“What’s your name?” we ask him, as he wears his wrestling boots.
He looks up, looking puzzlingly menacing, and replies: “Super Khalsa!”
“Come on, man. Tell us the real name.”
“How does that matter? I am no longer Inderpreet Singh.”
We are making small talk near a wrestling ring outside the office of The Great Khali, who is no longer Dalip Singh Rana.
“He just arrived; must be in the office. Do you want to meet him?” Super asks us.
“Yes. And he knows we are coming. Thanks.”
Super shrugs. He is in character.
Just then, the Presence enters. The hall falls silent. Shoulders come down to their normal position. The 30-odd trainees rush to touch his feet, wrapped in Size 18 shoes. ‘Khali sir’ — the construction worker from Himachal Pradesh who went on to become one of the biggest stars of the US-based World Wrestling Entrainment (WWE) — is here.
“Good to see you,” the 43-year-old tells us. The handshake feels funny. It’s like your hand might get lost in there. He smirks. He knows it feels funny. We walk with him to his office, a 10-by-10 cubicle where Khali settles into a chair behind the desk, and we sit opposite him, next to two young, lean men working on laptops. One is the office manager, the other a student from Africa who is upgrading the website for Khali’s ambitious venture, Continental Wrestling Entertainment or CWE.
In the hinterland
CWE, so far, is an academy to produce wrestling-entertainment stars. It has been operational since January 25, 2015, and is not that hard to find despite being in a non-descript village, Kangniwal, of Jalandhar district. Keep looking out of the window on the highway to Hoshiarpur, a major town of the Doaba region, and you’ll have a bare-bodied Khali staring right at you from large posters on the boundary wall. Big Show and Kane give him company. No guards or drama at its gates, the 8-acre compound has a dusty, stone-strewn pathway that leads to the main building. Grassless grounds on both sides serve as parking space for trainees’ bikes and Khali’s SUV and also as an open-air workout space, besides the gym inside. The walls need a coat of paint.
Enter, and a full-size wrestling ring sits right in the hall; another spare one next to it. Under a fan hanging by a long metal road from the ceiling, this world-class ring is mini-manifestation of the very idea of CWE. Khali later tells us he set it up here as the land was affordable and the environment devoid of distractions.
Trainees are practising falls and moves, in solo, waiting for their Bihari-Fijian-Canadian coach who is down with fever today. “We cannot practice fights unless he or Khali sir is here,” says Rita Rani, or Rita Wrestler, a 25-year-old karate black-belt from Ludhiana. She is one of the eight women among the nearly 200 trainees in three batches a day.
Khali built the CWE over the past six years and now, with his WWE career having ended in 2014, the plan is to make it a WWE-style show “but with our people in the ring, a Hindi-English show, for India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the world”. Even Punjabi enters the dialogues in what is essentially a staged performance. “I don’t understand why people say it’s naqli (fake),” says Khali, his irritation barely hiding behind a disarmingly cheeky smile. (Mental note: The giant has dimples.)
“Every sport is entertainment. We are just honest about it... But can a sport in which you fling bodies around be just drama?” Then, he lightens up: “You want to know the difference between Olympic wrestling and what we do; don’t you? It’s like landline and iPhone!”
The iPhone is expensive — Rs 15,000 a month for training (Rs 5,000 for women), plus food and hostel, taking it to around Rs 25,000 a month. “I train about 50-60 of them for free, because they have the talent to take the CWE far.” The coach is a wrestler from Canada, a Fijian-Bihari named Darryl Sharma, 31, who in a brief chat says the work here is a short-term assignment but he feels “at home”. He is due to join the WWE “soon”.
Khali says there’s big money at the end of the tunnel. “Two of my trainees have got million-dollar contracts with WWE. They are at their in-house finishing academy before being put on the show. Another plays Hanuman in a TV serial.”
At Kangniwal, since December the CWE holds free shows every Saturday, to a capacity of around 200 people. As for the bigger plans, in February-March, it held two shows in Uttarakhand and another in Ludhiana, where the crowd was “nearly 12,000”, claims Khali. He says it was ticketed, at Rs 500 to Rs 2,000. Second-rung stars from top wrestling-entertainment companies were invited, and Khali was the main draw. He was reportedly injured in a fight with two foreign wrestlers at Haldwani, but returned for a rematch and won in Dehradun a week later. Many say the whole thing was staged to add drama, an accepted norm abroad. But, to our questions again about the ‘fixed’ format and scripting, which WWE talks about openly, Khali chuckles: “You can imagine all you want. Just don’t write what you imagine!”
Pick on the word, and ask him if ever imagined he’d be where he is, and he is cheeky again: “Where? In this office?” His life has all the elements of a Bollywood biopic. “Why not Hollywood?” he asks. It was through his role in the Hollywood movie ‘The Longest Yard’ that he was noticed by the WWE around 10 years ago. But none of it was luck, he says. “I have never thought of anything as being difficult. When I did manual labour, I did that with sincerity. That’s got me this far.”
He broke rocks
Once there was a man named Dilbu. He was born in Dhiraina village of Himachal Pradesh’s Sirmour district, to a small farmer. Third of eight children — seven boys and a girl — by the time he was an adult, he was already over six feet, the victim of a bully’s idea of humour. Life was tough financially too. In the early ’90s, he worked as a labourer in Rohru, 120 km from Shimla, loading sacks onto buses, breaking rocks into stones for building work. Around the same time, he also sat outside a shop in Shimla dealing in mattresses and handloom; his job was to attract customers.
(Legend goes that Dilbu once asked a cobbler to mend his sandals, and offered the cobbler Rs 50 after the job was done, which he refused — saying he had used Rs 300 worth of leather. He, of course, smiles when we mention it.)
In Shimla, he attracted attention of journalists too. “One wrote that I was 7-foot-8-inch tall. I was 6’-8’’ actually!” The year was 1994, he recalls. Dilbu was 21. A senior cop from Punjab noticed, and he got offered a job via sports quota. As a deal to get the shy Dilbu to leave Himachal, his brother too was hired in Punjab Police and both landed at the Jalandhar academy. Dilbu was Dalip now.
“First, they made me try shot put. I won gold at the state police games... I also wanted to try boxing but couldn’t get much chance; probably the established boxers feared I’d wipe them out,” he says. Body-building was his next calling, and he won a Mr India title in 1998. He had ended up at 7-foot-1 now. It was also the year that he first saw a telecast of WWF (F for Federation was replaced by Entertainment only in 2002). Dalip was hooked, thinking the fighting was real, and “I could beat all of those guys up so easily”.
Two years later, on leave — renewed several times, despite three suspensions — he landed in California “with some help from friends and family”. He trained at Hayward, a town near San Francisco, at the All Pro Wrestling (APW) academy. “I rented a room, lived alone and worked hard; but I was used to such things.” Everything was easy, “except English”. But he learnt enough to make do, “quite quickly as I dealt mostly with ‘goras’ (locals there), unlike the ‘desi’ (Indian subcontinent’s) boys who work at liquor stores owned by fellow desis and end up talking in Hindi and Punjabi all the time even there”. One of Dalip’s brothers now lives in the US, and owns some such stores.
From 2002, he wrestled in circuits in Japan and Mexico before WWE boss Vince McMahon saw ‘The Longest Yard’ and made him an offer.
A love story
Just before the foreign foray, he fell in love. “It was an eight-day love story... She said yes on the ninth, and we got married a month later.” Harminder Kaur is the daughter of a policeman who was on the Jalandhar academy campus where Dalip pursued her. She and their four-year-old daughter now shuttle between the US and Jalandhar, where Khali’s brother lives and helps him manage CWE.
The couple went to the US in 2005, and he made his WWE debut in 2006, ‘defeating’ The Undertaker. “I used to watch him on TV!” He now owns a house in Houston, Texas.
What about the police job? “I am still in the police, but on leave,” Khali replies.
We are interrupted by a trainee. There’s someone here to meet him. “It seems urgent,” says the trainee. Khali complies.
The visitor is an old man. “My son was a wrestler. He met you too. See this news clipping. He died in a road accident near Batala recently,” he says. “What can one do, baba? It’s destiny!” responds Khali.
Another visitor is a man who says he was the driver of the late Punjabi singing legend Kuldeep Manak. In no time, he starts belting out some solid folk. He is accompanied by another young man who is wearing dark glasses indoors. He too sings what he claims is his latest hit: “Mere sohne da principal ji, na college chon katteyo ji naan... (Dear principal, do not rusticate my lover from the college).”
Khali calls out to Shanky, and a baby-faced young Sikh appears. He is as tall as him, the tallest among his trainees. On cue, he starts singing. What? Arijit Singh’s romantic Hindi songs, eyes closed, emotion overflowing. Who’d have guessed?
Shanky is former accountant Gurvinder Singh Malhotra, 26, from Jagadhri in Haryana. Other trainees include a former javelin thrower from UP, a former women’s weightlifting champ from Haryana, some bodybuilders and power-lifters from Delhi and Punjab, a road contractor’s son from Chhattisgarh, and several farmers’ sons from rural pockets across India. “Most of the trainees are from outside Punjab,” he says.
It’s 4.30 in the evening and the mid-level batch is practising when Khali joins in. He reminds them of the formula of “maximum impact, minimum injury”.
A bout that stands out is between BB Bulbul/Bull Bull (Bobby Kaur), the “manly” villainous character who banks on sheer force, and Hard KD (Kavita Rani), who is light, all speed and tricks. These two are the CWE’s current biggest stars, thanks to the internet. A video from a CWE Saturday show— in which KD dressed in a salwar-kameez comes up from among the spectators to beat the arrogant giant BB — has brought attention to Khali’s venture like never before.
Khali knows this, and makes them engage in a “practice match” for the cameras present.
He revels in it and, after a couple of bouts, sits in the ring corner, stretches his legs out, and dispenses some gyan in typically rural analogy: “Look, there are the saints (read ascetics) who meditate in the remote Himalayas, hoping to find God. They are great, selfless men. Then, there are the sadhus (preachers) who do much the same thing but take it to the people, move in the streets, show people what it’s all about. The ‘real’ wrestlers are saints. We are mere sadhus.” The Great Khali knows his religion.
Meet the ‘superstars’: On the CWE roster
Super Khalsa: He is Inderpreet Singh, 24, powerlifter and bodybuilder from Jalandhar who has even got his entry music done professionally. It helps that a brother is a music producer. He was one of the first trainees at CWE. “My father (a financier) is big time into workout... I started at the age of 11.”
Hard KD: Kavita Devi, 33, is from a farming family in Jind, Haryana, and most recently won gold in the 75 kg weightlifting category at the South Asian Games in February. “I could not make the Rio (Olympics) cut, so headed here.” Backed in younger days by her brother, she is now married to a volleyball player who contacted Khali for her. She has rented a room near the academy and her son, 4, lives with his aunt. “After all the hard work and sacrifice, it’s time to get famous,” she says. She’s the salwar-kameez-clad challenger in one of the viral videos of CWE.
Rudra: Lakshmi Kant Rajput, 22, tried everything from taekwondo to javelin throw before his friends heard of CWE and persuaded him. From Banda in UP, he is from a farming family of traditional wrestlers. “Convincing the family was easy for me. I want to get to WWE quickly now.” He is the reigning CWE champ, by the way.
Shanky Singh: Gurvinder Singh Malhotra, 26, from Jagadhri in Haryana, 7’-1’’, as tall as Khali. Son of a factory supervisor, he turned to the gym while working as accountant at a university in Mullana. “I gathered Rs 1.7 lakh in four years to build a house. My dad gets just Rs 9,500 a month, and I am the only son.”
Then, he saw Khali talk about CWE on Kapil Sharma’s comedy show and landed here. “What was I supposed to do if not something like this?” He found the training difficult and “every night I cried in the bathroom”. His baby face makes him a butt of jokes. “They will shut up once I make it!” He is looking for a better ring name.