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Sleazy come, sleazy go
When Indian viewers tire of heavy duty scams, scandals and controversies that have dominated our political scene, they turn to the IPL for scams, scandals and controversies. The decibel levels in media are the same, the outrage on social media as relentless;the only difference being that the former gets decoded as politics and the latter as a twisted form of entertainment. This season has seen the IPL make some remarkable strides in taking the sleaze levels to a new high, making this one of the most entertaining years ever. To be sure, there were some really exciting games, with some incredibly close finishes, but that's not really front page stuff is it? As Harsha Bhogle has pointed out, in his own civilised way, the IPL seems to find itself on the front page more often than the game of cricket warrants.
And that might well be the problem - to consider the IPL to be about a game called cricket. It might be much more useful to think of it as an entertainment format with some cricketing content. This would explain what happens in and around the tournament as well silence those pernickety purists who keep whining about the loss of innocence of the game. When one thinks of it as an exciting new entertainment format, that stimulates television viewers, enthrals in-stadium spectators and provides diversion to salacious bystanders, by catering to each of these constituencies with something that they can relate to, then everything about the IPL begins to make sense. For that is how the IPL is constructed, in reverse, beginning with the interests of the owners and advertisers and working its way down to the consumer, ensuring that there is something available for everyone. There has been some talk of the IPL ushering in the club format in cricket but it is clear the BCCI is not really interested in this. Had the sport been important it would not be reshuffling teams ever so often, purely for the commercial gains of the franchise owners.
For the few cricket buffs, there is the game itself and the innovations that a new format begets;this lot can talk feelingly about new talent that gets a chance to shine on a stage as significant as this one and discuss the fillip to the long-term prospects of Indian cricket. For the consumer-spectator who thinks of cricket as a collage of boundaries and wickets with boring stuff in-between, there are more than enough of those, helpfully monitored by a counter that keeps track. For the uninitiated attracted by all the noise, in the stadium there are DJs and cheerleaders, and at home, we have attractive women on television wearing clothes that put them at grave risk of catching a cold, knee upwards, and yes, we also have Navjot Singh Sidhu. And for all the rest, an elaborate menu consisting of film star tantrums, drug busts, moronic statements on twitter by celebrity tycoons and sting operations has been laid out to keep interest levels at an all-time high.
Given its nature, it is natural for the IPL to become a lightning rod for everything else that happens outside it. It acts as a heightened stage on which middle-class consumerist society plays out its fantasies, anxieties and conflicts. Every popular activity is a text of sorts in which the prevailing concerns of the day find expression but the IPL by virtue of the heightened nature of the stimulation it provides, is a particularly articulate site of expression. Some of the key 'highlights' of this season give evidence of this;each in its own way shedding light on some larger issues.
Take the Luke Pommersbach molestation episode for instance. A woman (American, as media insists on telling us again and again, begging the question of what the reaction would have been if she had been labelled as Indian) alleges that after a post-match party, a cricketer attempted to molest her and assaulted her fiancê. The son of the franchise owner jumps in with some highly insensitive remarks on social media, the media tamasha has a field day figuring out the antecedents of the complainants and the status of their relationship till a deal is struck, the case is dropped and everyone is friends again. The media packs up its bags and moves on to the next dose of entertainment. When an alleged molestation victim settles with the person she accused and agrees to be photographed, shaking his hand, we know that nothing in the world is troublesome enough to elude a cash settlement. The more serious issues are forgotten, the underlying nature of the culture around the tournament which sees women as sexual commodities, and where money can buy anything - immunity from being stupid as well the ability to walk away free after allegedly molesting someone.
Or take the strong-arm tactics used by the BCCI in denying payment to those former cricketers that have been critical of the IPL. The others have been paid hush money, while those with the temerity to criticise the board have visibly been left out to dry. The board's behaviour, in flouting the norms of natural justice, it must be said, is entirely in keeping with how it has behaved overall;in no other major sport in the world do we see such obvious brazen conflicts of interest play out for such a long time without attracting some penalty. The IPL is the love child of the passionate affair some rich and powerful people have had with each other, and it is clear that only the complicit are welcome on the gravy train. That no one really protests and that the so-called sports minister is left huffing and puffing at the doors of the board without making any headway is a sign of the times.
Which is why, only the foolhardy would bet on any action being taken as a result of the sting operation carried out by a news channel that hinted at the possibility of spot fixing and seemingly established the prevalence of unaccounted-for money being paid by franchises on the side. Like the IPL, the sting was an entertainment product, one which has served its purpose. Like the earlier investigations into the tournament that have gone nowhere, this too will in all likelihood peter out as the event draws to a close.
In an ironical way, the action taken by the MCA against Shah Rukh Khan (such as it is), brings out the extent to which, so far, the league has pandered to any and every need of the franchise owners. We see them sprawled in feudal splendour on their overstuffed sofas next to the ground twirling their imaginary moustaches and showering benediction on the television cameras. We see them dressed in their designer shades, plotting strategy while buying athletes in the only public auction of its kind in a sporting event anywhere in the world - an auction where the player has no say in deciding which team he plays for, again a unique achievement for the IPL. We see them inspiring their sides and giving them vital cricketing gyaan in slow motion in their ads that pepper the telecast. We see them gambol on the field before and after (on the odd occasion even during) the matches. No wonder Shah Rukh Khan was taken by surprise by someone saying no to him;nothing in tournament's history had prepared him for anything else.
What is striking is the noisy glee with which these infractions, some serious and others trifling, are uncovered and with what serene equanimity they are forgotten. Every incident is consumed for itself, rather than as a sign of a deeper problem. As a result, no fundamental changes are ever demanded or brought about in spite of all that seems to be going wrong on the surface. The underlying assumptions seem impossible to dislodge - that the spectacle must go on unhindered, that the rich will always have their way, that all that the viewers need is stimulation, whatever be its source.
The beauty of it is that since the IPL has never been imagined as being an exercise in sporting purity and excellence, every masala bit adds to its allure, at least in the short run. The brand IPL gains from everything that would have sullied the brand called cricket. It helps that the cricketing format used - that of 20 overs - resonates strongly with an era where time is scarce and attention spans are fleeting. It also helps that it exists at a time when experiences become consumable by shaving off whatever troublesome nuance they might possess.
But cricket might still have the last laugh. The trouble with an entertainment format, no matter how seductive and stimulating, is that it stales at some point. It begins with a need to keep innovating and providing surprises, but eventually ends up being overtaken by a newer and more dazzling spectacle. As a game, when evaluated from the vantage point of those not really interested in cricket, the game does not have that many different possible outcomes - there are only so many ways to provide stimulation through the sport. The IPL is gradually making us immune to all the spectacles in the game - exciting catches, spectacular fielding, massive sixes and very tight finishes. And as an entertainment format, it has already thrown everything available at us. What new stunt can they pull to keep our interest going, to keep the viewership from flagging? On the other hand, successful sporting formats don't need to ask this question. Year after year the fans come drawn by the sport. The beauty of sport is that it does not depend on fickle spectators be seduced over and over again to follow it, but is assured of passionate believers that come because they have to.
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