June 1, 2008
Conflicting Images of WWE's The Great Khali from U.S. and Indian Cultural Perspectives

Awhile back, former C3 manager Parmesh Shahani sent me a link to an interesting post about World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestler The Great Khali. Khali, from India, was brought into the WWE because of his abnormal size and was put into the "monster" role that pro wrestling has long cultivated, the scary and intimidating behemoth that other wrestlers fear because of their brute strength.

Khali was put into a variety of big matches and even had a run as the heavyweight champion of Smackdown , but this was all complicated by the fact that--even though Khali was an attention-getter with his abnormal size--his size were a detriment in the athleticism of his wrestling performances. In fact, dedicated wrestling fans in the U.S. regularly dreaded his matches, because of the feeling that he had less wrestling ability than almost any other wrestler on the roster.

Many wrestling fans have long resented the fact that less talented performers are brought in and often given big "pushes" as marquee wrestlers because of the visual impressiveness of their size, especially when they take up main event spots that lead to lower-quality pay-per-view wrestling matches and cause more talented athletes to be positioned lower on the card. It's the tension between trying to create dynamics to attract less involved fans and satisfying the most dedicated ones.

But this post, from EditIndia, emphasizes that there are often multiple audiences watching products, especially for a bland as global as the WWE, which has found increasing success in pushing its franchise into media markets across the globe.

The blog says:

Tune into Star TV or Aajtak or anyother channel and the chances are quite strong that you would see a special report on The Great Khali alias Dalip Singh Rana.

The Indian professional wrestler has suddenly become a rage in the country. And in the madness for grabbing eyeballs, the channels are competing with each other in showing his bouts and programmes on his life. People did watch WWF in the past but such craze is amazing.

Parmesh and I had an exchange about the post, and he wrote a follow-up post. Parmesh wrote:

Sam, a wrestling scholar, wrote to me that among WWE fans in the US, Khali is seen as an interesting spectacle, but thats it. It is interesting how he is adopted by Indian fans and cable TV stations, and how the narrative around him changes completely in this context. Of course, none of the English news media covers this in India. It's a Hindi thing - a jingoistic Chak De India kind of yes we showed them chest-thumping, but yet, such joy at the approval and prizes won from "them" - in this case, the WWE, which of course, stands in for the USA.

Parmesh goes on to link this to the Shilpa Shetty/Celebrity Big Brother UK incident, which I wrote about last year.

Parmesh's point regarding approval from a U.S. entertainment company is an interesting point, made even more so by the fact that Khali is a heel (villain) in the U.S. yet treated as a hero in much of this Hindi coverage.

See this interesting exchange from Yahoo! Answers India, where a fan of Khali's questions why longtime wrestling fans hate him, pointing out the performer's kindness and the "social service" he does in India, prompting responses most succinctly summed up by user Fatal8, who says "he sux an has no skill."

On the other hand, see this fan site, which declares Khali "The Father of Indian Professional Wrestling."

Fascinating to see how differently a performer can be viewed, depending on the international context and the narrative being constructed by different fan communities.


On July 16, 2008 at 12:52 PM, Sudha Author Profile Page said:

I'd like to add one more reading to this spectrum of readings of Khali.
Recently one of India's well-known journalists wrote in her regular blog on the website of the news channel for which she is a leading presenter. In the blog entry she cited Khali as an example of India's now unstoppable globalization. To paraphrase: "Now police constables from rural India can become pro-wrestling celebrities abroad." For many observers in India, like this journalist, Khali's rural background makes his journey to his current celebrity emblematic of both the self-confidence and the raging ambition of the underclass in India today, in the context of the country's rapid economic growth. For opinion makers, he is a celebrity not so much for his talents as a pre-wrestler, but for what his current fame says about the new self-confidence of provincial, non-English speaking India. At least this is my general understanding based on my perusal of many of the news reports when he recently visited India again.


Thanks for another reading, Sudha. I think you're absolutely right that, oftentimes, people ascend to high celebrity status based on what they represent for the country, more so than any inherent talent or personality. That said, there's something about Khali that makes him fitting in that role: his size, compared to his humble backgrounds; his soft-spoken and gentle personality that can't help but come out, compared to his frightening look. In short, the fact that he's a humble yet intimidating force makes him the perfect symbol of this sort of rising power...I'm interested in seeing what, if anything, WWE does to capitalize on this popularity, especially now that Khali plays a significant role in a big international film such as Get Smart.