In 2006, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) – the most globalised and corporate of “sporting” spectacles – introduced a giant of a man who would be an imposing figure in the company for the better part of a decade.
Dalip Singh Rana a.k.a. The Great Khali, who towers over us plebs at seven feet two, is an accomplished wrestler, a loving father and the dynamic CEO of a wrestling academy. But today, the metaphorical height of his influence on Instagram single-handedly dwarfs his stature.
Khali came into the WWE red hot and aflame, demolishing the supposedly invincible Undertaker in his debut. He went on to make records of excellence in wrestling (stints in All Pro Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling) and acting (he acted in the Adam Sandler-starrer Longest Yard and Steve Carell-starrer Get Smart). Just a year after his debut, he won the coveted WWE championship.
His journey from being a Himachal-born boy who moved to the north Indian state of Punjab to work as a daily wage labourer, to gaining an iconic status in WWE, is extraordinary. In April this year, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
But what’s got Khali back in the limelight these days is something unexpected: his Instagram account. There, he’s crowned the king of the “Khaliverse” – a fandom that thrives in his IG comments. Khaliverse is powered by a discourse that is past the limits of absurdity, sometimes obscene, but always hilarious.
The genius of Khali’s IG account can’t be overstated, as comments under any post indicate. Khali’s power, his X-factor, lies in his genuineness. What makes Khali captivating and endearing to his fans who make up the Khaliverse is apparently his realness and authenticity – terms that have lost their meaning in the influencer-age in which candidness is scripted.
In Khali’s case, there is no pretence. He’s unfiltered, unhinged and candid in every sense of the word. The Internet can’t take its eyes off this sweet, gigantic, wholesome man because he simply doesn’t care.
Take Khali’s lip sync Reels, for example.
Lip syncing is a popular activity that conventionally involves a person mouthing the words of an audio in the background to make up for their lack of real talent. But every lip sync Khali posts is disastrously mistimed at the very least.
Then there are Reels in which Khali says something in all seriousness but a completely unrelated song drowns out what he’s saying.
One of the boldest expressions I’ve ever seen on Instagram is Khali singing and dancing to a completely different song than the one playing in the Reel.
While other influencers chase trends, practise elaborate choreographies, and align themselves with the music in the background, Khali dances to his own tunes and mouths the words of a song that only he knows.
This, however, makes it incredibly special when he finally gets just one beat of a song right.
The Khaliverse has varied joke formats, some original and some derived, which sprout in the comments section. The one currently trending requests Khali to do bizarre, nonsensical tasks.
In the imagination of the Khaliverse, Khali is perceived as someone who can do anything. He has an infinite array of powers that are boundless. To fans, nothing is impossible for Khali, as the comments suggest. When he pees in a plant, it becomes a power-plant. When he goes around in circles, the rotation speed of the earth changes. He burps, and cyclones are unleashed. He jumps, and earthquakes occur. He casually separates oxygen and hydrogen while sipping water. He draws a clear border between India and China using his jawline. He drinks sanitiser (do not try this at home), throws up, and sanitises all of India in one go.
This format seems to be an evolved, funnier strain of the formerly internet-popular Chuck Norris/Rajnikant jokes in which the punchline is always enabled by their ability to carry out impossible, hyperbolic tasks.
While addressing his million-plus followers, Khali starts with “hi guy”, inadvertently making it hyper-personalised to every viewer.
While influencers on IG ensure they don’t wear the same clothes in photos on their grid, Khali once posted the exact same shirtless bathroom selfie a total of four times in a span of three days.
For Khali, “Felt cute, might delete later” is not a thing. He’s a believer of “Felt cute, will repost nine times.” This is self-acceptance at its absolute max.
In a world of filters, re-takes, edits, and airbrushing, Khali posts images from his WWE days that are literally screenshots of thumbnails from Google image search.
This of course makes the followers giddy with excitement and wonder, finally finding someone who breaks all social media etiquette. In fact, the fewer fucks Khali gives, the more likes and comments he receives.
Though Instagram is a “photo/video sharing application”, only Khali seems to have gotten the memo unlike the rest of us who have been guilty of writing captions.
Khali’s posts are most often captionless.
He has nothing to say about the post, no explanation to give, no spin to make the post more interesting. In the age of oversharing influencers, Khali often says something seriously... and then just ends it mid-sentence.
His avid following is a refreshing contrast to how he was portrayed in WWE.
By virtue of being a giant brown man, Khali was automatically a “heel”, the wrestling term for an archetypal villain in a staged narrative. More specifically, he was a combination of “foreigner heel” and “monster heel.” Khali’s coverage reveals how a racist, reductive depiction also informs the inability of a viewer to discern between tropes and reality. Even if the viewer is someone as credible as a commissioned writer for a popular sporting culture website like Bleacher Report.
Bleacher Report (B/R) has published an uncomfortably high number of articles chastising Khali. They’ve called him everything from the “most uncomfortable wrestler to watch,” a “sideshow novelty,” “a pain to watch for WWE fans,” and “a clumsy, incomprehensible giant.” One article featuring him was astoundingly titled “The Great Khali, a Monster Is a Monster Is a Monster?”
B/R writes about him as if his persona wasn’t developed in a writer’s room, as if Khali was not a wrestler-actor only playing a role.
During the second stage of Khali’s career, he was branded as the Punjabi Playboy with his signature “Khali Kiss Cam” segment. Here Khali, alongside a translator, acted as an aggressive, abrasive Hindi-speaking cupid who urges couples in the audience to kiss on the cam. This new comedic persona, which also involved him kissing women while people laughed on, caused problems with his wife who asked him to get back home.
“They were using every single weapon to destroy me and tried their best to kill my character,” he writes of WWE’s attempts to derail him on his website.
But now, in the Khaliverse, he’s finally the master of his own narrative. There are no puppeteers above or translators behind. There’s only “Daaa Great Khaaaali”, as he calls himself. The repost king. The lip sync king. An earnest, wholesome, unfathomable king in the post-truth age of irony, cynicism and deception.
The comments in the Khaliverse have now been floating “Khalipto” as the name for a new cryptocurrency. Where do I sign up?