By April Lavalle
Jinder Mahal stunned the pro wrestling world when his meteoric rise through the roster culminated in his winning the WWE Championship from Randy Orton at WWE Backlash in Chicago on May 21. A 6’5” bundle of angular muscles with a snarling face and imposing voice (well, if he doesn’t lose it), Mahal makes a perfect heel, continuing the WWE’s longstanding (and frankly shitty) tradition of making brown people villains.
So sure, on paper, Mahal is the perfect heel. But is he really?
A decade after The Great Khali held the World Heavyweight Championship, Mahal became the first Indian WWE Champion, thus beginning the reign of the Modern Day Maharajah. When Mahal entered the WWE (the first time, before he was fired and eventually rehired), he was a forgettable mid-carder operating under “The Man Who Comes in Peace” gimmick. It didn’t work. Perhaps because a Ghandi-like character makes absolutely no sense in the world of professional wrestling, perhaps because it is lame to think that Indian people come in two stereotypical flavors: peaceful yogi and evil foreigner, perhaps because Mahal was just..not..good. Maybe a combination of all of those things? Anyway, it was bad.
What Mahal has going on now is certainly more interesting. Most of Mahal’s promos have the same few themes. 1) he has worked hard to become champion. 2) he is great/the best/all that typical shit. 3) and most importantly: he is vastly misunderstood. He often talks about how Americans are “intolerant” and “ignorant,” and how he is judged solely on the way he looks. Comments like these are usually met with a chorus of “Boos!” and “U-S-A” chants as if the crowd is saying “F— you, Jinder. We are woke as hell and you know nothing.” In a time when people are pressed to take hard, long looks at their privileges, Jinder’s championship run is certainly timely, if not totally opportunistic.
So why are we booing Jinder, a man who is merely standing before millions asked to be understood? Well, we are supposed to boo the heel, so that is one thing. And sure, Jinder does have some heel-y moments— he literally stole the belt at one point. But his writing is certainly inconsistent with the typical heel dialog. Instead of lusting to pulverize an opponent, like fellow Smackdown heel Baron Corbin, or calling for near sociopathic righteousness and compliance the program’s top heel, Kevin Owens, Mahal usually just wants American’s to respect his culture. Is that really what makes him the ultimate bad guy?
Jinder’s story outside the ring also has “face” written all over it. According to a recent interview with FOX Sports, Mahal debuted at 24 and was way over his head. After being released by the WWE, going on a bit of a decline with alcohol and drugs, Jinder rose from the ashes. What is more babyface than a good comeback story? And though I’d like to pretend that kayfabe is the only thing that matters, let’s not pretend that the personal life of wrestlers don’t contribute to their in-ring personas. Admit it, you may think John Cena is totally lame, but you can’t completely hate the guy because of his charitable work.
While one Canadian gets to play the “Face of America” without making WWE’s audience feel like their patriotism is questioned, another Canadian is designated to the role of the heel with distinctly un-heel-like dialog, and faces U-S-A chants while wrestling mostly white wrestlers. No matter how deeply Mahal descends into “heeldom” through his reign as WWE Champion, he is an undeniable hero to the valuable Indian market, which is probably why Mahal was put on top on the first place.
If nothing else, Jinder Mahal’s championship run holds a mirror up to the American audience. The question is, will anyone even bother to look?