However, cautions sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, there is a problem in locating Dhoni’s success wholly in his small-town origins. Because the small-town myth is dying out, he says. “Something happened to the myth of the Indian mobility. We pushed it too far. I don’t see the small-town make it big anymore because I think there is a reconsolidation of elites. At one level, there was this expectation and that was what made India look beautiful for while — small town and mass society. But that is over.
“The small-town idea, which could have been nursed by a different kind of economy, or a different idea of aspiration and mobility hasn’t really worked. In fact, if anything showed it didn’t work, it was Sushant Singh Rajput. He made all the money, but it didn’t work as a myth. Don’t forget when you talk about the small town, these small-town people are migrating abroad, not to other parts of India. The migrant inside India has failed. If the Covid taught us anything it is that the migrant inside is an anomalous citizen.”
Still, Visvanathan acknowledges that there are exceptions. “Dhoni makes sense because he remains Dhoni despite now being a legend. He’s still a Ranchi boy, and in that sense, helps to retain a certain kind of small-town style. We have to look at the fact that we had four myths — Cricket, Bollywood, Science and Democracy. Dhoni is the cricket myth. Dhoni made it because in a way we created and moved into an unreal world of a media. Cricket is not a real sport, cricket hyphenated with TV creates one of the most mythical roles one can think of,” he adds.
But can you really separate the roots from the man? Those who have observed Dhoni have often spoken of both his calmness and his inner confidence, two traits that seem to have never forsaken him. Is that famous confidence reflective enough of some sense of a small-town mindset?
Media observer Santosh Desai feels his confidence is both small-town and unique to Dhoni. “It’s to the extent to which, there are certain freedoms that you have in the smaller town, the talent from the smaller town not having too many benchmarks around them and not being burdened by too many expectations. They do not carry the load that the middle class does,” says Desai.
“Great ability as an explosive batsman is one thing,” he adds, “but think about the fact that at a very young age, leading a team that has people like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid. All the stalwarts in Indian cricket, and you had this guy coming from nowhere, without any background and any pedigree as such, having that innate sense of confidence to not only manage but get along and carry everyone with him. It is a quality of being very involved in the action, but very detached from the consequences of those actions and focusing on process or an outcome, that characterises him in a way that is distinct.”
Maybe it is this unique amalgamation that has endeared Dhoni to Chennai, a metro and layered with its own small-town ethos.
“If you look at local news reports on Dhoni,” says Visvanathan, “they actually call Dhoni ‘an honorary Tamilian’. How many people have ever got that label in recent years? No one.”
“Cricket becomes a substitute for Kollywood in this,” he explains, “Chennai is a place that dies for leaders, of charismatic leaders, of a certain romantic type. Dhoni fulfils the function beautifully. He’s in fact constructed like a film star who’s a cricketing star. So far, the Chennai Super Kings thing has worked like a political party for him. Sitting in Chennai, you almost feel some regional party has begun on the streets for him. But one shouldn’t liken it to a following for, say MGR. The Dhoni ambition is different. The Dhoni manifestation is closer to Jayalalithaa. If you look at Shivaji Ganesan, MGR and all these people, they played small-town boys till the end. Shivaji Ganesan and his group were never allowed membership in the Madras Gymkhana. You think the Madras Gymkhana would ever stop Dhoni?”
Visvanathan extends the phenomenon of Dhoni in Chennai to the new NRI back in India. “The success story,” he says, “the American Dream in India, it works beautifully. And yet he looks so untarnished. Dhoni is an immaculate conception and he has pulled it off.”
Desai feels that it is the stable core of the Chennai Super Kings playing unit and a steady PR strategy to project him as their face, that has helped amplify the Dhoni cult. “The aura around him comes from the distance that he is able to maintain at a certain level, from both the outcomes of his actions as well as the team, and the fans. The distance, that’s the right recipe for cult worship,” he says.
The media observer sees shades of the cult of Imran Khan here. “The other person with that kind of distance and understanding the power of distance is Imran Khan, though that was a very aristocratic and aloof, a dictatorial kind, very different kind from Dhoni’s. Yet, the power of keeping a certain amount of detachment and distance leads to this huge idea of admiration, because people think of him as somebody who has the qualities that you do not, and the whole idea of a leader who is able to do things for you cannot otherwise, who’d deliver a certain amount of magic. It is easy to put him on a pedestal, and that is something you will see across the country also but certainly in Chennai,” he says.
The question of delivering magic, paradoxically, takes on an even larger meaning with Dhoni’s retirement. With the sheer volume of fame and adulation at hand and even the state today functioning as a PR vehicle, what does the future hold? There are no definitive answers.
“One narrative would be that Dhoni will disappear from the world of cricket and emerge infrequently. You cannot really say which way it will turn because of that inscrutability. Will he enter politics, I would not rule out virtually any of those things. Chances are, if at all there is anything he does in the public eye, it will be outside of cricket,” says Desai.
“The interesting thing is Dhoni kept to himself,” says Visvanathan, “And I think that’s what saved him. He made calculated moves — retirement from international cricket, retirement from national cricket, yet he keeps IPL because it gets money in the kitty. I think he has the acumen to realise that if he’s going to survive, he has to build his double.”
But he points out: “Dhoni’s biggest test perhaps begins now. So far, he has been playing IPL, the five-day Test begins the day he retires.”