately associated with one of Bollywood’s sultriest young starlets.
But then Sonakshi Sinha has always been something of a conundrum.
An actress of undeniable thespian ability – evidence by her impressively measured performance in ‘Lootera’ – Sinha, 27, has instead chosen to appear in a string of excruciatingly dull films playing little more than ornamental characters but which have, nevertheless, made plenty of money at the box office.
An actress who is also one of the most ‘bankable’ in Bollywood (precisely because of such insipid blockbusters as ‘Son of Sardar’, the ‘Dabbangg’ franchise etc) but who has steadfastly refused to succumb to the pressures of the ‘Size Zero’ brigade and proudly embraced her stunning curves.
Now, as many of her contemporaries prance around on the sidelines of the achingly fashionable world of the Indian Premier League, Sinha has thrown her support behind Kabaddi, the ancient sport that is part wrestling, part rugby and all Indian.
Sinha was revealed this week as co-owner of the ‘United Singhs’, a Birmingham-based team that will participate in the newly-established World Kabaddi League, an international tournament with 8 teams from Canada, the US, Pakistan and the UK and featuring some of the finest players in the world.
The World Kabaddi League (WKL) is an extension of India’s Pro Kabaddi League, the sport’s answer to the IPL, with corporate sponsors, shiny new venues, glaring lycra costumes, previously-unheard of wages for players and of course, high-profile team owners such as actor Abhishek Bachchan and UTV Pictures honcho Ronnie Screwvala.
The WKL will kick-off at London’s O2 arena this weekend with Sonakshi’s United Singhs taking on Vancouver side Punjab Thunders on Saturday followed by a match between London’s Khalsa Warriors against Toronto-based Yo Yo Tigers (owned by rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh).
Appropriately enough, there’ll be plenty of Bollywood on show at the O2 with Akshay Kumar – who co-owns the Khalsa Warriors – set to take to the stage alongside Sonakshi.
Sonakshi tells me that it’s not just the glamour quotient but the opportunity to take this uniquely Indian sport to a world stage that attracted her to the World Kabaddi League.
“I think I’ve always been the kind of person who’s liked to do things differently. Not walk the same path that everybody else is walking”, she says.
“If you’ve lived in India you would invariably have come across Kabaddi because it’s such an intrinsic part of our culture. I like the very earthy quality of the sport. And we’ve all played it at some point”.
It’s difficult to imagine the actress merely sitting on the sidelines, providing some glamour to the occasion, particularly given her sporty background.
“I jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the league because sports is in my blood. I played Basketball to a national level in India and Volleyball to state level and I’ve always been very interested in sports.
“And I truly believe that Kabaddi has the potential to do so much better than it is doing right now. It has the potential to rival the likes of cricket or football in India and beyond”.
In a country obsessed with cricket, a traditional – and consequently ‘unfashionable’ – sport such as Kabaddi required the boon of endorsement by the likes of Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan and Sonakshi Sinha, a fact that doesn’t escape the actress.
“Contrary to what many people would think, it’s not just the attraction of being a ‘team owner’. I think it’s vitally important for public figures to support initiatives like this, especially if it’s something that is growing and Kabaddi is definitely capturing people’s imagination.
“So it helps to have a familiar face representing the sport. It brings out a wider audience. I’m sure people are already running Google searches of the sport and doing their research so that immediately lifts awareness about the game”, Sinha says.
Sinha, who is extremely well-versed about the game, is confident that it will appeal to people across borders.
“It’s a really infectious sport, firstly because it’s a team sport, takes approximately 45 minutes and it’s a contact sport with a surprising amount of strategy involved so it’s the perfect spectator sport.
“It has always had all the right ingredients but hasn’t had the opportunity reach out to all these people before”.
Above all however, Sonakshi is well aware of the significance of such an important aspect of India’s culture reaching out to the world.
“India’s a major player on the world stage. It’s a big deal for all of us involved because of that. People everywhere are intrigued about what India has to offer and what better way to showcase our culture and heritage and our global prowess than to take this Indian tradition to the world?”
It’s not just Bollywood stars that the World Kabaddi League has attracted.
The sport’s significance in a globalized world has also attracted the likes of Pargat Singh, the Indian Hockey legend and one of his country’s pre-eminent sports administrators, to the League.
“One of the things we want to achieve with the WKL is to get more women and children watching Kabaddi”, Mr Singh tells me.
Broadcasting rights will be the key, Mr Singh believes.
Matches will be broadcast internationally on the global PTC Network and live streamed on YouTube.
“Until now, we have not had the global organizational set up to take Kabaddi to the masses and in a globalized world we need that kind of set up to make this sport popular. TV is the key here. Kabaddi is a game that we can popularize on TV. If we can reach people on TV then the spectator value that sponsors demand is there. We want Kabaddi to become a family spectator sport not a game just enjoyed by men. That’s one of the reasons we brought in the likes of Sonakshi and Akshay.”
And he hopes to emulate other truly international sports by taking Kabaddi out of its Indian bubble.
“We already have more than 130 clubs affiliated to the World Kabaddi League but it’s very fragmented and scattered. So it’s going to be a bit like Formula One. Taking the finest of these teams, taking it to a new city, a new audience every week so that it reaches as wide an audience as possible.”