If you watch the Hindi news channels, then you will know that the biggest news in the first fortnight of February was not the election in Pakistan. Nor did the stock market collapse get much attention. Or, for that matter, any political development in Delhi.
The biggest story of the month was the rise of Khali.
I see you pause.
My point, exactly.
Such is the gulf between English language journalism and Hindi news television that readers and viewers of each category know virtually nothing about the interests and obsessions of the other. Occasionally, a tabloid-esque story will bridge the divide. For instance, Amit Kumar, the kidney surgeon, who has been called Dr Horror, Dr Kidney, Dr Death and god alone knows what else by journalistically-challenged headline writers, made enough of an impact to straddle both categories.
But otherwise, the two genres inhabit completely different universes.
Which brings us back to Khali.
For those of you who do not know who he is—and that, I imagine, includes most readers of Lounge—Khali is a wrestler in the WWE, the organization that used to be called the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) till the World Wildlife Fund took offence and made it change its name.
Dalip ‘The Great Khali’ Singh (left) towers over fellow WWE wrestlers
Khali is a giant and this accounts for his current popularity in the US where he staggers around wrestling rings on a weekly basis, smirking sinisterly as shorter wrestlers jump up to try and reach him. There has always been a freak show element to professional wrestling (some wrestlers actually include the term “giant” in their stage names; for instance, Andre the Giant or, more recently, a WWF champion who was called simply, The Giant). And so, a very tall man is an instant star especially when he combines the facial features of Jaws in the old Roger Moore-James Bond movies with an exotic origin.
Which is the point for the news channels. Khali is from the Punjab. He was discovered in 1998 (I think—these wrestling biographies change by the hour) and sent off to the US where Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF/WWE, who is to wrestling what P.T. Barnum was to the carnival, recognized the potential in his height, size and girth.
Since then, the WWE has promoted Khali as some kind of Indian freak, a semi-articulate mammoth who can mow down opponents because he has the strength of King Kong and the brains of a tiny lizard. Many people might regard this caricature as offensive. But Hindi news channels treat it as yet another example of India’s relentless march towards superpower status. With each grunt, Khali makes India proud. With each body slam, he helps us walk a little taller. That, at least, is what the channels would have us believe.
If you follow professional wrestling at all (confession time: I have been fascinated by the phenomenon since I was 10 years old), then you will know that the federations make their money from pay-per-view telecasts at which titles change hands. To ensure that as many viewers as possible pay improbable sums to watch the telecast, each event is mercilessly hyped. And in mid-February, Khali was due to fight for the world title at No Way Out, a popular annual pay-per-view.
It was this hype that our channels bought into. Each day they focused on Khali’s prospects of becoming the world wrestling champion, assessed his opponents and featured phonos and OBs from the Punjab where excited Sardarjis told us how much they loved Khali and how thrilled they were by the prospect of claiming a world champion as their own.
I could have told you what would happen. Khali lost. And this was no surprise because the WWE does not even pretend to be a genuine sporting organization. All over the world, professional wrestling has always been rigged. Only the very naïve believed, in the 1950s and 1960s, that Dara Singh won every bout because he had god on his side. The famous feud between Singh and King Kong (the Hungarian wrestler, not the ape) was manufactured and rigged by Kong himself who, under his real name of Emile Czaya, was the original promoter.
When Vince McMahon took over the WWF from his father, he decided that there was no point insulting the intelligence of wrestling fans. He declared openly that the matches were rigged but argued that it did not matter. Wrestling was not a sport, he said, it was “sports entertainment”. The punters did not come for displays of athleticism. They came for what he called the “storylines and drama”.
McMahon turned wrestling into a global phenomenon by writing intriguing storylines and by promoting otherwise useless wrestlers whose lack of ring skills was countered by their star quality (such as Hulk Hogan, possibly the worst wrestler in the world). McMahon recognized that fans wanted drama (grudge matches), gimmicks (steel-cage matches), sex (a couple of breasts are usually on display on pay-per-views) and unusual-looking wrestlers or, if you are to be unkind, freaks (which is how Khali made it).
The success of the WWF on satellite television finished off live wrestling in India. Dara Singh and his brother Randhawa, who had ruled local rings for decades, had retired but Randhawa’s son, who’d been launched as a new-generation champion, found that audiences wanted WWF-style drama rather than low-cost Indian wrestling. As the crowds stayed away, the wrestlers (including Randhawa Jr) went into other professions.
Now, ironically, Indian wrestlers are big again. This time around, the Indians are not the heroes that Dara Singh and Randhawa were in their heyday but play the freak roles. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to matter. We are even prouder of Khali than we were of Dara Singh in the days when he was defending India’s honour by defeating all comers in a series of rigged tournaments. In 1968, Dara Singh even declared himself world champion after defeating Lou Thesz, a former champion (who did not actually hold the belt when Singh beat him).
So far at least, Khali has not become any kind of world champion. At present, American audiences are not ready for an Indian giant to wear the belt. But Vince McMahon might just rewrite the script. And who knows, we may have an Indian world champion after all. In which case, there will almost certainly be a live wrestling revival in India.
And no doubt, the news channels will cover it all as though this is a real sport making real news.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org