The involvement of some of Bollywood’s biggest stars in the Indian Premier League (IPL) means the world’s best one-day cricketers are not the only draw when the competition starts this weekend.
Leading figures in India’s Hindi-language film industry are closely involved in the eight teams who will battle it out for Twenty20 supremacy in South Africa from Saturday.
Top actor-producer Shahrukh Khan part-owns Kolkata Knight Riders, actress Preity Zinta has a stake in King’s XI Punjab and fellow star Shilpa Shetty has taken a share in defending champions Rajasthan Royals.
Action hero Akshay Kumar is brand ambassador for Delhi Daredevils, movie hearthrob Hrithik Roshan is flying the flag for the Mumbai Indians, while screen siren Katrina Kaif is supporting the Bangalore Royal Challengers.
Top performers and music directors have also got in on the act, producing music videos for many of the teams that owe much to Bollywood’s song and dance routine tradition.
In their oversized filmstar sunglasses and designer clothes, Shetty, Zinta and Kaif added much-needed glamour to the gathering of corporate suits at the auction for new players in the resort state of Goa earlier this year.
For the actors, many of whom who have been making the rounds at promotional events before the start of IPL’s second season, merging cricket and film makes perfect sense given the fanatical following that both have on the subcontinent.
“Cricket is not a sport in our country, it’s a religion,” said Shetty in February after she and her partner, British Asian businessman Raj Kundra, bought a 16-million-dollar stake in the Rajasthan Royals.
“I am very passionate about cricket and who better to invest in than the current reigning IPL champions. It completes the success story for the IPL team by merging with Bollywood.”
Shahrukh Khan, who stumped up 75 million dollars with his business partners for the Knight Riders franchise, said he got involved to help promote sport as a profitiable career option for young people.
“For me, it will be great to change the lives of youngsters who need to go out and channel their youthful aggression for good purposes rather than putting it to destructive use,” he said.
But with the IPL as much a commercial as a sporting exercise, the glitzy, fast-paced tournament tempts stars and corporate firms alike with the promise of big bucks.
“They (Bollywood stars) have got involved because people today are not just actors. They want to be entrepreneurs. They want to explore all business avenues and not just the film industry,” film critic Taran Adarsh told AFP.
“The fact that they’re coming together for the second time means that the first time was lucrative for them.”
Indian cricket’s governing body made nearly 1.75 billion dollars from the sale of television rights, 108 million dollars from promotion and about 700 million from franchises, according to cricinfo.com.
About 240 million dollars in sponsorship are riding on the event this year alone, India’s Economic Times newspaper said last month.
For Kundra, using Shetty’s “tremendous” following in Britain, Australia and South Africa is another way of making Rajasthan Royals a global sporting brand.
“Bollywood joining cricket is about cricket’s undersold potential,” he said.
Ironically, the only loser could be Indian cinema itself: multiplex owners – already hit by a producers’ strike over box office takings – fear empty theatres through April and May as millions tune in to the IPL instead.