How Jinder Mahal, an Indian WWE Star, Is Turning Up the Heat

Mr. Dhesi, the first WWE champion of Indian descent, is a heel (wrestling speak for a villain), so it is his job to turn crowds into booing, angry mobs. As part of his persona, he exhorts the crowd with statements of cultural confrontation: that Americans are too clueless to realize that greatness comes from immigrants (and therefore, himself). The heated rhetoric often sounds like it would be at home on a cable news panel rather than a wrestling ring.

.. WWE performers have long relied on patriotism and “us vs. them” narratives. In the 1980s, a tag team featuring the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff waved the flags of Iran and the U.S.S.R.; in the 1990s, Sgt. Slaughter, a onetime patriot, switched his sympathies to Iraq. Recently, Miroslav Barnyashev, a Bulgarian athlete who competes under the name Rusev, wrestled John Cena in a so-called “flag match”; the Stars and Stripes prevailed. But Mr. Dhesi has been elevated by the company at very specific moment. One of the pillars of President Trump’s campaign platform was to cut down on undocumented immigration, and his charged language often linked immigration with crime, spurring protests all over the country.

.. The WWE is looking to expand into India, a country where sports entertainment is already popular, with a potential audience of 1.3 billion people. Its programming is available now in 180 countries and in 650 million homes, according to a spokesman. It is a publicly traded company and has attracted many big name sponsors, including Snickers and Mattel.

.. “We keep our finger on the pulse of pop culture,” said Paul Levesque, an executive vice president and a longtime performer, known as Triple H. “But we’re more worried about entertainment and pop culture than we are about politics and pop culture.”

.. While the matches are merely performances according to executives and athletes alike, the WWE has become entwined with politics. Linda McMahon, a co-founder of the company, was picked by President Trump to lead the Small Business Administration. President Trump himself took part in WrestleMania in 2007, and in the 1980s, the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City hosted the event twice. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. In July, he tweeted an edited video clip of himself at WrestleMania punching a figure whose head had been replaced with the CNN logo.

.. Mr. Dhesi arrived at the WWE in 2011 and spent three years as mostly enhancement talent or more impolitely: a professional loser. In wrestling parlance, he was a jobber: a performer who exists almost entirely to make other performers look better.

.. But Mr. McMahon made a change: He wanted Jinder Mahal to talk about his immigrant roots and an America in decline. Mr. Dhesi, who first visited India when he was 10, was uncomfortable at first but dutifully carried out his boss’s wishes. At the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines he addressed then-champion Randy Orton.

“Randy, you’re just like all of these people!” Mr. Dhesi said, shooting his opponent a piercing glare. “You disrespect me because I look different! You disrespect me because of your arrogance and your lack of tolerance!

He was wearing a turban. And then he spoke Punjabi. The crowd expressed its disapproval.

“The reaction was great; I heard the crowd that day,” Mr. Dhesi said. “I was elevated to star status just within that one promo.” With more eyes on his giant, rippled physique came speculation that he is using steroids (Mr. Dhesi has passed all of his drug tests mandated by the WWE).

.. We really are no different than a great book, a great play, a great movie, an opera and even more applicably, a ballet,” said Stephanie McMahon, the chief brand officer of the WWE, as well as an occasional performer. “We tell stories of protagonists versus antagonists with conflict resolution. The only difference is that our conflicts are resolved inside a 20-by-20-foot ring.”

.. Since then, the WWE has shifted toward a more family-friendly approach and is making an effort to include more South Asian performers.

.. As lifelong wrestling fans, both have watched Mr. Dhesi’s rise with pride. “India is getting exposure in this company that it never got before,”