“Just when King Kong thought that Dara Singh had given up, the latter picked Kong from his neck and dramatically choke-held him in the air, eventually making him scream for the referee to intervene. Upon the referee’s interference, Dara literally threw Kong out of the ring and claimed the title. The audience was left in awe and admiration of Dara’s strength and skills and he shot to worldwide fame overnight.”
The above passage is from a Men’s XP article on one of the most iconic matches featuring legendary Indian wrestler Dara Singh. For a generation or two of Indians growing up in the latter half of the 20th century, Singh, who died in 2012 at the age of 83, was synonymous with strength. There was no one in the world who was stronger than him. If you read any article on Singh’s career, it would tell you that he was undefeated in over 500 professional fights.
What most of those articles won’t tell you, however, is that those fights had predetermined results. Singh was in the business of professional wrestling, which combines athletics and theater. Professional wrestlers execute their moves with the full cooperation of their opponents and fight in a manner that reduces the possibility of getting injured.
That’s not to say Singh was a cheat. He just never broke the pro-wrestling code, known as kayfabe, referring to the illusion that the characters and storylines are real. In a pro-wrestling storyline, there usually is a hero, otherwise known as a ‘face’, and an anti-hero, called the ‘heel.’
Singh was always the face in his fights, and Indian audiences loved it when he beat up the heels, especially when they were foreign wrestlers. In a way, you could say Singh sowed the seeds for India’s fascination for the United States-based World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, which has today become synonymous with pro-wrestling.
India is currently the biggest fanbase for the WWE outside the US, with 335 million unique television viewers annually. India is also the biggest market in the world for WWE in terms of Facebook engagement and YouTube viewership – even bigger than the US. “The Indian audience ranges from ages 10-50+ with the largest chunk of 34% being between the age of 15-30,” said Sheetesh Srivastava - VP & General Manager - South Asia, WWE Corp. Around 40% of WWE’s TV audience is female.
So what fuels this craze for WWE in India? Do Indian fans still believe the fights are real, 30 years after WWE promoter Vince McMahon let the kayfabe cat out of the bag? “I knew it was scripted all along, but I don’t like to believe it,” said Mallvika Bhadwal, 30, a change management analyst at Accenture. “Even now, if you tell me it’s all scripted, I’ll say, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Different types of fans
There are three types of WWE fans, informed Rangeet Choudhury, a 21-year-old engineering student.
The first type is someone who really doesn’t know it’s scripted. In the world of WWE, such a fan is called a ‘Mark’. The second type is someone who knows it’s scripted but doesn’t think too much into it and just enjoys the show. Like Bhadwal, aforementioned. The third type is someone who knows it’s scripted and regularly discusses storylines on social media and online forums. This type of fan is called a ‘Smark’, short for a smart Mark.
“I am part of the third community, but most Indians are part of the second,” said Choudhury. “Most fans just treat it like a reality show.”
The television viewership that this reality show gets is mind-boggling. In 2018, wrestling became the most watched “sport” on Indian television, surpassing even cricket, according to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, and Ernst & Young.
Wrestling “garnered a 20% share in total sports viewership [in India], with cricket a close second at 19%,” the report said. Within the broader category of wrestling, key properties were the WWE and India’s Pro Wrestling League. While the report did not provide a viewership breakdown between WWE and the PWL, it’s safe to assume which property garnered more eyeballs.
What’s so fascinating about WWE to Indians?
“Think of it like you’re watching a show like Game of Thrones, but it’s happening live,” said Choudhury. “Even if it is staged, there is no space for cuts or retakes. Anyone who messes up a speech or a move is considered a failure.”
Choudhury believes WWE’s popularity in India is also down to the fact that the storylines and larger-than-life characters are just like those in Indian films. “Just look at the Undertaker,” he said. “In the world of wrestling, he’s like a dead man or a zombie – someone with mystical powers. But somehow WWE manages to pull it off in such a way that it doesn’t sound so crazy.”
Bhadwal remembers admiring the character Triple H as a teenager. “He used to spray water out of his mouth while entering the ring,” she said. “Some of the storylines and rivalries were also interesting, like the one between Kane and the Undertaker. The story goes like Kane wears mask because his face got burnt in a fire started by Undertaker, who is his half-brother. It was fun to watch.”
While Bhadwal stopped watching WWE after her teenage years as she got busy with her academic and professional life, the company has made a concerted effort to build its Indian audience since first setting up shop in the country in 2011. The overall strategy was to understand the market and grow the brand in the first few years and then localise it.
Today, WWE content is available on Indian television in four languages – Hindi, Tamil, Telegu and English. In March this year, ahead of its flagship annual event called Wrestlemania, the WWE launched a weekly digital show in Hindi called WWE NOW India. “The show delivers a desi twist to the breaking news, exclusive interviews and the hottest stories in WWE that have all of India talking,” Srivastava said.
In 2017, the WWE pushed Canadian wrestler Jinder Mahal to become its first champion of Indian descent. That same year, Kavita Devi became the first Indian woman to compete in a WWE trial ring.
However, the two wrestlers haven’t managed to become as popular in India as the WWE would have hoped. The Modern-Day Maharaja’s reign as the WWE champion lasted less than six months. In fact, the WWE got Triple H to beat Mahal in a fight staged in New Delhi in December 2017, which got many smarks speculating that his time at the top was over.
“Jinder Mahal was so bad that they could not persist with him that much,” said Choudhury. “I think they made a mistake by making him a heel. He was also a very cowardly character, so it failed to attract Indians.”
Before Mahal, there was the Great Khali, who was arguably more popular even though he was also a heel. “But he could barely move sometimes,” said Choudhury. “He was too old by the time he got to WWE. His knees were too weak. He was a huge sensation only because of his size and because he was the first Indian wrestler in WWE.”
Despite these apparent failures in pushing Indian wrestlers in WWE, the company isn’t giving up. There are currently nine wrestlers of Indian descent signed with the WWE, and they are on the lookout for more.
“We are proud to state that the largest tryout in WWE history took place in Mumbai [in March],” Srivastava added. As many as 80 athletes, including 20 women, from across the country participated in the tryout. The candidates came from backgrounds in bodybuilding, wrestling, kabaddi, combat sports, basketball and even cricket, according to the company.
Wrestling is unlikely to upstage cricket in television viewership again in 2019, with it being World Cup year in cricket, but WWE has different objectives. “It’s not our intent to become number one in India,” Srivastava said. “Our mission is to put smiles on the faces of our fans… Our flagship programming connects with fans because we are on air every week, 52 weeks a year. We have no off-season, no off-day, unlike other sport.”