The pungent smell of pain reliever hung heavy in the air around the vanity vans parked outside the building called Studio 7 — a sign that wrestler Amanpreet Singh Randhawa was nearby. A day earlier, Randhawa had been brutally punched and hit in the chest with a steel chair, inside the ring at Studio 7. But a few minutes ago, undeterred, he had taken a steel chair to the same area — if you’re in the ring, pain is usual company and must be embraced. So he goes about his business fighting a four-man tag-team match. Randhawa is battered in the ring but he and his team eventually win. Outside the main arena, reeking as he was of the nostril-stinging spray (he nearly emptied an entire can on himself), the odour does nothing to quell fans from taking selfies with the man they know as Mahabali Shera. At six feet-two inches, with regulation bulging biceps, an overgrown mop of curls and a powerslam finishing move called “Veera Bomb”, the 26-year-old Randhawa is clearly a very popular draw.
Inside the building, the announcer repeats, “Villains will come from the left of the stage, you have to boo them. Heroes will come from the right, you have to cheer for them.” This was in Film City, Mumbai, where many such hero-villain productions are made. And the crowd visiting weren’t first-timers, but regulars, paid to serve as studio audience for various shows. “I’ve come often for shows like Comedy Nights,” says one college student.
The show on offer here, however, was an episode of Impact Wrestling, formerly called Total Nonstop Action (TNA). World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Impact Wrestling typically have a plot, where the characters have rivalries and friendships based on an ongoing story. This was the first time any major wrestling entertainment company had come to India to shoot a segment that involved such a running storyline (all previous trips to India were exhibition fights, not aired on the main show).
But the concept wasn’t an alien one for the audience — it simply triggered a flashback from the ’90s, a time when collecting trump cards was cooler than Pokemon is today. When there was great joy in drawing out the prized Yokozuna card — an American wrestler whose weight category was unmatchable — or in using Big Show’s height to win a hand. So, the show became an ideal opportunity for dusty pieces of memorabilia to come out of the closet. Quite a few in the audience sported t-shirts declaring their allegiance to John Cena, taglines of Stone Cold Steve Austin and, the perennial favourite, the Undertaker. Such is the following of an entertainment product that has long been known to be scripted.
Impact Wrestling co-founder and former WWE wrestler, Jeff Jarrett says, “When you look at the economies from around the world, India is right at the top. So the Indian market is high priority and I saw that when I came here in 2011.” In the crowd, many remembered Jarrett for being the guitar-wielding wrestler who’d clobber the instrument on the head of an opponent — a gimmick that struck well with the fans.
Historically, India has been a keen promoter of contact sport. Kushti and kabaddi go back centuries. Pre-Partition India saw legends emerge, such as the Great Gama, and, later, the invincible Dara Singh. Both were subject to challenges from international opponents, much to the delight of the Indian fans. In Dara Singh’s case, the 1955 bout against Hungarian wrestler Emile Czaja aka King Kong, remains legendary, as Dara famously outmuscled, and, eventually, toppled his foreign opponent out of the ring.
These wrestling events eventually faded away in the ’90s, about the same time that WWE (then called WWF) made its way to Indian television. Neither the WWE nor Impact Wrestling has, however, remained oblivious to their Indian fan base. In fact, steps have been taken to add Indian characters to form a further connect with audiences here. Shera features in Impact Wrestling, as does Sonjay Dutt whose real name is Retesh Bhalla. His ring name was picked to resemble the famed Bollywood actor.
“Indians are passionate about their wrestling and it’s natural to have India-grown talent here,” says Jarrett. The Great Khali was one of the bigger Indian names in WWE, besides the recently crowned WWE champion, Jinder Mahal, a Canadian of Indian descent. “The WWE is always looking to expand in India because of the huge presence there,” says Mahal over telephone.
Earlier this year, Satnam Singh Bhamara, the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA franchise was invited to a training session at a WWE facility in the US. “They were very interested in him and invited him to check out their facility. They made him an offer, but we did not accept. It’s a good Plan B to have, once basketball ends for him,” his manager, Sunny Gill, had said. Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar has also looked for an opportunity to join WWE. In June 2015, after trials in Dubai, Indian nationals Satender Dagar (a wrestler with the ring name Jeet Rama) and circle kabaddi player Lovepreet Singh (aka Kishan Raftar) begun careers in the WWE.
Impact Wrestling first came to India with their short-lived show, Ring Ka King in 2011. Now, they’re back again, to carry out a totally new storyline.
As with any sports entertainment, the plot needs a cued audience and improvised executions to make the product more dramatic. It was almost a given that a producer would signal to Shera’s father, sitting ringside, to look concerned as the wrestler got pummelled by the steel chair. The elderly gentleman would even raise his walking stick in joy when his son emerged victorious. The “villains” need to do their bit as well to maintain plot and character. Wrestler Ethan Carter III, aka EC3, dubbed himself ‘E-Singh-3’ when he came out to the ring and started insulting the Indian community. “As a performer, you’ve to keep improvising, even if it is by insulting. It’s all about the fans. If there are no fans, we have no jobs,” says Michael Hutter, who plays the character EC3.
Four episodes were filmed during the two-day shoots. But for a show designed for India, it simply isn’t possible to not have a desi ending. Sure enough, Shera won a 10-man Battle Royal contest and was given a trophy that he cried over (happy tears, for Indian fans). Meanwhile, Dutt, with the Lion Capital tattooed on his right bicep and ‘Om’ printed on his spandex tights, finally claimed a title he’d been “chasing for the past 15 years.” Everyone in the audience knew it would happen. The script was too easy to guess, but it was still the process of getting to the finish that pumped adrenaline on cue.
The audience played its part, and arguably, the emcee’s task was the most pointless one, as people already knew what to cheer and how to go about it. They duly shouted “Si!” when Mexican wrestler Alberto el Patron came out, and “Moose” at the wrestler of the same name. But there was a homely touch to the chants as well. For all the elaborate calls the announcer would ask for, Indian fans will always revert to the ones screamed at local maidans or at an international football match. Which is, when in doubt, blame the referee – “Referee sucks!”