Indian wrestler a hit at home
WWE heavyweight Khali grapples with superstardom.
MUMBAI, India - After two hours of swaying to thumping Bollywood neo-folk music and listening to stock stage jokes, the fans grew impatient and began chanting for the star of the evening to show up. "We want Khali! We want Khali!"
And when the Goliath-size professional wrestler of that name appeared on stage in a blue cotton shirt, jeans and ponytail, thousands of hands raised cell phone cameras to capture the image.
"Khali, we love you," screamed men and women alike. "The Khali bomb!" yelled a male voice. Little boys tried to climb over barricades to get closer to the stage, on a college campus.
In India, public hysteria like this is usually reserved for stars of cricket or the film industry known as Bollywood. But Khali has earned his frenzied fame by becoming the Indian icon of American TV wrestling.
He is the first man from this country to rise high in the gladiatorial world of World Wrestling Entertainment, winning the world heavyweight championship in July 2007.
The square-jawed wrestler weighs 420 pounds, is 7 feet, 3 inches tall, and measures 63 inches around the chest.
He also goes by the names the Great Khali and Mahabali-Khali - Khali Who Has Great Strength. The Mahabali title is often applied to the Hindu monkey-headed god Hanuman.
When Khali recently returned to India for a vacation, thousands of fans were waiting with marigold garlands at the New Delhi airport when he landed. Since then, it's been one fanatical near-stampede after another.
"He is our own Rocky Balboa. From zero to hero," said Darshan Rewar, a 22-year-old engineering graduate who arrived with his family three hours before the scheduled time of Khali's public appearance at the Mumbai college campus.
"We want to go backstage and touch him, just once," said his sister, Dipti Rewar, a 24-year-old schoolteacher. "I want to see the 63-inch chest."
For two years now, India's Hindi news television networks have fed hungry viewers daily reports on Khali - what he eats, what he wears, whom he married. Indian reporters have traveled to Khali's home in Atlanta and showed viewers images of every corner of his house, as well as its automatic gates and the street it's on.
"Cricket is a religion in India, they say," noted an article in the news tabloid Mail Today. "Well, Khali is both a religion and a god all rolled into one."
Khali met with India's president, Pratibha Patil, and she described him as the "pride of the nation."
"I play to bring honor to India's name abroad, and I feel very proud when I am beating up white wrestlers," Khali said in Mumbai. India was colonized by Britain, and to many people here, his victories constitute payback of sorts, the underdog rising up to beat the former master.
His fans recite details of how the towering Khali, in his trademark black track pants and flowing curls, squashed a dreaded opponent called the Undertaker with a kick to the head. He has also battled the likes of Rey Mysterio, Kane and Batista, using signature moves - the Khali bomb (a two-handed choke-slam), vise grip, and brain-chop.
The official Web site of WWE attributes mythic qualities to Khali: "This enormous monster has walked the jungles of India unafraid of pythons and wrestled white Bengal tigers. Legend states that the Punjabi Warrior has stared into the abyss and the earth trembled at his gaze."
The reality is less spectacular. Khali was born Dalip Singh Rana in 1972, in a poor family of seven children in a Himalayan village called Dhirana. He grew up largely unschooled. As a young man, he struggled to make ends meet as a manual laborer, crushing stones in road-building projects.
Later, working as a security guard at a store, he was spotted by a police officer who inducted him into the force.
He won the Mr. India bodybuilding title in 1996 and 1997, after which friends funded training for a wrestling career. In 2000, he debuted in the American ring under the name Giant Singh. When he joined WWE, he took on his current ring name, from the Hindu goddess of power and destruction, Kali.
On paper, he retains his job as a police officer and is on "sick leave," even as he goes about brain-chopping opponents in the United States.
Khali appeared in the 2005 Hollywood movie
The Longest Yard,
and will be in the forthcoming film
Everywhere he went, people asked him what he ate. He told them he does not smoke or drink, eats four meals a day, and drinks lots of milk.
They also ask their hero if the fights on WWE are real. "I am a little tired of this question," Khali told reporters in Mumbai, visibly irritated. "We get injured quite often. Is the injury fake? Is the surgery fake?"