An intrepid reporter comes to within a hair's breadth of interviewing a Bollywood lovely
I happened to saunter into one of the team hospitality boxes yesterday evening at the ground. Elsewhere in the stadium, in a displaced tournament like this, you don't see the heartburn of a loss or any sort of real tension among fans. They may support a team but generally have a good time, drinking and chatting, and leave without much win-fuelled joy or defeat-induced disappointment. But in the hospitality boxes it is a whole different story. It's their team. It's a maelstrom of human emotions. The heartbeats go crazy. Oohs and aahs, cries of joy and sorrow, the whole package of a parochial sports-fan's emotions is on display.
I bumped into one philospher fan in there, who whispered in a conspiratorial tone: "Isn't it nice to see that all the teams with Bollywood presence have been wiped out before the semis?" A day earlier a cricketer had said to me, when asked what the off-field highlight from last year's IPL was: "When I watched Preity Zinta cry after they lost" Such cruelty!
I for my part have enjoyed my tryst with Bollywood. To watch Preity Zinta has been a delightful experience. Who cannot but like the hop-skip-and-jump routine she does in the dugout? Who barring that wretched Deccan fan can despise that most beautiful dimpled smile? Sometimes I wonder if the sole reason injured Punjab cricketers, Indian and foreign, seemed to miraculously recover from their ailments was to be able to receive the Zinta Hug when they returned from the field of action.
Whenever I could, I tried to find myself a seat behind the Punjab dugout. Which means it's her back I got to see. So much so that next time there's an SMS-now-or-die-you-loser contest on TV to identify stars based on glimpses of parts of their anatomy, I can easily spot my Zinta.
To be frank, though, it's been a disappointment. The lady who swayed so merrily in the "Jiya Jale" song - when she burst on to the Bollywood scene fresh from her famous Liril bath under a waterfall, which made punters search eBay for that brand of soap - is not quite the same. Somewhere along the way there has been a Shakespearean tragedy. In the quest of that demonic size-zero, perhaps, she has lost that X factor. Bollywood will never be the same again. Huge pity. But the radiant smile is still there. That Deccan fan can go hang himself.
I saw Shilpa Shetty too but, no offense meant, I didn't want to interview her. And I walked past Shah Rukh Khan - who obviously has the biggest fan following of the three at South African grounds, with queues of people waiting to catch a glimpse - without wanting a second glance.
I even thought about a few questions I would ask Zinta if I got to speak to her. Never have I prepared so well for an interview.
I spotted her giving bytes to television channels a few times. The female interviewers came back saying, "Oh, she doesn't look great without make-up," their male counterparts returned with the goofiest smiles on their faces. I wanted a piece of that goofiness.
I rang up the Punjab media manager, who asked, "Who do you want to interview? Yuvraj, Mahela or Sanga?" Er, Preity Zinta. She did not oblige.
So I approached Zinta directly. I saw her in the hotel lobby this one time. She was within handshaking distance, and what's more, she even smiled at me. Well, okay, you bunch of disbelieving wimps, she didn't, but she saw me and didn't turn away in disgust.
But then the damn media manager put her hand in between us. The hand of the devil. And soon the rest of her body came in the way. "Sorry, Preity is not available to talk now. She is busy, going out on a prior engagement." And I never got another chance.
Over the days I saw her at pubs with the teams. No, I'm not revealing who she was talking to for a long time or dancing with at a party later. No, it's not him. No, not the other one either. How gossip-hungry you all are.
It's not just disgusting journalists like me who have been chasing her. I met a woman of over 50, Indian-origin, in the hotel lobby, waiting to meet her once. But her curiosity was about something else completely: "How she is so fair? Does she have a foreign blood? Does she... " Er, madam, I have no clue. And I can't help you. When will India lose its fairness complex?
Meanwhile, Punjab lost. A journalist wept.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo