Indian athletes train their biceps before taking part in a televised arm wrestling competition. This discipline is trying to find a place in cricket-crazy India under the leadership of two Bollywood actors.
• Also read: Mountaineer cleans the world's second highest peak for his missing father
The opponents compete in the spotlight of the Pro Panja League (PPL), founded in 2020, at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi, cheered on by the audience.
The Indian Armwrestling Federation was founded in 1977, but the sport, called “Panja” in India, was revived by PPL owners Parvin Dabas and Preeti Jhangiani, a duo of Bollywood actors.
“Our athletes are literally sons and daughters of our country. One is an official, another is a fitness trainer or mechanic,” Parvin Dabas told AFP.
“They come from all walks of life, from small towns in India. That’s what we like and what attracts the audience,” he continues.
At 23, Shaikh Tawheed was a stonemason, mechanic and gym cleaner before finding fame in the PPL 90kg category.
A charming smile and a well-sculpted body contribute to the success of Shaikh Tawheed, who defeats his opponents with a quick burst of power before blowing kisses to his many fans.
“It's the dream to live in fancy hotels, eat well and have money,” he confessed to AFP, saying he had earned around 75,000 rupees ($900) since the start of the competition, ten times more than his previous income.
“With the strength of your wrist”
Six teams, consisting of men, women and disabled people, compete against each other. The winning team will receive two million rupees (US$24,000).
Launched in 2020 with friendlies and tournaments, it is the first live PPL broadcast since July 28 on Sony Sports Network in India and Willow TV in the United States. The final takes place on Sunday.
Arm wrestling, a 1987 film starring Sylvester Stallone, popularized the discipline around the world, but in India the sport, which is rooted in Hindu mythology, enjoys “great attention.”
Shaikh Tawheed lived in a single rented room in his hometown of Aurangabad in Maharashtra state. After becoming a local star, he was able to buy a house.
“The notoriety I gained from arm wrestling helped me in my career as a gymnastics coach, which allowed me to make money,” he explains.
“Pro Panja has changed arm wrestling,” he argues, “We travel to tournaments by plane instead of traveling in train carriages without reservations.”
PPL owners are confident that arm wrestling will become more and more popular. The success of sports leagues in the country has enabled ordinary villagers to become stars.
Another figure in the PPL, Farheen Dehalvi, a 38-year-old mother, walked in front of the television cameras from intimate competitions in the state of Madhya Pradesh to tournaments in her team's colorful jerseys.
Years of household chores have strengthened the arms of Farheen Dehalvi, who found arm wrestling a way to train her strength.
“Girls who stay at home, i.e. housewives, are more productive because they work hand in hand,” says Ms. Dehalvi, a part-time teacher and mother of a 17-year-old son.
Farheen Dehalvi, competing in the women's over 65kg category, won the opening match by defeating a 19-year-old on points she had won in several meets.
“I saw an arm wrestling competition in my neighborhood and the people who thought I was strong urged me to take up the sport,” she tells AFP.
“In our area, daughters-in-law are not allowed to leave the house, but my husband encouraged me (…). And here I am.”
Her success inspired others, she says, and two gyms opened in her village where girls began training.
The PPL boasts of having foreign coaches, mostly from Kazakhstan, for all six teams.
“There are a lot of people in India, there are a lot of people in Kazakhstan,” seven-time world champion and PPL coach Yerkin Alimzhanov told AFP, “we can try on both sides to bring this sport to the Olympics.”
“Freelance pop culture practitioner. Proud social media scholar. Total travel fanatic. Food maven. Coffee specialist.”