Indian WWE star turns up the heat

Jinder Mahal (real name Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) is the first World Wrestling Entertainment champion of Indian descent.
Jinder Mahal (real name Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) is the first World Wrestling Entertainment champion of Indian descent.PHOTO: NYTIMES

World Wrestling Entertainment champion Jinder Mahal uses heated immigration rhetoric to stir the crowd into a frenzy

PROVIDENCE (Rhode Island) •"You people have nothing to celebrate," Jinder Mahal shouted into a microphone at the Dunkin' Donuts Center here last Tuesday.

The World Wrestling Entertainment champion was dressed in a black turban and a grey suit with his giant belt slung over his shoulder. He twisted his face into a deep, angry grimace and continued: "But for my people, today marks Independence Day of the greatest nation on earth: the great nation of India!"

Thousands of fans leapt out of their seats, stuck their thumbs down and roared their disapproval.

SmackDown Live - one of WWE's weekly live-televised events - had just begun and Jinder Mahal (real name Yuvraj Singh Dhesi) was using an elaborate celebration of his culture to fire up the crowd. The wrestling ring was decorated with a lush rug; a Bhangra dance team made its way down the entrance ramp; a woman in a purple salwar kameez sang the Indian national anthem.

Dhesi, 31, the first WWE champion of Indian descent, is a heel (wrestling speak for a villain), so it is his job to turn crowds into booing, angry mobs. As part of his persona, he exhorts the crowd with statements of cultural confrontation: that Americans are too clueless to realise that greatness comes from immigrants (and therefore, himself).

The heated rhetoric often sounds like it would be at home on a cable news panel rather than a wrestling ring. And on Sunday, it arrived on one of WWE's biggest stages: SummerSlam, one of the sports-entertainment company's core pay-per- view events, where Jinder Mahal defeated a rising star named Shinsuke Nakamura.

WWE performers have long relied on patriotism and "us vs them" narratives.

In the 1980s, a tag team featuring the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff waved the flags of Iran and the then Soviet Union; in the 1990s, Sgt Slaughter, a one-time patriot, switched his sympathies to Iraq. Recently, Miroslav Barnyashev, a Bulgarian athlete who competes under the name Rusev, wrestled John Cena in a "flag match"; the Stars and Stripes prevailed.

But Dhesi has been elevated by the company at a very specific moment. One of the pillars of United States President Donald Trump's campaign platform was to cut down on unauthorised immigration and his charged language often linked immigration with crime, spurring protests all over the country. This month, Mr Trump unveiled a proposal to cut legal immigration in half.

Both Dhesi and WWE executives deny that his storyline was politically motivated or designed to send subtle messages, even as the company has made a large investment in becoming a global product.

The WWE is looking to expand into India, a country where sports entertainment is already popular and which has a potential audience of 1.3 billion people.

Its programming is available in 180 countries and in 650 million homes, according to a spokesman. It is a publicly traded company and has attracted many big-name sponsors, including Snickers and Mattel.

The night before SmackDown Live, Dhesi was out of character and standing backstage at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. Shirtless and wearing purple and black spandex tights with a lotus flower on them (a sacred symbol in India), he was using an elastic band to "pump up" - solo exercises to make his many protruding muscles look more muscular.

"Early on, I would actually tell Vince McMahon, 'Hey, I'm going to have the keys to the kingdom,'" he said hours earlier at the Tower Square Hotel, referring to the chairman of the WWE. "'One day, this place is going to be mine.'"

The journey started in Calgary, Alberta. Dhesi's parents immigrated to the US from Punjab, a northern Indian state, then settled in Canada.

He was not the first in his family to take up wrestling. His uncle, Gama Singh, performed in the 1980s in Calgary's Stampede Wrestling. Dhesi grew up idolising the characters of Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) and Dwayne Johnson (The Rock).

After studying business at the University of Calgary, he started training, with his parents' blessing. He arrived at the WWE in 2011 and spent three years as mostly enhancement talent. In wrestling parlance, he was a jobber: a performer who exists almost entirely to make other performers look better.

He said: "I had kind of become complacent, which is the kiss of death in the WWE."

He was released in 2014 and started dabbling in real estate. He considered buying a Subway franchise, but decided to re-dedicate himself to wrestling.

He stopped drinking alcohol, which he blamed for limiting his drive, eliminated junk food and embraced an extreme training regimen. In summer last year, he got an unexpected call from the WWE: Would he like to come back?

When he returned, Jinder Mahal was still a jobber - losing often - but in April, his story saw a creative shift: He became a winner. At the time, his gimmick was about practising peace. But McMahon made a change: He wanted Jinder Mahal to talk about his immigrant roots and an America in decline. Dhesi, who first visited India when he was 10, was uncomfortable at first but carried out his boss' wishes.

At the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, he addressed then champion Randy Orton. "Randy, you're just like all of these people!" he said, shooting his opponent a piercing glare. "You disrespect me because I look different! You disrespect me because of your arrogance and your lack of tolerance!" He was wearing a turban. And then he spoke Punjabi. The crowd expressed its disapproval.

"The reaction was great; I heard the crowd that day," Dhesi said. "I was elevated to star status just within that one promo."

He won the championship at a pay-per-view in May called Backlash just weeks later. While it was hard not to notice that his character was leaning into heated immigration rhetoric, Ms Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer of the WWE as well as an occasional performer, says: "We really are no different than a great book, a great play, a great movie, an opera and even more applicably, a ballet. We tell stories of protagonists versus antagonists with conflict resolution. The only difference is that our conflicts are resolved inside a 20-by-20-foot ring."

However, the WWE has historically struggled with its depictions of minorities, where villains such as the Jinder Mahal character have existed for decades.

In one of the most extreme examples from 2005, a character named Muhammad Hassan - played by an Italian-American named Marc Copani - prayed on the entrance ramp as masked men beat one of the most popular WWE wrestlers of all time, the Undertaker. The show aired the same day as a suicide bombing in London. It caused immediate outrage and the Muhammad Hassan character vanished.

Since then, the WWE has been making an effort to include more South Asian performers.

It recently signed its first female wrestler from India, Kavita Dalal. Jinder Mahal has two henchmen of Indian descent, the Singh Brothers (real names Gurvinder and Harvinder Sihra), who are real-life brothers.

Dhesi said he is willing to push back on writers if he deems something racially insensitive, although he said that has not happened yet.

In the backdrop of Jinder Mahal's rise is the WWE's push into India, where Dhesi's star is quickly rising.

According to Ms Michelle Wilson, the company's chief revenue and marketing officer, the WWE hopes to return to the country for at least one event this year. She also said about 60 million viewers from India watch WWE programming every week.

The company launched a new weekly television show, WWE Sunday Dhamaal, that rounds up the best action in Hindi. In April, it held an audition in Dubai, where more than a quarter of those trying out were from India.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Indian WWE star turns up the heat'. Print Edition | Subscribe