Character Artiste

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A look at the man who lurks inside the run machine called Sachin Tendulkar—his unique stamina, his famous humility, his constant disappointment with humanity...

Famous people lead lives very different from ours. They enjoy the privileges of fame and success but also face great pressures. Like us, however, they too have a child within. On the rare occasions they are out of the public eye, they indulge this child. So Michael Jackson gets an ice cream cart on his lawn. Amitabh Bachchan wears two watches on the same wrist. Sachin Tendulkar flies off in a helicopter just for the thrill of spotting his wife’s house from the sky.

A few years ago, Sachin, wife Anjali and daughter Sara were in Pune with Ajay Shirke, industrialist and president of the Maharashtra Cricket Association. Shirke owns a Bell helicopter and the possibility of a ride with the Tendulkars was discussed. Once airborne, Sachin got curious. How would Anjali’s Lonavala house, their occasional hideout, look from above? “He expressed a wish to fly over Lonavala and locate the house,” Shirke says. “He was excited. It was a single-pilot operation, so he could sit in the co-pilot’s seat and get a great view.”

Sachin’s second date with the helicopter was occasioned by his obsessive interest in music. He wanted to sample the high-end Cadence audio systems that Shirke’s company manufactures. “He came with John Wright (then the India coach and a weekend guitarist),” Shirke says. “I picked them up at the airport and we took the helicopter to the factory. They spent about an hour listening to all types of songs. But I would rather talk about Sachin’s qualities. He is a friend and a wonderful human being who, despite his fame and achievements, is down to earth.”

Sachin’s modesty, however well-chronicled, still comes up with force in any conversation about him. This is because it touches and stuns you as much as his cricket does. Bar Pele and Pete Sampras, there are few legends in world sport who have epitomised both precocity and longevity. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister when Sachin debuted. There have been eight more prime ministers since. The US dollar was Rs 17 to the Indian currency. And, Sachin is still at it. In these two decades, he has achieved everything a batsman could hope for. And yet his feet stay on the ground. Grown-up worldly people feel apprehension or awe in his presence. Then he unleashes that falsetto “Hi!” Instantly, his audience is at ease. They begin to love Sachin even more.

Hemant Kenkre, who was Sachin’s captain in the Cricket Club of India team, says, “When I text him after a great performance or on his birthday, he replies, ‘Thanx mitra (friend). Hope all is well with you.’ It’s never just ‘Thanx’. To this day he remembers the pair of Morrant pads I gave him when he was just a kid.”
Jai Bokey, a sports marketing professional who has worked closely with Sachin, says, “Once, we were driving to Pune in the Opel Astra that he’d won… in the 1998 Coca Cola Cup at Sharjah. At Chembur, we stopped at a petrol pump. I told him if he had to avoid getting mobbed, I would need to step out and pay for the petrol. He agreed initially but then came out. He wanted to reimburse me right away. This is unlike some stars, who want things free.”

Even today, Tendulkar’s inner circle comprises only family and friends. He feels genuine concern for his companions. When Vinod Kambli was finding it hard to return to the Indian team, Sachin suggested to him that he keep wickets for Mumbai. This way, maybe he could at least get into the Indian team as a wicket-keeper batsman. When a good friend invited Sachin to dinner and the host’s father made a disparaging remark about Kambli’s background, a hurt Sachin fell silent.  “He shouldn’t have said that,” he said the next morning. There are some friends who have worked hard to get into Sachin’s universe. There is a cricketer who has been in awe of him since childhood. Even when they were little boys, he would plead with him to go to his home. “Mi tuzya ghari yeoo kaa? (Can I come to your place?)” he would constantly ask. ‘Yeoo Kaa’ (May I come?) has become his nickname now.

As it happens with most stars, especially those who attach a certain value to friendship, many of Sachin’s real friends are his boyhood pals. There are hundreds who want to be his friend now, but Sachin holds the door to his private life barely ajar. And he has contempt for those who would lose their dignity to ingratiate themselves with him. The way the world is, he is very frequently disappointed by it. Yoga guru BKS Iyengar could not stop his tongue from wagging when Sachin sought his help for his back troubles. Sachin had consulted Iyengar on the condition of Omerta—nobody should know. An excited Iyengar, however, mentioned it in his ashram. The media found out. Sachin was upset.

Cocky behaviour and strangers who touch him physically are his pet peeves. “Don’t practise chakkugiri (acting smart),” was the advice a common friend gave me before I interviewed Tendulkar for the first time, in 1995. Many years ago, at a charity football match between actors and cricketers in Bandra, a spectator vigorously patted his back. Sachin was not amused. He grinned and suffered it but it was a sarcastic grin.

On field too, he cannot stand chakkugiri. Australian bowler Adam Dale discovered this when Australia played Ranji champions Mumbai in 1998. Dale had the gall to give Sachin a hard stare. In the pavilion, a worried Ajit Tendulkar said to Bokey, who was sitting beside him, “He is angry. I hope he plays the next ball sensibly.” He did not. He hit Dale to the ropes.

In 1992, the Indian cricket board had a deficit of $150,000. This year, despite the recession, it earned a surplus of over $11 million. How much Tendulkar’s popularity contributed to this can never be measured but it would be substantial. As the Michael Jordan of cricket, he has shot innumerable commercials. The advertising fraternity loves Tendulkar. Many of his ads have been shot by Prahlad Kakkar. They live in the same building, La Mer in Bandra. (When Sachin bought the place, he told a friend, “Aishwarya Rai lives below.” His friend said, “Aishwarya Rai should say that Sachin Tendulkar lives above.”) Kakkar says, “In the beginning, Sachin wasn’t good at saying his lines. We would have to distract him, make him laugh, we would hide the camera. This cola ad had Kambli dictating him a love letter. Both couldn’t get their dialogues right. They were reading the dialogue, not performing it. But between shots, they were very comfortable with each other, laughing and joking in Marathi. We shot that footage and dubbed over it. My favourite ad involving Sachin, however, is the one where there is a group of boys with Sachin masks. In the end they take the masks off. One of them is Sachin himself. We were driving around looking for a village-type location. Then we found a spot which had a tree and a group of boys, just the way we wanted. Sachin came out of the van with the mask. We started shooting. When they saw it really was Sachin, they were in a state of shock and we got the spontaneous expressions on camera. The boys were reverential. They asked me if they could touch him. I said, ‘You want to see if he’s real?’ ”

After years of staring at the camera, Sachin does not blink that much anymore. He also does classy films and looks back in amusement at some earlier choices. Kailash Surendranath, famous for his work on Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, says, “We did a commercial with Sachin and Kapil Dev for Action shoes. This particular shoe had small lights in it. The slogan was ‘Joota hai ya light?’ (‘Is it a shoe or a light?’). I met Sachin at a party recently and we had a good laugh over it.”

Kakkar’s office is full of caricatures and renderings of himself. One of them is a morphed poster of The Godfather in which he is Don Vito Corleone. But he graciously says that the best commercial featuring Sachin was shot not by him but Ram Madhvani.

The ad was shot with almost 50 cameras around the Wankhede Stadium for a 360º view. It showed a nation in semi-pause as Sachin faced the last, decisive ball of the match. An old lady prays before her TV. A schoolboy shouts encouragement. The audio is hymn-like. Sachin dances down the track and hits the ball for six.

Madhvani says that Adidas were not fully pleased with the first cut. “They wanted him to jump a little more as he stepped out of the crease. But it started raining and we could reshoot only after two months. Sachin took the delay in his stride and did what the client wanted.” They were rewarded for their patience with an ethereal sort of light. In the immediate aftermath of the rain, the sky looked washed and clean. The sun was out.

Madhvani says, “It was God’s hand.”