Queens of the Ring

Sonal Matharu

In a village in Jalandhar, five young women are training to lift, kick, punch and act in style along with about 200 men. This, they say, is their gateway to the international stage of entertainment wrestling. At Firstpost this week, we check what it takes to be a woman wrestling entertainer in India.

Divya Aale digs into her bed trunk and pulls out a short red dress which barely covers her thighs. In the reflection of a small mirror, she wears matching lipstick, fake eyelashes and, the final touch, glittery silver high heels.

It's Saturday evening and soon young boys from the neighbouring villages will fill the space around a ring in her academy in Jalandhar for their free weekly two-hour dose of entertainment wrestling, a sport they have only watched on television before.

File image of Cheeni Alia. Screengrab from YouTube

File image of, Divya Aale, known by her stage name Cheeni Alia. Screengrab from YouTube

On many Saturdays, Divya has dressed in tank tops and shorts, which is appropriate for a fight. In the flashlights circling the top of the ring, the 24-year-old has crushed her co-wrestlers, won titles and has become a crowd-puller in just eight months of training. Her favourite move €" swerving of her hips €" leaves the spectators roaring.

She is one of the prime draws of the Continental Wrestling Entertainment (CWE), the four-year-old wrestling academy in Kangniwal village, 9 kilometres from Jalandhar city, which she trains in. She fights under the name Cheeni Aalia. A YouTube search shows an endless list of her videos shot inside and outside the ring. But today, she is not listed in any fight. She will be the master of ceremonies. Hence the dress.

Her senior and biggest rival, BB Bull Bull, is away on a break. Reeta Rani, another senior wrestler, has hurt her back. Three other girls at the academy €" Aarushi Jat, Kamal Bisht and Simran Sharma €" are new and are not fight-ready.

At 5 pm the colourful lights flash, the DJ plays loud thumping music, smoke fills the corridor from where wrestlers enter and live cameras from Punjab's local television network, PTC, roll.

Divya's heels dig into the thin layer of foam on the ring floor which is hidden under clean black sheets as she announces the men's fights on a muffled microphone. Soon, burly men with shaven bodies take grand entries and throw each other on this floor, creating loud crashing sounds each time.

The fights also get vulgar. BB Bull Bull's favourite move in the ring is 'stinky face': She pushes her backside in the face of her opponent and rubs it. One male wrestler sits on the shoulders of his opponent with his crotch in his face. Male wrestlers beat up the women, pull their hair to loud roaring of the crowd.

The participants justify this by saying that these moves are their USPs. When the women are beaten up, they beat men back €" giving the 'message' that they are equally strong, says Divya.

Dream within a dream

In 2015, a year after leaving the WWE stage, wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, famous for his ring name 'The Great Khali', built a modest two-storey building on this prime land on the main road. His WWE fight images dot the hoardings at the entrance of this academy surrounded by agricultural fields. Its dorm-like rooms, rustic gym and stairs without railings nurture the dreams of over 250 amateur wrestlers who want to become international stars €" just like him.

"It was my dream to bring entertainment wrestling to India," says the towering Rana, with a billed height of 7'1", monitoring the morning workout of his students. Moreover, Punjab needed it. The state has earned a reputation of drug abuse and despite being the "wrestlers' hub" it has not produced any real stars in the sport who are successful outside the state, he adds.

Along with his own experience, Rana brought WWE coaches to train students in nutrition, strength and stage performance. Foreign wrestlers come to the big wrestling matches organised in various Indian cities by the Continental Wrestling Entertainment. Most of all, with CWE, he opened the floodgates of opportunity for women in entertainment wrestling.

In four years, the only CWE wrestler selected for WWE is a woman, Kavita Devi, who goes by the ring name Hard KD. For the aspiring women wrestling entertainers, CWE is a gift from Khali.

Meet the women

Two scrawny girls confidently duck and bounce off the ropes inside the ring with over sixty men on a cold February morning at the academy. But unlike the boys, their feather steps don't rumble the ring floor.

"On my first day of training, I fainted," says 19-year-old Aarushi Jat who joined the academy two months ago. Back home in Bhiwani village of Haryana, she has a family of mud-wrestlers. "My three brothers wrestle in every fight they can find. It's like how people run after free food," she laughs. But Aarushi, being a girl, was never allowed to step into the fighting arena.

She was working in an ayurvedic products company and was once called for a meeting in the head office at Jalandhar. She gathered some colleagues and visited CWE, which she had found online. "I saw Khali sir and ran out to the road, shivering," she says, embarrassed by how nervous she was. In three months, she gathered courage and with some encouragement from a cousin brother, she left home, firmly telling her parents that she was going to be a wrestler.

Her company at her small academy room is 23-year-old History postgraduate from IGNOU, and the lightest student of the academy at 47 kilograms, Kamal Bisht. "Since I was 14 years old, I only wanted to be a wrestler," Kamal says.

Aarushi and Kamal grew up watching their wrestling stars €" The Undertaker, John Cena, Mick Foley, Shawn Michaels and The Rock €" on television.

Sitting in the room, Divya can relate to their stories. She was the only girl among 200 boys to first start living in the academy. A handball player and a trained dancer, she left her dance teacher contract in London mid-way to join CWE. Her family is from Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh and ancestors from Nepal.

File image of BB Bull Bull. Screengrab from YouTube

File image of BB Bull Bull. Screengrab from YouTube

The most senior woman wrestler at the academy is 30-year-old former karate coach, Reeta Rani. For the last four years, she has been travelling daily from Ludhiana to Jalandhar, a two-hour bus ride each side, to train here. She and Simran are the only two women from Punjab.

It is the glamour and the power which women wrestlers display in the ring that drove these young girls to take up the sport. "These women were powerful and sexy," says Divya, about WWE divas Trish Stratus, Lita and Chyna, the wrestlers she looks up to. "These women showed that they are as strong as men and can even fight them."

Entertainment in and out of the ring

Entering the academy is only half the battle won. The choice of clothes worn in the ring and the dance moves are all seen by the families on YouTube videos and live television.

In her two months in the academy, Aarushi once accompanied a male wrestler for dancing. "My family was furious. They could not understand that if I had gone to be a wrestler, why I was dancing," she says. After she explained how entertainment is part of the game, her family made peace with the fact that they will see much more of it. "Except my father's elder brother. He is still mad at me," she says.

Divya has a range of micro shorts and crop tops in bright colours. It took a while for her family to get used to seeing her baring her midriff, legs and shoulders, she says.

The closest Kamal can come to glamorous dressing is a sleeveless black top and bright red pants. Aarushi wears a pair of pink leggings and matching short kurta. Their wardrobe, they say, will have to be upgraded once they take ring names and start fighting.

Despite facing challenges from society and their families, these women are determined to stay. "This is my dream. I will do whatever it takes to become a wrestler," says Aarushi.

Their caretaker and guru, Rana, is blunt. "Anyone can learn wrestling in a year. But one has to be an entertainer to succeed in this sport. Glamour, style, the manner in which you engage with the crowd, all are equal elements in becoming a wrestling star," he says.

More than the fight, he explains, entertainment wrestling is about understanding the nerve of the crowd and then playing along. "You have to know when to play which stunt," he adds.

The CWE YouTube channel, the biggest platform for the academy wrestlers to promote themselves, has 1.5 million subscribers. "There are very few academies that can rise up to this level in such a short time," says Rana.

Each wrestler has a juicy story online, the plots of which are designed by Rana himself. In these one-to-six-minute videos shot inside the academy campus, wrestlers are pitched against each other. They have affairs with female wrestlers, fights break out and groups are formed. They beat up wrestlers impersonating cops and godmen and cover any other issue which the peri-urban north Indian youth can relate to. This youth is also their strongest viewership base.

For instance, when Shanky Singh, one of their star wrestlers, chokeslams policemen when they stop him from doing push-ups on the road, Rana justifies it by saying that it shows how cops unnecessarily harass the youth in Punjab. The video has more than two crore views.

Reeta is cheating on Royal, a young academy boy, who plays her furious boyfriend. She is oiling the back of Radhe Radhe, another wrestler and Royal can see it on live camera. He barges into the room, kicks Radhe off the bed and pulls Reeta out. The crowd cheers.

Dinesh, another wrestler, likes Divya. But a fake godman, Raghudev Baba, played by another student, is trying to get close to her. In one video, she is in a room when the baba tries to touch her inappropriately. Dinesh breaks into the room and kicks the baba in the face. This video has more than four crore views.

In another video with 68 lakh views, Divya is wrapped in a towel, just out of the shower when the baba taps on her shoulder. She screams on seeing him in the room and Dinesh runs in and starts kicking the baba.

All these stories continue to play out in the ring on Saturdays. Reeta now walks in with Radhe Radhe and snubs Royal. Dinesh takes on Raghudev Baba and loses his championship belt to him. Divya enters the ring to console him. And the crowd loves it.

"The main thing is €" is the audience enjoying or not?" says Rana.

Beyond the Academy

Since the CWE started, at least 1,000 students have joined, out of which 700 have dropped out. The dropout rate among women is higher: Only about 20-25 of them so far have remained steady in their training. This is a tough sport where injuries can be grave.

"Women take fights personally. For them, winning and losing becomes an ego issue," says Rana. Even within the five students, there is a clear rift €" Reeta camp and Divya camp.

Rana says he is showing his students an opening into a possible international career. How they achieve it, is their 'fight'. "My main aim is to give these children a platform," says Rana. He organises big-ticket events in north Indian cities like Dehradun, Panchkula and Ludhiana where the wrestlers get a chance to display their talent. The cheap in-house action and drama is also a magnet on social media. Once the wrestlers are famous, people want to see their fights.

He is also preparing them for failures. All students in the academy want to go to the WWE. A contract there means crores in hand each year and popularity that scales borders. But only a handful of them will make it.

His students are also branching out in streams other than wrestling. Shanky has got a role in a Salman Khan film. Many boys have got acting work in serials and Punjabi films. One wrestler is playing Hanuman in a TV series.

A former woman wrestler, Sunny Jat, became so popular that her caste group leaders offered her an MLA ticket in Rajasthan. She is now starting her own wrestling company there.

The steady stream of the young and the curious doesn't cease. At the Saturday fight, 24-year-old Deepak Khattar is a gym trainer in Rohtak and wants to be a wrestler. He clings to the railing from the start to the end of the fight, his bag pack on the side and his phone on video mode.

Sitting in the audience and cheering for her favourite wrestlers, Aarushi has already declared herself a star. "The girls in my village see my videos and their jaws drop," she says. "I can be a way out for the closed, controlled lives girls live in my state," she adds.

Kamal, who cannot hide her tiny frame even after padding it with layers of clothes, boasts, "I am ready to fight even the men now."

The last fight is over, the lights dim and keen fans of The Great Khali hover outside his office to get a picture with him. A week later, the show will begin again.

Divya retires to her room. Next month she will be in a wrestling ring in Mumbai, but in her fight costume for WWE trials. "Audiences like to watch women wrestlers," Divya says. And she is ready to put her best foot forward.

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