May 30, 2006

Glam brigade of Indian sports

By H Natarajan

The megabucks world of modern sports is not just about sports per se. It’s a platform from where high-powered sportsperson project their personalities to influence the thinking of millions around the world and, in turn, make a huge difference to the bottom lines of corporates shelling out millions of dollars. Today, agents managing the players are as important as the coaches in life of a player. For many sportspersons, there is more money from endorsements than the game itself. Increasing the brand value of the player is the job of the agent, which means grooming them into megastars.

When Venus and Serena Williams take the court, they make as much style statements with their designer tennis attire as with their game. At major tennis events like the French Open and Wimbledon, newspapers devote copious space for the latest parade of fashion by the players.

The frenzied attention that Maria Sharapova draws from the media is not just for her tennis. The leggy Russian is the face on whom majors like Nike, Canon, Colgate-Palmolive, Motorola and a host of other companies have pinned their faith to explode their sales. Not surprisingly, Sharapova rakes in excess of $20 million annually, with her agents IMG turning down more than she is earning!

Anna Kournikova did not win a single major tournament, but her mass global appeal has helped rake millions of dollars by way of endorsements.

Over the years, more Indian sportsmen than sportswomen have attracted attention for their drop-dead looks - men like Tiger Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Salim Durrani, Farokh Engineer, Vijay Amritraj, Prakash Padukone, Roger Binny and Ravi Shastri in the past to Rahul Dravid, Ajay Jadeja, Mahesh Bhupathi, Viren Rasquinha, Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj Singh in the present, to name a few.

But when it comes to our sportswomen, the topic usually evokes general derision. Which is entirely unfair as there have been - and still are - quite a few stunningly beautiful women of substance.

Long before Sania Mirza arrived on the scene, another girl from the south attracted as much attention for her good looks and flamboyance as her ability as an top class athlete. Ashwini Nachappa, an arresting Coorgi beauty, was the anti-thesis of the shy and demure woman that the world perceived a typical Indian as. The sprinter made style statements like no other Indian – male or female – and her chic, figure-hugging fluorescent track wear earned the sobriquet of Flo-Jo of Indian athletics. The beauteous lass from Karnataka later made it to the silver screen as well. Ashwini was beauty with brains. And she spoke her mind. Today Ashwini is settled in domestic bliss but finds time to espouse causes of slum children and orphaned kids.

Two other Southern beauties in athletics were Shiny Wilson and Vandana Rao. Shiny was a quintessential beauty from Kerala. Be it in shorts as a top class athlete or in a sari as a devoted mother, she oozed class and charm, typing the Indian woman who balanced her life between career and domestic responsibilities.

Vandana remained in the shadows of PT Usha and Shiny as an athlete, but she was up there with the stunners of the track when it came to the glam quotient. Both girls went on to marry top international sportsmen – Shiny tied the knot with swimmer Cherian Wilson and Vandana married hockey player Joachim Carvalho.

One of the earliest Indian to make waves for her looks as well as her prowess as a sportswoman was Nafisa Ali. Fair, light-eyed and blessed with an infectious smile, the National swimming champion of the 70s knew that she had the looks to be among the most beautiful women of her times. She entered the Miss India and, not surprisingly, won it in 1976. Like Ashwini in a later era, Nafisa made her presence on the big screen, the notable among which was Junoon with Shashi Kapoor. Now a graying beauty, Nafisa has shown that there is as much inner beauty within her by supporting social causes like AIDS awareness.

Royal families of India have left their marks in many Indian sports, one such blue-blooded sportsperson is Bhuvaneshwari Kumari. “Candy,” as the statuesque princess of Alwar was known to her friends, was not just an aristocrat on the court but off it as well. Imperiously tall with strikingly good looks, she won the National women’s squash for 16 years in a row to be the queen of the game in India. The absence of competition among women made her make a foray into the men’s, which had to be renamed “Open category”. The story goes that one of her rivals in the Open category failed to show up, allegedly not wanting to lose at the hands of a lady and suffer life-long taunts. But even the no-show hurt the poor guy, who is now famously called “Mickey” – short for Mickey Mouse!

Candy’s domination came to an end with the rise of another beautiful girl from Mumbai – Misha Grewal. The stands would dramatically fill up when Misha took the court. She was the National Squash Champion for five consecutive years between 1992 and 1997 and rose to the No 27 in the world rankings. She was articulate and intelligent and it was no surprise when she was elected to the Board of International Squash Players’ Association. Misha quit squash and switched to a career as an NDTV anchor. She then made a foray into acting by debuting in Aamir Raza Husain’s The Legend of Ram Prince of India, where she plays the role of Sita. Misha is married to well know fashion designer Ashish Soni.

Following in the footsteps of Candy and Misha is another Coorgi, the tall Joshna Chinappa - the first Indian girl to win the British Junior Open under-19 title in 2003. Her strikingly good looks has made some people call her the Sania Mirza of Indian squash. But the great grand-daughter of Field Marshall KM Cariappa dismissed such comparisons by telling a national daily, “If people think I am the Sania Mirza of squash, then Sania is the Joshna Chinappa of tennis!” Joshna is a typical 19 year-old of modern Indian dressed in trendy jeans and T-shirt, sneakers, designer glares, highlighted hair, tattoos and a pierced navel. And one can be sure she would make waves in the years to come – on and off the court.

Anjali Bhagwat is the pretty face of the strong modern Indian woman who can be tough as any male in the big bad world out there and be a simple housewife at home. Behind the soft face and a shy smile is a champion made of steel. If you think guns are not for the average Gita, Meeta or Nita, think again: Anjali was the No 1 air rifle shooter in the world a few years back. Has her good looks not got offer to act in films? Yes, that offer did come before the last Olympics, but as of now, the pretty Maharashtrian with a disarming smile wants to just concentrate in shooting – with the gun!

One current Indian sportswoman who has everything going for her to make a career in films is the very tall and slim Anju Bobby George, winner of the long jump bronze at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Having seen Anju in action overseas, I can say without fear of contradiction that she stands tall, literally and figuratively, among all the beautiful women in the world track and field.

If Bela Pandit were to play her tennis two decades later she would have given Sania Mirza tough competition in the glam stakes. The petite Pune lass was a stunner on the court and like Kournikova and Gabriella Sabatini on the international circuit, her oomph generated a huge following that brought her fans flocking to her matches.

The last words have to be on Sania Mirza. No Indian sportsperson past or present has whipped the kind of frenzy Sania has. She is truly a product of the times when the media in the country – the visual media, in particular – has grown in humongous proportion. The “Sania Mania” has propelled the girl from Hyderabad in an elite league that has made her one of the biggest brands among Indian celebrities. Be it the nose pin, minis or her T-shirt, anything and everything she does and says become major news and, at times, subject for needless controversies. She now needs to move around with her security guards to ward off excited fans and maniacal threats.

Sania is seen as a rival for Sharapova in the beauty stakes, which was evident during their US Open clash, when an entire nation stayed awake to watch the two beauty queens of international women’s tennis.

With the likes of Sania, Anju, Ashwini and Joshna and many more mentioned above, Indian sportswoman have not lagged behind when to comes making style, fashion and beauty statements.

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