This is some kind of freak show, out here on Soundstage No. 21 at Universal Studios, next door to the theme park, a few yards from some Halloween fright fest being hosted by Nickelodeon.
But skip Nickelodeon. We have our own horrors to explore. This is the Tuesday night taping of "Impact!," a pro-wrestling show that airs on Fox Sports Friday afternoons. So here on Soundstage 21, we've got a guy wearing shiny red bikini trunks with "Romeo" emblazoned across his butt. There's a grown man in a superhero suit covered in sharks that, sadly, reminds one slightly of little-boy pajamas. His butt reads, appropriately, "Shark Boy." The guy over there, the one called Raven, sports a kilt, elaborate eye makeup and multiple piercings. Everywhere, it seems, there are oversize, cartoonlike muscles on display, swaths of exposed skin that has been fake-baked to a honey bronze and slathered with a slick of baby oil (the better to shine for the cameras).
In the ring, Retesh Bhalla becomes Sonjay Dutt, "The Original Playa From Himalaya."
(Gary Bogdon For The Washington Post)
And, hey, look over there: Isn't that Jonny Fairplay? The vilest, most morally bankrupt contestant ever to appear on "Survivor"? You know, the one who claimed his grandma died just to gain an edge? In another world, perhaps, he'd look a bit out of place, shuffling around in red-rimmed glasses, a sloppy track suit and a green T-shirt proclaiming, "My boyfriend is out of town." Here, he's just part of the circus.
The guy we've come looking for, though, seems a little tame for this place. First of all, he's a bit smaller than most of the behemoths around and he's wearing actual pants. Yes, they are gold and sparkly and look like something out of Aladdin, but they are pants. Also, he isn't wearing makeup. And his skin appears to be its original color. He has, however, invested heavily in the baby oil.
To some, perhaps, he might look oddly familiar. Someone just a little hard to place. That's because by day, he is Retesh Bhalla, a senior at George Mason University, a young guy who wears jeans and sneakers as he sits next to unsuspecting classmates in some communications or public relations class.
By night, though (and most weekends, for that matter), he is Sonjay Dutt, "The Original Playa from Himalaya," a guy who flings himself off the ropes of pro-wrestling rings, performs dazzling twists and flips, and then lands -- with theatrical impact -- onto, well, big guys wearing spandex pants and too much baby oil.
"From India . . . " screams the announcer, as Dutt bursts out of the tunnel, struts down the ramp, then leaps onto the ropes, whipping the crowd into fierce applause.
Dutt, now 22, was still pretty young when he got hooked. On Saturdays, he and his father would watch wrestling on television all afternoon. Ric Flair. Hulk Hogan. Dusty Rhodes. He taped the shows, bought the magazines, begged for the action figures. Then decided he wanted to grow up to be a wrestler, just like other little boys grew up wanting to be John Elway or Michael Jordan. At first, his parents thought it was amusing. Saw it as a phase. Assumed he'd grow out of it. Certainly didn't take it seriously.
"My parents?" says Dutt, as he prefers to be known. "They laughed in my face, of course. They had the same idea that every Indian parent has for their child. Being a doctor or lawyer or something to that effect. I chose totally the opposite."
Raised in Arlington and Fairfax (he now lives in Ashburn), Dutt played some Little League baseball but was never much of an athlete. He wasn't very tall, was always relatively thin. His high school dreams of professional wrestling stardom did not include weight-lifting sessions or any other bodybuilding workouts. He didn't even join the high school wrestling team. It was all basically fantasy.
"You're so mesmerized by things you see as a child, you don't realize the realities," Dutt says. "I didn't have an athletic background. Nothing else existed besides wrestling."
That changed after he graduated from high school. Expected to enroll in college, Dutt did, at George Mason, where he still commutes from his parents' home. But he also enrolled in the Monster Factory in the District, one of a proliferation of wrestling "training" programs that emerged when the once highly secretive and private pro-wrestling universe acknowledged the playacting that goes into the sport. He paid $2,500 to learn the ropes -- how the moves worked, how the play-fighting was staged, how to make things look dramatic, and painful, without actually breaking limbs. By day, he'd go to class at George Mason. Afterward, he'd drive into Washington to wrestling practice. At just 5-foot-6 and about 130 pounds when he enrolled, Dutt quickly became a punching bag for his fellow wrestlers.
"I was the tackling dummy," he says. "Every time somebody had a new move, they'd try it out on me. All night long, beating me up."
He'd go home bruised and battered, get some sleep, and get back to class the next day. As soon as he was trained, he added weekend trips to independent shows to his schedule. He'd drive all over the Middle Atlantic -- to Maryland, to North Carolina, to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey -- to participate in events that were generally held in high school gymnasiums or local VFW outposts or old armories in front of a few hundred people. He got paid peanuts, often not even enough to cover his gas and a trip to the drive-through window at McDonald's.
"I'd be in some little town nobody's heard of, working for $23 a show," he says. "I was just hoping I could catch a break somehow."
After two years, Dutt had built a bit of a name for himself in the industry, based on his character and the high-flying, acrobatic moves he brought to a sport that already had a lot of grunt and brute force. He took advantage of his unique-to-wrestling Indian background and gave himself both a stage name (a slight twist on Sanjay Dutt, a well-known Indian actor) and a nickname that played to his heritage. He developed a signature move, called the "Hindu press," that involves standing on the top rope of the ring facing the crowd, then flinging his 165-pound body up to do a 450-degree turn before landing, in a splash, on his opponent.
Eventually he broke out, getting invited to some of the bigger independent shows, then getting asked to join Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, an upstart league launched two years ago by Jeff Jarrett, a former World Wrestling Entertainment star. Dutt refers to TNA as "the big time." Now, he does independent shows often booked for him by TNA and tours in places such as Japan, Italy and England. He appears on both the weekly Fox Sports show (which launched in June and now averages 300,000 viewers) and TNA's regular live pay-per-view events. His next pay-per-view performance is Sunday night, when TNA airs a three-hour show called "Victory Road" out of its Orlando studio, starting at 8 p.m. The work, Dutt says, earns him a comfortable living.
"Basically, that's my story," he says. "This was my dream, and I worked my way up from the bottom to the top."
And his dad, by the way, loves to watch his show.
It's time to tape a promotional spot for the upcoming "Victory Road," so Dutt is backstage with several colleagues, about to be part of a pretend fight in the pretend TNA locker room.
"Action!" the director shouts, and a bunch of guys start shrieking at each other and throwing imaginary punches -- or maybe not so imaginary, because in the end Chris Harris, who is half of the tag-team "America's Most Wanted" (sworn enemies to "Triple X," for those in the know), has a bit of blood coming from his nose. Which is, of course, great! Real blood! What more could anyone ask?
"It is like stepping into another world," Dutt admits a little later, sitting on the soundstage. "The first time I was in this environment, it was like, 'Wow, I'm here. This is what I used to watch.' "
In a few hours, Dutt will be coming down the ramp with tag-team partner Chris Sabin to compete against Michael Shane and Kazarian in front of a crowd of Universal Studios visitors that includes chanting high-school boys and families with little girls all dressed in pink. He flew into Orlando this morning from BWI, his weekly trip, which requires him to miss two Tuesday classes. In his luggage is a sociology textbook. After the taping, while the other guys go out, he'll hang out in his room and read.
"This is my life," he says. "I started it right out of high school. My friends went away to college. We lost touch. I lost my social life."
At George Mason, he never joined a fraternity or made a new circle of guy friends or went to any parties. No one there, he says, really knows him. Certainly, they don't know what he does for a living. He might look vaguely familiar, but he's so out of context, few put it together.
"I've gotten stopped on the streets and at a mall and stuff a few times," he says, "but never in school. Sometimes, I get strange looks."
He had to tell his teachers, to explain his frequent absences. The reactions were mixed. Sometimes, he says, they wanted autographs for their kids. Sometimes, he says, they were like, "well, whatever."
He graduates in December. The best part?
"Then it can be all wrestling, wrestling, wrestling," he says.
It's clear he's in love with his job -- "It makes me 100 percent happy," he says. "How many people can say that?" He plans to take it as far as he can. How far is that? Jarrett, who is central to selecting TNA talent, says Dutt has both skills and charisma.
"When they come through that curtain and perform, the fans tell you," he says.
On this night, the fans are clearly rooting for Dutt and Sabin -- the good guys in their match. There will be no Hindu press, alas, because Dutt is just coming off an elbow injury and has to be careful. Still, he and Sabin do their part to entertain, and end up "winning."
Afterward, Dutt strips off the gold pants, showers off the baby oil and reemerges in jeans and T-shirt to lurk in the hallway, just another college kid on his cell phone. "Shark Boy" walks by, and so does another guy, with a huge Afro that has an orange pick protruding from it. Fairplay, who sometimes fills the role of a "manager" in these tapings, is standing around smoking a cigarette. A group of guys in various spandex versions of the Canadian flag wander by. None of it fazes Dutt. As he says, this is his life now. And he's adopted all that comes with it.
Well, almost all.
"The tights," he says. "I was never really with the tights."