Today, Salman Khan announced that he disliked the term ‘Bollywood’, thereby, in one fell swoop, disproving my theory that the muscular one had no redeeming quality. I must admit that I agree with him on this one issue. I find the term ‘Bollywood’ to be demeaning, classless and above all, unclever. Another term that I find unclever is ‘Bhangra Boys’, the name that is being increasingly used by the media to describe the Indian national football team, because, apparently, no national team is allowed on football grounds any more without a nickname.
The name ‘Bhangra Boys’ does not have a rich history to it (unless one is talking about the hugely unsuccessful boy band of the same name). The first time I heard this monstrosity was last summer, and the earliest reference I could find in popular media appears to have been an article on Indian football published in September 2006 by that old bastion of Indian journalism, the Sunday Times (of London; the tone of murderous sarcasm in my voice doesn’t carry over very effectively into my writing). There followed a gradual increase in the use of the term on football forums, message boards and other news articles over the next four years. The first BigSoccer forum mention was in October 2006, the Facebook fan site sprung up in October 2008, the first Goal.com mention followed in March 2009, and the name achieved a semblance of formality through an imprudent Wikipedia edit in October 2010, just in time for the 2011 Asia Cup, when scores of writers globally looked up and further propagated the term as they profiled our national team in its first big stage appearance in decades.
However, the Sunday Times, while an accomplice, was not the creator of the moniker. That blame must be squarely placed on the organizers of two friendly matches between India and Jamaica in late summer 2002 in England. The Jamaican team had been called the Reggae Boyz for a while already. The name oozed a certain sex appeal, and the event marketer was in search of a suitably stylish foil to describe the Indian team. The dimwit only knew two Indian cultural phenomena, and after several hours of tedious consideration, decided ‘the Vindaloos’ lacked oomph. The posters were titled “Bhangra Boys meet Reggae Boyz at Vicarage Road”. Doubtless, the 500 people that showed up at the game were the Watford Chapter of the Apache Indian Fan Club and the blame for the riots that followed was placed unfairly on football hooligans.
Let me now address why I loathe the name. There is its lack of creativity and its mix of unimpressive clichés, but mostly, I dislike it because it is a representation of the pervasive influence of Punjabi culture on everything in modern India. Growing up in Bombay in the 80′s, Punjabis were those kids who hit their growth spurts early, had sisters who were pretty, mothers who made great non-vegetarian food and fathers who spoke Hindi like Om Puri in ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’. They were otherwise, just another minority like the Mallus, the Bongs, the Sindis, and if memory serves me right, the Ghatis. And then, in a flash, Punjabi culture overran the Hindi film industry, popular music, television and even wedding schedules (seriously, since when do Tamil Brahmin weddings have Baraats and Sangeets?). Let me make it clear at the outset, I do not hate Punjabis. You will not find a better friend of the five-rivered peoples than me. Many of my best friends are Punjabi, and when I forward this article to them, they will like it, and they will upload it onto their Facebook profiles. I like Punjabi food, I like the way they drink, I like the way they party, and yes, I even like the Bhangra. So, as they started to dominate our popular culture, I watched on with an indulgent smile. Even when that influence started to enter our sports, I tolerated it. I would hear people shout ‘Chak De India’ at cricket matches, and I would resist the urge to throw my beer at them. But I draw my line at ‘Bhangra Boys’. If our football team had to have a regional description, given the history of Indian football, shouldn’t that region be Bengal, Goa, Kerala, or more recently Manipur? Punjab’s footballing standards have certainly been stellar, but even today the vast majority of Indian footballers or spectators would be hard pressed to pull off a Bhangra move to save their lives. We are a diverse culture that takes pride in its diversity. If our team is to have a nickname, let it then not be constrained by regionalism but represent something that unifies the nation.
Since it appears that we can never go back to the simpler days when the team was just called the Indian National Team, and that no article will ever be written without that dance form being also mentioned, our only alternative is to defeat ‘Bhangra Boys’ with an appropriate alternative. My note of protest to the AIFF was met with a response that the administrators do not endorse ‘Bhangra Boys’. So, Big Brother is on our side (and maybe that other Big Brother Salman Khan too, now in his renaissance phase), so our only task is to find a suitable replacement and plaster it all over the internet.
My analysis of national football team nicknames showed me that one in four had a color theme going (like the Azzurri, L’Oranjes or Les Bleus), and one in three had an animal reference (lions were the most common, though the references cover the spectrum from scorpions to wasps to crocodiles to elephants, though the sheer humility and honesty of the Azkal stray dogs from the Philippines took my breath away). Less common are references to the flags or emblems of teams (the Three Lions of England), historic references (the Pharaohs of Egypt), geographic references (Lions de l’Atlas of Morocco), botanical references (Al Aarz – the Cedars of Lebanon), or simple country nicknames as is popular in Central America (like Los Ticos of Costa Rica or Los Catrachos of Honduras). I especially liked the nicknames that had a special meaning for the football teams like To Peiratiko (the pirate ship) of Greece, named during the ship-themed opening ceremony of Euro 2004 in Portugal after a television commentator’s prophecy that unfancied Greece would steal the trophy like a Pirate Ship, which they went on to do. I must reveal, in all honesty, that I did find a few music/dance themed nicknames too, mostly from Caribbean nations, but there is also the famous Samba Boys of Brazil. That however was a compliment to their grace and skill provided by others. I don’t believe that our football team necessarily represents the energy and vigor of Bhangra, just as the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica probably aren’t laid back and high on ganja. If we want the nickname to represent something let it represent aggression, domination, and bravery with a war theme (a whole 10% of national teams had such themes, like the ‘Blue Samurai’ of Japan, ‘La Furia Roja’ of Spain or the ‘Chipolopolo’– the Copper Bullets of Zambia), or lets find something unique like the ‘Bafana Bafana’ of South Africa (no doubt said twice because no one hears it the first time over the din of all those vuvuzelas). Instead of such coolness, our team’s nickname is currently in competition with the unfortunately named Spice Boys of Grenada and the Sugar Boys of St. Kitts and Nevis for the worst nickname on the planet.
Hopefully, the examples above get your creative juices flowing like they did mine. Think of creative all-India themes that deliver that certain josh that we want our team to represent. Or just buy into the nickname I thought of, the ‘Monsoon Warriors’. The term Monsoons was first coined in India, and the monsoons are an all-India phenomenon that drives every aspect of our lives from stock market performance to unemployment rates to the prices of vegetables and grains. ‘Monsoon Warriors’ has a certain majesty to it and some specific football history too, since the domestic football season in Bengal and Goa has historically been held during the rainy season. If you’ve come this far through the article, you probably share my dislike for ‘Bhangra Boys’, in which case I ask that every time you read an article that mentions that name, post a comment to the article referring to the team as the Monsoon Warriors. And then let democracy take over. I believe the best name will win.
Let’s just leave the dancers on the dance floor, because, to us, football is a serious sport.