Cricket or Controversy

Glitz and glamour is back in Mumbai as Lakme Fashion Week rolls into the season of the Indian Premier League, or the IPL. The IPL is a Twenty20 cricket competition that includes 8 teams, or franchises, consisting of the top cricket players from all over the world. The third season of the IPL started in India on 12 March 2010 and is due to last over a period of 45 days. As mostly everything else in India, the IPL is very heavily influenced by Bollywood. Bollywood actresses Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zinta are both co-owners of IPL Teams, and Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan is the owner of the ever-popular Kolkata Knight Riders team. All 55 matches will be followed by an afterparty and fashion show, organized by Bollywood star Arjun Rampal and his wife. The IPL Opening Party included all of the main Bollywood stars, and randomly, Lionel Ritchie and Akon. I went to a match last Saturday and Bollywood music played almost the entire time as cheerleaders danced to the tunes and the crowd went wild singing the songs and cheering on their teams.

Also, like most things in India, the IPL season did not start off without its fair share of controversy, again Bollywood star oriented. None of the 11 Pakistani cricketers on offer were selected by franchises at the IPL player auction and were thus excluded from the third edition of the IPL tournament this year, despite the nation’s status as world Twenty20 champions. Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zinta claimed they were threatened into snubbing the Pakistani cricketers in the IPL auction, and rumors have blamed the threats as coming from Indian political group Shiv Sena, who also issued warnings against Australian players. The Shiv Sena is an aggressive far right political party in India that supports a Hindu Nationalist agenda. Whether it was the Shiv Sena or India-Pakistan tensions or visa quandaries remains to be determined, but it’s a sad situation when the talented captain of the world’s reigning Twenty20 cricket team does not even get selected for the IPL because of his nationality.

Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan vocally backed the Pakistani cricketers at the IPL and supported their selection in the tournament. The Shiv Sena Party promptly dubbed him a traitor and demanded that he apologize or his forthcoming film, My Name is Khan, would be banned in the city. They also set fire to the movie posters of the film around the city and staged large protests outside of cinema halls showing the movie. He did not apologize however, and despite an initial suspension of morning shows in the wake of Shiv Sena protests, the film was still released among heavy security at the cinema halls.

I often wondered why Bollywood stars don’t seem as active in politics or align themselves with causes as much as western stars seem to do. The controversy of the past few weeks however provided me with some clarity. Bollywood stars are so influential here that anything they say can cause violent uprisings and massive support or dissension among the people. I have heard that these stars often have to donate anonymously to philanthropic causes because they don’t want to be seen aligned with a specific organization due to the controversy it will inevitably create. As IPL season is underway, I look forward to taking part in a sport that is rooted deep in Indian history and pride, and I can only hope that the future holds a world where talent and meritocracy can supercede an unnecessary and fabricated tension between nations.

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