DAYS BEFORE the state of Jharkhand came under President’s rule in January 2009, chief minister Madhu Koda asked his HRD minister Bandhu Tirkey to shoot a promotional film with Mahendra Singh Dhoni. When told that Dhoni’s schedule was full, the desperate CM asked Tirkey to personally gatecrash the Indian cricket captain’s house with a camera. “Just tell him to look into the camera and say something for the state’s students,” Koda is reported to have told Tirkey. “Nothing except Dhoni will work for Jharkhand!”
Tirkey duly went forth with a cameraman and the campaign was shot in three minutes, and runs till date. In many ways, the episode sums up the curious charms of India’s most easygoing celebrity.
This free and easy reputation has begun to reap high dividends. Dhoni has just been voted India’s top celebrity in a recent survey conducted by Percept Talent Management and Hansa Research, piping Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar. The brand survey evaluated celebrities on parameters like persuasive power, looks, image attributes, popularity and media presence, and included actors, musicians and athletes.
‘Dhoni’s provincial background is not the reason for his popularity. What makes him different is his neutrally accented angrezi,’ says Kesavan
Many conjecture about Dhoni’s appeal as the boynext- door. “He symbolises the perfect Indian,” quips Piyush Pandey, creative head of Ogilvy & Mather India. “A small-town boy who made it big through hard work – it’s the dream for every middle class family in India.” The captain’s empowering ordinariness seems to be key to his appeal, attesting to how the middle class may not be a middling class, after all. Future Brands head Santosh Desai sees Dhoni as embodying the values of an emerging India. “He represents more than the son-of-the-soil tag that Kapil [Dev] carried for years,” he says. “In fact, I would say Dhoni is not held back by any baggage of memory.” Says historian Mukul Kesavan, “I’d be surprised if he wasn’t so popular. He is good looking, aggressive without being hysterical, unflappable. He is successful as the captain of Indian cricket team. He’s the kind of captain Indians always wanted.”
Besides leading an energised team, the captain from Jharkhand has also scaled other cricket hierarchies. In 1986, Boost paid Kapil Dev Rs 1.75 lakh to mouth, “Boost is the secret of my energy”. A little less than a decade later, Boost replaced Dev with Sachin Tendulkar for around Rs 5 crore. And in March 2008, the company plucked Dhoni to appear in its ads.
But the hype of attention accompanies a curious emphasis on the man’s ordinariness. “He is never seen as a miracle [the way] Tendulkar was,” says business consultant Prabhat Sinha, who was associated with Kapil Dev’s Boost campaign. “He is neither a maverick nor flamboyant in his style. Rather, he is more durable and real, which makes him a favourite.” Says Shalini Sethi of Aircel: “The reason we hired Dhoni was because, like us, he is simple, creative and trustworthy. He likes to innovate and appeals to a wide range of people. Everybody from a child to a grandfather likes him.”
KESAVAN EMPHASISES the phenomenon’s linguistic aspects: “People have got the Dhoni phenomenon wrong. I don’t think his provincial background is the reason for his popularity. Even Sehwag and Yuvraj have a similar background. What makes him different is his neutrally accented angrezi. He has moved from his provincial image to a more metropolitan outlook, which makes him attractive to the middle class, who speak English or have the aspiration to speak English.”
Generational luck has played its graceful part. Dhoni has been the only one able to fill the void left by the increasingly passé clutch of old-timers like Tendulkar, Kumble, Dravid and Ganguly. And he’s certainly capitalised on his moment: from cement to pens, motorbikes to potato chips, soft drinks to shoes, Dhoni the mascot is out loosening his awkward smile everywhere. Brand experts caution the man about spreading himself too thin or alienating premium brands by not being selective.
Says adman Prahlad Kakkar, “There are few brands which fit into his personality. An ad writer has to ensure that Dhoni matches with the brand. That’s the reason why the recall value of brands he endorses is very less.” And that might be the final and simplest explanation of all – Dhoni the player is intent really just on playing himself.