Notebook

Jinder Mahal: Strongman from Punjab

Jinder Mahal, the first WWE champion of Indian-origin
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The reigning WWE champion

LIKE MANY INDIAN children in the late 80s, Yuvraj Singh Dhesi dreamed of wearing spandex and beating up the bad guys in the Mecca of pro-wrestling, the World Wrestling Entertainment. Raj would sit tucked under his grandfather’s arm on the couch as a three-year old, absorbed in the magical moves performed by the likes of British Bulldog, Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, his brother Owen Hart and Bad News Brown; the little boy all the while praying with a quiet desperation that one day he would be just like them.

Unlike many Indian children from the late 80s, however, Raj’s imaginarium was a living room in Calgary, Canada—home to every superstar mentioned above. The dream, in a sense, lay just outside his patio. And unlike perhaps any other Indian child from that time, Raj was allowed to carry on with this absurd ambition, well into his teens.

Today, Raj is 31-years old. Today, you may know him as Jinder Mahal. The reigning WWE champion.

For the past few months, fans in India have been tuning into ‘Smackdown’ —one of WWE’s two live weekly programs— in a state of what could be best termed as disbelief. Perhaps because an Indian has never been champion before. Or mainly because back in 2014, and this is true (not one of pro-wrestling’s scripted acts), Mahal, a non-crowd-pulling mid-card who worked as one arm of a three-man tag called 3MB, was sacked from WWE’s employee list for being irrelevant.

Mid-cards, or fillers for the main show, once fired, almost never make it back to WWE’s roster. But the Mahal who returned in late 2016 was a different entity from the flat-chested, puny-armed, weak-persona of the 3MB coalition. This Mahal was made of GBs; TBs even. This Mahal was ready to go solo. He had a granite slab for shoulders, an iron vat for a chest, and veins the size of small snakes ran down his ab muscles. And by April 2017, this Mahal was the number one contender for the heavyweight title, which he duly ‘won’ this May at ‘Backclash’ (a pay-per-view event) against a legend of this business, Randy Orton. It made him the first Indian-origin champion in the 37- year televised history of the WWE.

Pro-wrestling’s reel-life storylines are often considered too improbable to take seriously. But if anyone claims to have predicted Mahal’s real-life narrative, they were probably God or Vince McMahon, the larger-than-life ringleader of the company.

“I don’t think anyone saw it coming, to be honest,” says Mahal, laughing, during a phone interview with Open. “You know, that I would return the way I did—go from where I was to where I am now, a WWE champion. That I would represent 1.3 billion people every time I step into ring. All I want to tell my fans in India is if you work hard, anything is possible. I’m living proof of that.”

In the ring, Mahal plays a heel—a spandex term for a man the crowd loves to hate. But few WWE wrestlers (Stone Cold Steve Austin being a rare example) have managed to draw applause even while being the leading badass. Just this Sunday during the Mahal-Orton rematch at Battleground, enhancing the bafflement of fans in India, the WWE—a predominantly white company—rolled out the following script.

Around the ring in Philadelphia, two concentric walls of cross- knitted bamboo stood. They were 40 feet each. The structure was called the ‘Punjabi Prison’. By the ring lay Mahal, face down, backside up—displaying the world ‘Maharaja’ across his underwear. Well above him, Orton began scaling the bamboo wall. A few more steps and the title was his. But just then, entry music blared around the arena. It was in Punjabi. It was the Great Khali, India’s biggest face in the WWE before Mahal, an obelisk of a man who hadn’t been invited back to this neck of the woods since 2011. As the giant held Orton in a chokehold through the cage, Mahal vaulted over the bamboo prison and retained his title.

“It was the biggest moment of my career,” says Mahal. “I would say, in many ways, Battleground was my coming-out party.” He could have said the same about brown wrestlers in the WWE too. Gone were the days of Tiger Ali Singh, the Indian quotient in the roster back in the 90s, who was repeatedly called ‘taxi driver’ by fellow wrestlers and had garbage stuffed in his turban in the locker room. This, after all, was an age when two Indians headlined the closing act of a WWE pay-per-view event.

Tapping into India’s lucrative market—second only to USA’s—Mahal walks out with the championship belt around his waist, worn as proudly as his crisp turban. His character, hence, has the audacity to repeatedly tell the crowd: “Keep quiet, I will speak to my people in my language.” Then, in chaste Punjabi, he roars: “Mein poori duniya noo dus dina sigga, te Jinder Mahal banoonga champion. WWE te vich Jinder Mahal raj karda hai raj.”

For a wrestler billed to be from ‘Punjab, India’ and not ‘Calgary, Canada’ during his introduction to the ring, it is the best Mahal can do. But he tops all that over the phone as he says: “I haven’t visited India as Jinder Mahal, WWE champion. Very soon I’ll change that by visiting for a few shows. And hopefully I’ll get to defend my championship in front of my people. How about that, eh?” Even Raj, the three-year old Mahal in his imaginarium, couldn’t possibly have dreamed of that.