Not many can claim to have studiously ignored a gorgeous Miss World. I have that unique distinction. What makes it even more intriguing is that it was intentional. This is how it happened.
Priyanka Chopra, Bollywood's diva, Junglee Billi and a Quantico super-cop rolled into one, paced up and down like a caged panther, feigning indifference to exasperating selfie-seekers. She fidgeted rather nervously at the Cricket Club of India, Mumbai, as grumpy-looking sports journalists trooped in, wearing bored expressions for another of those monotonous press conferences being promoted by cocky VC-funded dotcom entrepreneurs. Sports scribes had scathing contempt for the entertainment industry in those pre-IPL T20 days of the year 2000, unlike the intimate schmoozing of the current crop. There was palpable contempt for Bollywood in those match-fixing days.
We were about to announce our www.CricketNext.Com 's sponsorship of the second Asia XI versus Rest of the World XI match (the first ended in a last-ball thriller in Dhaka) in aid of the pristine Oval in London, England. Former British Prime Minister John Major was the chief architect of the entire initiative. Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Ajay Jadeja, Wasim Akram and several top international cricketers were part of the starry brigade. Since #Brexit did not exist then, outside investors got red-carpet treatment. They even served chicken tikka masala to evoke mushy sentiments from us over elaborate lunches in the exclusive dining room. IMG, the well known sports management firm, were the event managers. And Miss Chopra was the supposed magnet hired by IMG for attracting flash-lights and some precious media exposure. As a sponsor, all you calculated was the per column centimeter appearance of your press release in mainstream media, which your PR firm was forever "pushing". Rest assured, that push and pull effort is an exercise in futility. But in those days the dot coms (like the e-commerce Rasputins these days ) got precedence over the fuddy-duddy bricks-and-mortar types. So we were not complaining. The brand was more important than the balance-sheet.
Miss World, despite her stunning appearance, was only a runner-up choice to Sachin.
As the principal sponsors, we had been "promised" Sachin Tendulkar by IMG . Everyone wanted only Tendulkar. Sadly, Tendulkar only wanted very big bucks. He guaranteed huge photo-ops, extensive visibility (in fact, people forgot what they were actually supposed to principally cover) and brand salience. Basically, if Tendulkar said, "Log on only to www.CricketNext.com for latest updates etc etc," at least you were sure that some guys would get off www.Cricinfo.com , the Big Daddy of the internet universe. Miss World, despite her stunning appearance, was only a runner-up choice to Sachin. Still, the PR firm looked suitably starry-eyed and excited. Their broad grins seemed as wide as the Great Wall of China. Ms Chopra was all grace personified, even if visibly waiting for the ceremonies to end.
Yet, although Chopra was doubtlessly a more visually stunning spectacle than the stocky but diminutive Sachin, my hard-boiled grave-looking old-fogey eggheads in the editorial section of www.CricketNext.com were seething with anger. For them, it was virtually blasphemy that a newbie Miss World would grace the coveted trophy. Frankly, I did not believe them, as they shot surreptitious glances at Miss Piggy Chops even as they attempted to behave like faithful disciples of the Pope. With the finesse of a diplomatic ambassador I managed to suppress the proposed fake coup in my organization; it helps if you are the boss, certainly. "This is cricket, chief," they lamented, "not some fashion show." They ignored Chopra with immaculate professional disdain when formalities commenced. I think if they give up writing, my former colleagues have a great career ahead in tinsel-town. The turnout of journalists was somewhat disappointing, although we had a packed hall. Somehow all sponsors expect a gatecrash. Maybe the news had spread around that the two characters demanding attention were only a Chopra and a Jha.
"This is cricket, chief," [the journalists] lamented, "not some fashion show." They ignored Chopra with immaculate professional disdain...
Miss Chopra has stupendous presence, and though she was yet new to Bollywood, she oozed cool confidence. Almost like Tendulkar. Her height definitely gave me a clear inferiority complex. Of course, I did not want to overshadow her with my handsome, George Clooney-like debonair looks either, so I generally kept a safe distance from her. I think my wife approved of that decision. Chopra was accompanied by a middle-aged lady who looked like her aunt and agent combined. The aunty-agent looked at all men with suspicion, and thought the journalists were singularly stupid for acting pricey. I quietly agreed with her.
The press conference had the usual banalities. Everyone usually speaks from a script that's badly in need of some scissor-work in these launch pads. Priyanka briefly mentioned her passionate love for the game with her by-now famous 1000-watt smile. I am glad though that in her enthusiasm she did not try to explain the reverse-swing or give tips to Sourav Ganguly on facing short-pitched bowling. I knew then and there that she was destined for greatness as an actress. That was an awesome performance. I cracked some feeble jokes and perhaps was the only one who understood them given the silent response. Chopra has an earthy voice and is extremely articulate. I think secretly the sceptical, self-righteous press-wallahs were getting quite charmed by the dusky beauty. Someone asked me if CricketNext would sponsor the World Cup as well, and not aware of the full import of that, and of a dot com crash round the corner , I said, "Why not?" I hope that irrational intrepidity of mine is not available on any internet or You Tube archive.
Chopra has an infectious smile, and carries herself with effortless elan. Post the presser, she was constantly on the cell-phone, and looked like a happy woman in love. I don't think sports journalists quite like a woman in love glowing in the afternoon sun while pretending to be equally enamoured by cricket. Chopra faked it better than Sally in When Harry Met Sally, according to them. I could sense the National Awards nearby long before Fashion was ever made.
I stood next to Priyanka Chopra, Miss World, ignoring her sweet dazzling smiles and friendly demeanor with calculated defiance...
But the cameramen were sufficiently motivated to shoot her in isolation holding aloft the trophy in that famous 1983 Kapil Dev pose at Lord's. Both have that incandescent Pepsodent smile to match. My intrusive black beard was being ignored in the photo-shoot, but my PR firm shoved me violently in the frame; after all "you are the sponsor, sir", and Priyanka did not have Don, Krrish, Aitraaz and Mujhse Shaadi Karogi behind her as yet. Bajirao Mastani was generations away. So I stood next to Priyanka Chopra, Miss World, ignoring her sweet dazzling smiles and friendly demeanor with calculated defiance, like a stuffed up gas-bag, while the cameras clicked away. That was 16 years ago.
I now see Miss Chopra in multiple avatars, and everyone looks suitably besotted by her captivating personality, screen impact, versatile persona and global success. She is an inspirational success story, personifying self-determination. I don't know about my former sports-hack colleagues though. Perhaps in the IPL era, when Bollywood trumps the gladiators themselves and is wooed by BCCI on bent-knees, they have mellowed. As for me, if I were to ever sponsor a cricket tournament, I would never hold a press conference.
Also see on HuffPost: