The modern-day maharaja, as his moniker goes, sat pretty on his “throne" at a hotel conference room in Mumbai on an overcast Friday afternoon. By his side, resting on a table, was his crown—a glittering mass of gold-plated metal and leather, easily recognizable to pro-wrestling fans as the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Championship belt.
This is what Jinder Mahal wrested on 21 May after upsetting Randy Orton and the fans at WWE’s Backlash 2017 pay-per-view event, making the most of some in-ring shenanigans and “interference" from a couple of sidekicks.
Such are the outlandish ways of the WWE, where wrestlers “perform" to a storyline, scripted to perfection over the years. As the WWE looks to expand its popularity in the Indian market, Mahal, the 50th WWE champion and the first of Indian origin, holds forth as an outsider who is on top of his game in a distant land.
Born Yuvraj Singh Dhesi to immigrant parents in Calgary, Canada, Mahal grew up speaking Punjabi at home while imbibing a different culture outside. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, wrestling was a constant, given that his uncle, Gama Singh, was a professional wrestler himself.
“He was my role model while growing up. He had many great bouts in South Africa, and was a big star among the Indians living there. Even today, I sit and watch my bouts with him to pick up a useful tip or two," says Mahal.
Breakfast-table conversations, then, were mostly about wrestling and the latest drama unfolding in the WWF (World Wrestling Federation, as the promotion was called then).
“Punjabi with parents, English with siblings," he says, breaking into a smile that attenuates the intimidating aura of his hulking 6ft, 5 inches frame.
“This was the 1990s, when guys like Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart ruled the ring. Then, there were guys like The Rock and Stone Cold who captured my imagination. Just seeing these larger-than-life-characters had me hooked. I wanted to be like them—a champion."
So alongside chasing a college degree, Mahal started training and competing, exploring anything that came his way. Given its rich tradition, chasing wrestling in Calgary was akin to kicking a football in Kolkata.
Soon enough, he was turning up as Tiger Raj Singh in Stampede Wrestling, founded by Calgary local Stu Hart, whose best-known legacy is his children, 1990s’ heart-throbs Bret and Owen Hart. He earned his big break in the WWE in 2011.
Back then, another Indian wrestler, the 7ft, 1 inch Great Khali, who was making waves with his beastly presence, took Mahal under his wing to spice up affairs in the ring. While wrestling took centre stage, so did all things stereotypically “Indian". Mahal stepped into the arena in a dazzling sherwani, which soon made way for spandex and Punjabi rants.
One antic even had him stepping into the ring and smacking Khali square in the jaw to screams of “beizzati karta hai!" (you have shamed us) for kissing an unknown woman and “tarnishing" his “Indian heritage".
“He’s an absolute legend, like an older brother to me. I owe a lot to him," Mahal says.
In 2014, however, Mahal found himself without a contract with the WWE. Though he continued wrestling elsewhere, the lack of motivation to perform at the highest level led to struggles with alcohol, fast food and a bulging waistline.
“When your whole life gets taken away, it’s tough. The Jinder Mahal you see now is totally different. I think going away was the best thing that happened to me—I re-evaluated myself. I got motivated again, focused and more determined because I knew that the WWE is a place that rewards hard work," he says.
He even considered starting a business. He found it difficult to walk away from his passion, however, and, one fine day, he decided to try again for the riches of the WWE.
“The drinking stopped completely, I started training again. I had to start from zero and worked my way up to where I am today," he says.
A fitter, leaner Mahal soon became a crowd favourite of sorts—a heel in WWE lingo, meaning one whom they loved to hate. Every once in a while, his script sent out a subtle message on the greatness of India and the success of second-generation immigrants like him, highlighting America’s age-old problem of xenophobia.
Walking into the ring, at times with an entourage performing the bhangra, he made it a point to portray his Punjabi heritage. A majestic beard clubbed with a pagdi became a regular feature, in addition to a new theme song composed by Ali Kaz, a Pakistan-Canadian rapper, and sidekicks in The Singh Brothers, who are always on call to bail him out of tricky situations.
Come December, he will return to New Delhi to brawl in a title match against Kevin Owens. “I want to inspire the next generation of Indian WWE superstars. There’s already Jeet Rama and Kishan Raftar training at the WWE Performance Centre. I’m proud of Kavita Devi (who turned out in a flashy orange salwar-kameez, complete with a dupatta, at the recently held Mae Young Classic) who is the first Indian woman to sign with WWE. I want to be the shaan of India, you know, the pride," he says.
He can live up to another one of his monikers, The New American Dream.