How The Great Khali conned the Indian media

From newspapers to politicians, everyone fell for the scripted drama of Khali vs Steele

ByHemant Gairola
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How The Great Khali conned the Indian media
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What do you get when you take two wrestlers and add a few stunts, some scripted dialogues and many gullible journalists? A comedy of errors that suggests Indian mainstream media needs to go back to school.

One of the first lessons of journalism is, “If your mom tells you she loves you, check it out.” This hyperbole is meant to emphasise the importance of healthy skepticism when you’re reporting and writing a story. In the age of press releases, however, checking is clearly overrated and as a result, when former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar, The Great Khali, performed in a wrestling tournament recently, the press proved to be the biggest losers. As a result of the media not being able to tell stunts from reality, Bharatiya Janata Party accused the organisers of supporting anti-national comments and an advocate went a step ahead and filed a petition. All because Khali was putting on a great show.

Know your facts

Khali, whose real name is Dalip Singh Rana, trains aspiring youngsters at his Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE) academy in Jalandhar, Punjab. At the end of February, Uttarakhand hosted two CWE shows. Both the shows, held four days apart, had Khali feuding with Canadian wrestler Brody Steele in the main event. Ahead of the matches, Steele made his contempt for Khali, India and Indians known loud and clear. “We Westerners have always ruled over you, you weak, inferior people,” he roared at Khali. Khali, dutifully, roared back with “khoon ka badla khoon” and promised revenge.

Even a lay wrestling fan knows such statements are merely part of a performance. This is why the ‘About Us’ section of the CWE website reads: “We offer professional wrestling training 6 days a week and includes acting, character development, ring awareness, balance, strength training and flexibility.”

Just like in WWE, good guys and bad guys are created. Tension is forced to escalate through scripted storylines that are designed to get viewers emotionally involved in the product. This is standard operating procedure. With all this in mind, one would know Steele’s salvo is to be taken in the same vein as Mogambo’s plans of bombing India in Mister India.

Unfortunately, in India, Steele’s dialogues were reported at face value, with all the seriousness that one would give a genuine press conference. After Steele & Co ganged up on Khali and knocked him out cold in their first clash, the Indian media reported all the theatrics and consequent storyline angles as news.

How it was done vs how it is done

Firstpost unsuspectingly carried stories from Press Trust of India with childish headlines. A case in point: “Be very afraid: The Great Khali vows to take revenge, ‘blood for blood’, on return from injury.” Similarly, The Times of IndiaHindustan TimesABP LiveZee News unquestioningly carried the PR-driven stories. Joining their callowness were Uttarakhand editions of Hindi dailies with their overexcited headlines that were effectively battle cries (for a fake battle).

Ahead of Khali and Steele’s final clash on February 28, Amar Ujala hyped up the “maha muqabla” (mega clash) as it would an India-Pakistan cricket match. Dainik Jagran published the ‘news’ of the wrestling event right next to the article about Team India’s victory over Pakistan in Asia Cup T20, arguably lending an air of credibility to the Khali and Steele’s thoroughly staged encounters.

It’s worth noting that Western publications such as Forbes, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times do occasionally write about the WWE, but they stress upon the artifice by using phrases like “storyline” and “scripted entertainment”. Sample this excerpt from a recent story:

“Now, obviously professional wrestling is scripted, and WWE… even provided a statement saying that Shane McMahon is ‘merely playing a character on a TV show,’ but there could be something more going on behind the scenes.”

Such a disclaimer was conspicuous by its absence in the Indian media’s coverage.

What took the cake was how later, Hindi dailies indulged in some sporadic speculation that the show might have been scripted after all. Two days after the first show, Amar Ujala “wondered” if the attack on Khali was a planned one. The same day, Dainik Jagran too observed, “The dramatic sequence of events is being seen as a publicity stunt.”

In the final leg of the series, Khali heroically overcame a three-on-one assault despite getting severely injured again. Finally, Amar Ujala concluded its conspiracy theory was true. Its coverage the following day had a smug “we told you so” quality, as though they’d cracked a conspiracy by sniffing out the fact that Khali’s victory was entirely too dramatic to be real. Dainik Jagran, after five days of naive reportage, noted matter of factly that pro-wrestling is a scripted programme. Like FirstpostIndian Express carried the dewy-eyed PTI story, joining the aforementioned culprits.

WrestlingINC, one of the biggest wrestling news websites, noted in an article how Indian media were reporting the programme as if it’s a real life episode. Writer and website president Raj Giri told 101reporters he thought the coverage was “very amateurish”. He pointed out that the angle that played out at The Great Khali’s shows has been enacted many times in the WWE and TNA, neither of which is new to India.

Aditya Sinha, former editor-in-chief of DNA and The New Indian Express, said while it’s true that the Indian media is ignorant, lazy and jumps the gun in interpreting innocuous events as something sinister, he would also have to blame the organisers for not doing their PR properly. Sinha pointed out that most reporters and writers in India are not specialists but generalists. “While that is often cited as evidence of their shallowness of knowledge, it also is evidence of their dexterity and their ability to reach multiple levels of society, unlike other professionals,” said Sinha. It’s a generous point, but it doesn’t change how well Khali and Steele duped Indian journalists.

Side-effects of stupidity

With media unwittingly lending an aura of reality to this entertainment show, the BJP entered the fray and took offence to Steele’s anti-India dialogues. As the Uttarakhand chief minister had hosted the press meet where these remarks were made, the BJP (which is the opposition party in the state) demanded he be charged with sedition. An advocate in Haridwar took this matter to the court. His petition blamed Steele for hurting his sentiments and charged Khali with violating the Indian constitution by signing on a “death warrant”.

101reporters spoke with Khali, who politely declined to comment on the media coverage but did express dismay that controversies have cropped up as his product was misunderstood. He stated that just like the WWE, the CWE is into “sports entertainment”. He stressed upon the entertainment aspect and requested that these matches be viewed in this context alone.

While Khali’s heartburn, caused by media’s latest misadventure, will vanish soon, this episode is a telling comment on the glaring lack of critical thinking in newsrooms.

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