AHMEDABAD - Imagine watching a sport intently, week in, week out. Now imagine watching it live, not for one day, not even two days, but for weeks at a stretch. Now imagine being a part of an 'army' of fans that get to follow their favourite game, see - and if you're lucky, even meet - the larger-than-life players they've followed in flesh... for free, like you're a part of the team too?
Wait, for free? With the team? That's a little difficult to even imagine, isn't it?
Not for Dnyanada Khaladkar, a 20-year-old student from Pune. Wearing a T-shirt bearing the words 'Super Fan' and a traditional Maharashtrian turban at the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) Season 7 final, she proudly announced, "I've been watching every single match of my home leg in Pune since the last three years." She was never a fan of sport, but one chance match with her sister "changed my life forever," she beams.
Recalling her first ever match, she says, "My sister plays kabaddi and wanted to watch a game starring the Pune team (Puneri Paltan). I just randomly tagged along." As time passed, Dnyanada, without realising it, began to get involved in the match. Then Pune captain Ajay Thakur and his game turned her into a loyal fan in one go. "I couldn't stop myself from shouting and hooting," she says. "The excitement was palpable."
It's true, too. Watching a live PKL match has become extremely consumer-friendly. The marketing and presentation is such that one can't help but get involved. At the EKA Arena by TransStadia in Ahmedabad too, several first-time watchers went out singing, 'Dus kabaddi, nau kabaddi, aath kabaddi, saath... - the constant countdown one hears whenever a player has the last 10 seconds of raiding time left. "It's so unbelievably organised," says Dnyanada. "You don't just watch a game here, you almost play it along," she says.
Dnyanada's sentiments are shared by 29-year-old Mehul Mandaliya from Dahanu, a coastal town in Maharashtra, almost 130 km from Mumbai. "I travel from Dahanu to Mumbai, for three hours in a local train, to watch the home leg of U Mumba," he says. "I haven't missed a single home leg match since Season 1."
Mehul's story, although a little different from Dnyanada's, finds similarity in a chance meeting with the PKL. He was studying in Mumbai in 2014 when some marketers approached him and his friends. "Some people were promoting the league around that time when they asked us to come and attend it once for free," he says. He then attended a U Mumba match "and soon enough, I was hooked. I've never attended a free match since," he says.
The biggest reason for following the PKL is its unpredictability. "You never know where it's going to go, how it's going to end," he says. "The format, the execution is so good, you're bound to get hooked." Mehul himself played kabaddi as a child but didn't get the opportunity to pursue it. "I wanted to be a sportsperson, but at least now watching this sport do so well makes me feel happy," he says.
Being such ardent fans didn't come easy to Dnyanada or Mehul. The more they attended matches, the more their families went against them. "Throughout those six days, I used to take a train at around 3PM every afternoon and used to reach the venue early," Mehul says. "Once the match used to end, I would take the 11PM train back home and reach around 2AM. My parents used to be furious and would ask me to just stay back in the stadium itself," he laughs. Over the years, the anger seems to have subsided. "I think they are now just used to it, they know I'll go, no matter what," he says.
"My father used to scold me so much," Dnyanada says. "He always used to tell me to not spend so much and just follow the league on television." She understood the concern was legitimate, too. In order to watch her favourite players up close from the best seats, "the cost would come up to 4000 rupees per day," she confesses. A complete home leg comprised up to six days of play, which would total up to Rs. 24,000. "And so, I started saving up," she smiles. "Whatever money I used to get as pocket money, as gifts, I would save up throughout the year for these six days. I stopped spending completely, just to save up enough money for the PKL."
However, their fandom this year bore fruit as they were selected for the PKL Fan Army, an initiative by the PKL to acknowledge their biggest fans. They applied online, "posted and tweeted on social media continuously," and, after a little interview, it was official. This year, both Mehul and Dnyanada were two of the fans who were sponsored by the league to travel along with them. "This has been a year where all my savings are still locked inside my cupboard. I haven't had to even touch them thanks to the Fan Army," Dnyanada says.
Dnyanada, in fact, also got the opportunity to meet her favourite player, Girish Maruti Ernak. "His tackles are like a roller coaster ride," she says. "He's so quick that even you don't realise just how he did it." The team recognised her constant presence in their matches and offered to have her meet the team. "I ran to them and the first thing I did was to meet Girish and tell him how big a fan I was," she says.
Mehul, on the other hand, got the chance to meet U Mumba owner Ronnie Screwvala, who got "a t-shirt autographed by the entire team once he got to know I've been coming since Season 1," he says.
When asked if they continue to follow the PKL with the same gusto even when their teams aren't playing the final, they both nod confidently as Dnyanada adds, "It's ultimately about the game. Teams are important, definitely. But it's the love for the game that stands tall in the end.
"The kind of thrill PKL and kabaddi gives me, I don't think anything else ever can. If given a chance, I wouldn't mind doing it all over again."
Their favourite teams may not have been in the final, but Dnyanada and Mehul still had a team to support, as they were rooting for the Bengal Warriors. It's safe to say neither of them would have been disappointed with the result.