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The Most Ancient Game

Indian entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala rose from humble origins to build a cable TV and entertainment empire in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies

SHABEER BAPU, THE STAR RAIDER ON MUMBAI’S PROFESSIONAL KABADDI TEAM, U Mumba, leapt into the opposition’s half of the court with just a minute remaining in the 40-minute match against the Bengaluru Bulls from Bangalore. In the season’s final contest, Mumbai held a narrow three-point lead. Earlier in the match, Bapu had fractured his forearm during a violent raid, and now he was playing through the pain. Defenders aimed to prevent him from either gaining an extra point for crossing the finish line or scrambling back to safety in U Mumba territory. Bapu slipped through one defenders tackle, his body folding like a switchblade, and then another.

Television cameras zoomed in on the sweat-streaked face of U Mumba owner Rohinton “Ronnie” Screwvala. Screwvala’s wide-open eyes were fixed on Bapu as if one blink could jinx the game. Bapu crouched low and lunged through the air to the finishing line to score the final point. Screwvala, not prone to showing his emotions in other contexts, threw his hands up in the air and broke into a fit of laughter. U Mumba was the champion of the Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League’s second season.

The vast majority of Americans have never heard of kabaddi. But that night in August 2015, 41 million Indian viewers watched the ancient sport. By comparison, when the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in game five of the 2015.

World Series, a paltry 17.2 million people were watching. India is a society in transition, a country at the intersection of new and old, of urban and rural, of hope and apathy. Mumbai, the financial capital where Screwvala grew up, is a jumble of skyscrapers and slums, a city dizzy with aspiration but hampered by economic inequity. Kabaddi also embodies these paradoxes. Over the past three decades, as urbanization and internal migration transformed the Indian economy, the gamewas widely seen as an antiquated village tradition in which barechested, barefoot men jostled in sandpits before a dwindling crowd—a nostalgic relic of an agricultural past.

But in recent years, India has re-embraced kabaddi. The sport dominates Indian prime-time television and Bollywood celebrities are often in attendance at the matches. The players, most of whom grew up juggling temp jobs such as selling cigarettes, working as waiters and providing foot massages, now stay in luxury hotels and are national celebrities with nick-names like Flying Machine, Mr. Do or Die and Captain Cool. Screwvala wants pro kabaddi to be a bridge between India’s agrarian past and its cosmopolitan future. “We need to be a sporting nation,” he says. Right now, “there is only one sport”— cricket, a colonial import from Britain. In a country of 1.3 billion people, “how can we have only one sport?” Kabaddi is an enormous business opportunity for Screwvala. But it’s also a conscious attempt to balance British colonial culture and shape a modern Indian identity.

SCREWVALA, NOW 53, decided he wanted to become an entrepreneur at age 20. “I was very clear I wanted to do something on my own,” he says. Screwvala has wideset eyes, a full smile and a friendly demeanor. His speech, earnest and fast-paced, is sprinkled with practiced lines that remind a listener that Screwvala started his professional life as a theater actor. When illustrating how he pioneered cable television in India, built a toothbrush manufacturing operation, created a media and entertainment conglomerate and is now running a kabaddi team, Screwvala favors buzzwords and phrases like “disruptive,” “obsession,” “cutting through the clutter” and “breaking molds.”

Screwvala studied at the prestigious Cathedral & John Connon School, an Anglican private school founded by John Harding, bishop of Mumbai, in 1860. The school’s alumni include the founder of Pakistan; a Pakistani prime minister; Ratan Tata, former head of the multinational conglomerate Tata Group; and novelist Salman Rushdie. Screwvala’s father was the managing director of the Indian subsidiary of JL Morison, a British company that makes personal healthcare products. Screwvala says that his family was nonetheless lower-middle class, and he was not one of the affluent students at Cathedral and John Connon. “Every opportunity had to be created.”

Screwvala excelled in school and fell in love with the theater. He played Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Cassio in Othello, among other roles, often opposite Mumbai theatrical legends such as Pearl Padamsee. But at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai, Screwvala didn’t feel the same zest for learning he had known in his early years. “A sense of arrogance when you do exceptionally well at school had crept in,” he admits. “I failed my first year of college. It was a wake-up call.” Screwvala’s father had wanted him to become an accountant. “All parents look for what is best for their kids, and mostly it’s the safer options of life,” Screwvala explains. “I was a clear loner when it came to wanting to be a first-generation entrepreneur.”

IN THE EARLY 1980’s, when Screwvala was still dabbling in theater, he started hosting TV shows for Doordarshan, the conservative, state-run broadcaster that was then the only television channel in India. Screwvala hosted a game show, Contact, and a children’s educational program called The Mathemagic Show. But Screwvala, who had traveled abroad as a student, wondered about the possibility of competing with India’s single, sepia-toned channel. So, in a basement in southern Mumbai, he set up a control room to provide programming to a potential base of wealthy subscribers who lived in Cuffe Parade, a trendy cluster of skyscrapers by the Arabian Sea. Indian law stipulated that cables couldn’t cross municipal roads, so Screwvala convinced the residents to allow him to install pipes up to their living rooms. “It was exciting, but it took a long time for it to catch on,” Screwvala says. “It had no takers for almost a year.”

Programming on Screwvala’s channel, called Network, was spotty, relying heavily on American fare such as Star Trek, Dallas and Mickey Mouse cartoons, all played from VCRs. Screens would go blank for seconds when the tapes were changed to start a new program, and licensing was casual at best. Still, by the company’s second year, Screwvala had garnered about 10,000 subscribers paying about 200 rupees ($3) a month. But growth this way was hard, so Screwvala began approaching hotels, many of which hadn’t even considered the idea of introducing cable television into rooms. Screwvala convinced hotel managers that if they sent cable to guest rooms, they could promote themselves through an advertorial channel. To get cheap televisions in large quantities, he imported TV kits from China. At the end of its second year, Screwvala’s company had 1 million subscribers.

Screwvala would exit the cable business in the early 1990s because, as he describes it, “the competitive environment had gone quite bonkers”—India’s cable market was so unregulated, cables routinely crisscrossed on municipal roads. At about the same time, Screwvala started UTV, a production company— the name stood for United Television. UTV made ads and documentaries, dubbed Disney cartoons and movies, produced TV shows and video games, and eventually startedproducing Bollywood films and financing foreign movies, including M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Foreign investors, including Rupert Murdoch and Disney, sensed the opportunity—Screwvala wanted UTV to be the Indian equivalent of a classic Hollywood studio like Warner Bros. or MGM—and flocked to the company.

In 2012, Disney would buy the part of UTV that it didn’t already own, valuing the company at $1.4 billion. Screwvala carried on as managing director of the combined company until the end of 2013. “I’m not the best person to execute somebody else’s vision,” he says. Screwvala left Disney without a project, but he did have a hunch: Kabaddi, he thought, was an underappreciated national asset. What it needed was a league to professionalize, monetize and promote the sport. At about the same time, Screwvala’s wife, Zarina, found herself at a dinner table with Anand Mahindra, chairman of the Mahindra Group, a conglomerate with interests in agriculture and automobiles, who had already been working for more than a year to co-found a professional kabaddi league. “There were no shortage of people thinking this was a crazy idea,” Mahindra says. But that night at dinner, Zarina told Mahindra that “Ronnie is mad enough to do it.”

Restless after his departure from Disney, Screwvala immediately agreed to invest in a team. He was convinced that kabaddi was primed for a make-over: “Give it that glamour quotient, work with the team members, take them off the sand and put them on a mat—clean up the sport and dress it up”—the potential was there. “Indians love action,” Screwvala adds, and kabaddi is “a gladiator sport.”

A PRO KABADDI LEAGUE MATCH LASTS 40 MINUTES and is played on a rectangular court divided in the center, like a tennis court without a net. Two teams of seven men take turns sending a raider into the opposing team’s territory. The raider’s purpose is to tag opponents, called antis, and return home to his court within 30 seconds. There’s a twist: Using only one breath, he must be chanting “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi” throughout the attack. Each tagged anti is worth one point, and if the raider makes it back to his side of the court, the tagged antis must leave the court. If the raider stops chanting, the opposing team gets a point and a chance to raid. And if the raider does not return home within 30 seconds, the antis win the raid and get a chance to attack. The idea is to win as many points as possible before time expires.

Most of the Indian sports that were popular from the 19th century through the first half of the 20th—basically, cricket and soccer—were introduced by the British, according to Ronojoy Sen, author of the 2015 book Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India. Still, kabaddi—the word has no meaning other than to refer to the game— received recognition from the Indian government in 1918, and in 1921 devotees created a standard framework of kabaddi rules. With the formalization of rules, Sen says, promoters “felt that kabaddi could take on other organized, Western sports.” Among the most passionate proponents were Hindu nationalist groups that reviled colonial culture. Exhibition matches were played at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and they have been a staple at the Asian Games since they were first held in 1951. In 1963, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru opened a kabaddi tournament by saying that “kabaddi helps in building sturdy men,” in contrast to games that were seen as primarily for the effete elite, like cricket.

The raider’s purpose is to tag opponents and return home to his court. There’s a twist: using only one breath, he must be chanting “Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi” throughout the attack.

The origins of kabaddi date to an episode in the 1.8 million-word epic poem Mahabharata (which contains the Bhagavad Gita, the core text of Hinduism), according to J. S. Gehlot, president of the International Kabaddi Federation, which governs the sport in 31 predominantly South and Central Asian countries. The text of the Mahabharata dates back to the fifth century BC, but the story might go back as far as 900 BC. It involves a mythic battle in which the warrior Abhimanyu led his army, the Pandavas, against their enemy the Kauravas. The Kauravas created a battle formation called the Chakravyuha, a constantly whirling maze of seven ranks of soldiers. The weakest Kaurava soldiers fought on the first line of the formation, while the strongest fought at the seventh, innermost tier. The only way to defeat this seven-tiered defense was to fight to the center of it, destroying its core, then break back out.

On the 13th day of the war, the 16-year-old Abhimanyu attempted to do just that. But as he fought his way deep into the formation, he grew increasingly tired, while his opponents became quicker, stronger and more deadly. Reaching the center, he was encircled and died when an enemy prince crushed his skull with a mace.

Kabaddi’s rules model Abhimanyu’s mythic battle against the Chakravyuha formation. While kabaddi raiders often leap and quickly strike with their hands or lunge with a kick to tag antis, the defenders hold hands to encircle the raider. If he draws too close, the defenders will do everything from tackling to throwing to pinning to prevent the raider from escaping. Exacerbating the challenge for the raider, the act of constantly chanting “kabaddi” saps his energy as he tries to tag his seven opponents—just as Abhimanyu encountered increasingly powerful soldiers while fighting through the Chakravyuha. Scholars aren’t sure exactly when the game was created. But Buddhist texts, newer than the Mahabharata, recount that Gautama Buddha, who founded Buddhism and lived sometime between 400 and 600 BC, played kabaddi. For a Christian, it’d be like finding out that Jesus played baseball. If the historical record is accurate, the chronology probably makes kabaddi the oldest continually played team sport in the world.

THE MODERN FORM of kabaddi began in 2006 when Charu Sharma, a sports commentator and the brother-in-law of Anand Mahindra, was asked to provide commentary for a kabaddi exhibition match at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. To learn about the game, Sharma began attending local tournaments. “What I discovered was a spectacularly popular, powerful Indian game,” Sharma says now. Even when they were only played on street corners, kabaddi matches drew large and passionate crowds. “It is such a powerful and attractive sport to watch,” Sharma says. “Yet despite its immense popularity, kabaddi seemed to have been driven underground.” Tickets to kabaddi matches at the Doha Asian Games, however, sold out rapidly, thanks to the large population of South Asian expat workers in Qatar. “You just couldn’t get a seat,” Sharma recalls. “And I’m thinking, why is it that in our own country, the sport is not even looked at?”

After returning to Mumbai, Sharma spoke to Mahindra about the idea of starting a professional kabaddi league. “I said, ‘Anand, you are known for your love for all things Indian. Let’s take this sport forward.’” Like Screwvala, Mahindra attended an urban, Protestant school whose students played cricket, soccer and tennis. “It would be fun to create a league around an old Indian game in the shadows,” he recalls thinking at the time. But the two men made little progress until 2010, when Sharma delivered the kabaddi play-by-play for the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. He returned to Mumbai with an even greater sense of urgency. “I told Anand, ‘Enough—let’s just do it.” The timing was auspicious; a revival of national spirit was sweeping India, and the patriotic energy was palpable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a pro-business politician with deep ties to Hindu nationalist causes, would win the 2014 national elections with a convincing mandate. With Modi’s rise to power, the nascent pro kabaddi effort saw “obvious benefits in the change of climate,” Mahindra says. Adds Sharma, “People are proud to be Indian, rather than the post-colonial period of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s , when we were still the beaten lot.”

“It is such a powerful and attractive sport to watch, yet despite it’s immense popularity, kabaddi seemed to have been driven underground.”

Sharma and Mahindra started developing Mashal Sports, the company that now owns the league. Pro Kabaddi would have eight teams, each representing a major Indian city and each playing 60 matches a season. The vision was to infuse the sport with Bollywood glamour and get Indian youth, still largely preoccupied with cricket and soccer, excited about kabaddi. “We need the nation to play kabaddi,” Screwvala explains. “How do we create an ecosystem where kabaddi can be a career option?” One way was to market traditionally overlooked kabaddi players as national celebrities, which Mashal does. “I think everyone was quite confident that this would work, but it would take two to three years,” Screwvala says. It took less time than that. Sixty-six million viewers watched the inaugural match between U Mumba and the Jaipur Pink Panthers in July 2014. In that first season, the league reportedly attracted 435 million viewers over the course of 37 days, around 12 million per match—three times the number of Indians who watched the 2014 World Cup and second only to the Indian Premier League, a cricket series, which drew 552 million viewers that year.

By the Pro Kabaddi League’s second season, Screwvala says, U Mumba was profitable. Viewership was up 56 percent from the prior year, and while the first season was broadcast with little advertising, the second attracted electronics brands, banks, soft drinks and underwear brands, and generated ad revenue of roughly 50 crore rupees (around $7.5 million)—not much by U.S. standards, but huge for an Indian sport in only its second year. Kabaddi is popular in part because it appeals to a demographic that had been largely aloof to Indian sports entertainment: women, who account for 39 percent of the viewership. “I think it’s because the boys are hot,” Screwvala says. “When it’s quite cooking, and the boys are grappling, they’re in tight shirts….Nothing obscene about it, just nice and sexy.” Women increasingly play the game as well, though not yet professionally.

Pro Kabaddi’s success has catapulted players, most of them men from humble backgrounds, into the world of stardom. Vishal Mane, a defender for U Mumba, routinely finds himself surrounded by fans who see him on TV. Parents show up at his doorstep with their boys, asking what they can do to make their children future kabaddi stars. “They want autographs, selfies, advice, anything I can give them,” he says. Mane, 30, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Mumbai, managing his family’s tobacco shop and pursuing kabaddi as a hobby. At 17, he dropped out of college to take a railroad job; with his muscular build, his role was to intimidate ticketless travelers and help the ticket checker collect fines. “For kabaddi, you need a real vengeance,” he says. “I have plenty of that.” But offthe court, Mane is content. “What does a man want from life?” he says. “Two things—money and fame. I have both because of U Mumba.” He gives much of the credit to Screwvala. “He also came from down,” he says. “Now look where he is.”

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