When he returned, Jinder Mahal was still a jobber — losing often — but in April, his story saw a creative shift: He became a winner. At the time, Mr. Dhesi’s gimmick was about practicing peace. 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).
Mr. Dhesi won the championship at a pay-per-view in May called “Backlash” just weeks later. While it was hard not to notice that his character was leaning into heated immigration rhetoric, “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.”
However, the WWE has historically struggled with its depictions of minorities, where villains like the Jinder Mahal character have existed for decades. In one of the most extreme examples from 2005, a character named Muhammad Hassan — played by an Italian-American named Marc Copani — prayed on the entrance ramp as masked men beat on one of the most popular WWE wrestlers of all time, the Undertaker.
The show aired the same day as a suicide bombing in London. It caused immediate outrage, and the Muhammad Hassan character vanished.
Since then, the WWE has shifted toward a more family-friendly approach and is making an effort to include more South Asian performers.
It recently signed its first female wrestler from India, Kavita Dalal. Jinder Mahal has two henchmen of Indian descent, the Singh Brothers (real names Gurvinder and Harvinder Sihra), who are real life brothers and once made up a tag team known as the Bollywood Boyz. Mr. Dhesi said he is willing to push back on writers if he deems something racially insensitive, although he added that hasn’t happened yet.
In Providence, Mohan Srinivasan, who immigrated to the United States from India in 1987, came to “SmackDown” with his 20-year-old son, Siddarth Mohan, a senior at the University of Connecticut. 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,” Mr. Mohan said.