Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 15, Dated April 19, 2008
Big Man, Big
The journey of
The Great Khali, India’s first WWE wrestler, is
an astonishing one. SHANTANU GUHA RAY susses out the
man behind the spectacle
STEVE CARELL, lead
actor of Get Smart, once told an mtv.com reporter about a hulk
on the sets who impressed everyone though he had a small role. “He
could put his hand over your entire head and crush you. He’s a very
sweet guy, but he did not speak English really well. I don’t even
know if he was completely aware that he was doing a movie.” Carell
was talking about The Great Khali, a former Mr India who briefly held,
in 2007, the world champion’s title at the World Wrestling Entertainment
(WWE, formerly, the WWF).
Now an icon across the United States, he was India’s “champion
bodybuilder” in 1997 and 1998. At seven feet, three inches, and
weighing 190 kilos, he is the only Indian on the WWE bandwagon (there
was Tiger Ali Singh signed up before him but Singh was from Canada). Now
based in Atlanta, The Great Khali comes from Dhirana in Himachal Pradesh
and old-timers in Shimla recall how one Dalip Singh Rana would toss luggage
onto the carriers of buses with consummate ease. That was part-time work;
full-time job was crushing stone for local contractors.
Eventually, he landed a job with the Punjab Police and later made it big
in what the US doesn’t even recognise as a legitimate sport. That,
however, hasn’t stopped WWE from rocking TV ratings in many countries
where the shows are telecast. Khali was rather disappointed, two years
ago, when he was not selected to go to Iraq. American entertainers, including
Marilyn Monroe, have often visited warzones to cheer up the troops and
Khali had hoped to go to Iraq when a sub-committee of the Pentagon put
together a list of WWE wrestlers. Though his name was considered, Khali
wasn’t on the final list. When he heard, he walked up to a huge
map of India that hangs on his living room wall and prayed for two minutes.
“He called to say that he’d prayed for better luck next time,”
says Akhil Swami, a six-time international bodybuilding champion and Khali’s
official spokesman and Man Friday based in Rewari, in Haryana.
Sports cognos centi believe Khali owes his success to the fact that he’s
from India — a nation not known to be the best in boxing, armwrestling,
bodybuilding or weightlifting. Yet, Khali is a master at all. “People
in America just cannot imagine someone from India in the WWE ring. They
are amused to see me perform,” says Khali during a telephone conversation,
moderated by Swami. “I am happy with my performance and am getting
some decent offers from Hollywood producers.” He likes spending
time with his wife, Harminder Kaur, a trained motivator and homemaker.
“Many people imagine me living in a fancy villa and driving expensive
cars but I do none of that. I live in a simple home and don’t have
the money to order a customized car that would fit my size,” says
In 1999, international doors began to open up for Dalip Singh Rana. He
and Swami were once at the international airport in Delhi, waiting to
receive Dorian Yates of England, who’d been Mr Olympia six times.
Before Yates cleared immigration, he was amazed to see locals posing for
pictures with Rana, mistaking him for Yates. “He will definitely
go places if he maintains his physique,” Yates told Swami. Rana
did not disappoint. When he was selected, Rana told his WWE mentors that
the Goddess Kali is the one who evokes the most fear and scriptwriters
invented a new name: The Great Khali was born, like The Diesel and The
Undertaker, to participate in matches that are always fixed. The WWE brochure
says, The Great Khali has traversed the Himalayas, fought with tigers
and ruled the earth like a giant savage before descending on the WWE.
Khali laughs at such stories. A devotee of the religious preacher Ashutosh
Maharaj, he is a vegetarian, a non-smoker and non-drinker. When he’s
not performing, he is looking for old, unemployed destitutes near his
home so he can bring them home-cooked food for them. Swami recollects
a similar incident: many years ago on a wintry night in Rewari, Rana took
off his big blanket and offered it to a shivering beggar. “He has
a heart of gold,” says Swami.