Bodybuilding ranks on the bottom rung of the sports ladder in India, a country where cricket is considered religion, and cricketers are practically demigods. Yet Chennai, a 4.3-million-person metropolis in southern India, has been a breeding ground for competitive bodybuilding for decades. The sport has boomed in popularity here over the past fifteen years, even while stymied by a lack of adequate infrastructure and laden with social stigmas (many people assume the massive bodybuilders are thugs).

Being a bodybuilder in India is a tough task. Many of these athletes are poor and struggle on an almost daily basis for such fundamental things as food, not to mention supplements. With no sponsors, many borrow substantial sums of money from friends and family to prepare for competitions. They expend copious amounts of time and cash on their sport, despite the meager returns (usually small cash prizes). At times, some have been unable to compete in international events when their visa applications were denied on the grounds of insufficient bank balances. Notwithstanding the financial hurdles, their unflinching determination to excel in the sport keeps them going.

A “sports quota” system does help bodybuilders who have made their mark at the national level secure college educations and government jobs. However, such job opportunities have dwindled considerably over the years. Nonetheless, these determined men eat, breathe and sleep this unforgiving sport.

“Have some empathy for us bodybuilders. If that’s asking for too much, at least avoid discouraging us.”

– Venugopal Pachaiyappan, 23

Venugopal’s father, a grocer and a boxing enthusiast, inculcated the importance of fitness in his son at a young age. When he was sixteen, Venugopal joined a gym at his father’s behest. He managed to find a good trainer who provided him with quality food to augment his preparation for bodybuilding contests. In 2013, during his final year of college, he won a gold medal in a bodybuilding competition at one of the state’s biggest student sporting events, and has won a slew of competitions since then. He started graduate school last fall (a sports quota helped him get in) and his goal now is to win a medal at a national college contest, to facilitate an appointment in public service.

“You just don’t get to see the swagger that a bodybuilder exudes in any other sportsman.”

– S. Keerthivasan, 23

Keerthivasan still vividly recalls the agonizing few weeks he spent in the hospital because of a muscle strain. After his doctor barred him from lifting weights, he lost about 35 pounds in a span of four weeks. His father, a former weightlifter, essentially placed him under house arrest for the next six months. Despite the restrictions imposed on him, he kept himself in shape with push-ups and other bodyweight exercises without his parents’ knowledge. At the time, Keerthivasan wasn’t particularly well-versed in the correct form and technique for lifting weights, which explains why he ended up in a hospital bed in the first place. After graduating from college, he completed a personal fitness training certification program. He now has three years’ experience as a personal fitness trainer under his belt and has amassed several trophies in the world of competitive bodybuilding. He opened his own gym earlier this year.

“I couldn’t participate in Mr. Asia last year because I couldn’t afford the flight.”

– M. Kandhan, 34

Kandhan was on cloud nine when he shook hands with Arnold Schwarzenegger at a music album launch in Chennai last year. Schwarzenegger presided as the chief guest of the event; Kandhan was among a select few local bodybuilders invited to perform before the seven-time Mr. Olympia. A welder by profession, Kandhan was introduced to weightlifting by a colleague. The pastime soon became a habit and before he knew it he was squeezing in two workout sessions a day in spite of his busy work schedule. He credits bodybuilding for the respect it garners him among people in general, for his teetotaler ways, and for job prospects — like the villain’s henchman role he recently played in a regional movie. He has steered clear of marriage so far to avoid getting distracted from his bodybuilding career.

“I collapsed on my very first day at the gym and everyone advised me not to go back.”

– M. Vignesh, 21

This 21-year-old civil engineering student participated in his first-ever bodybuilding competition in February 2015. After failing to finish on the podium in his first two competitions, Vignesh came back strong and bagged the silver medal in his third attempt. He hasn’t failed to place among the top three in any of his subsequent contests. Standing 5’4”, Vignesh’s short stature was the driving force behind his desire put on muscle. He hoped working out and getting bigger would help him overcome shyness and gain confidence. All the hard work seems to have paid off, as he is now a very confident young man with his heart wholly set on bodybuilding. Vignesh had a close brush with the law recently. He was almost arrested for speeding but was let go as soon as the traffic officer finished sifting through snapshots of his podium finishes on his mobile phone.

“I wouldn’t have a government job if I wasn’t into bodybuilding.”

– Kothandaraman Manivendhan, 28

Kothandaraman’s foray into the world of competitive bodybuilding was an unexpected one. He started working out during his sophomore year in college to kill time. His first-place finish at an intercollegiate bodybuilding meet made him realize that bodybuilding was his calling. Today he is one of the few bodybuilders from Chennai to have competed in recent international events. He placed fourth in the 65kg weight division at Mr. Asia 2013 and among the top ten at Mr. World that same year. He also trains many up-and-coming bodybuilders — his way of giving back to the sport that has made him what he is today. He is married and has a toddler son, but remains relentless in his devotion to the sport, determined to leave his mark on the world stage. Kothandaraman is grateful for all the perks, most notably a job at Indian Railways. He attributes his success to his father, a retired power lifter who has been a constant source of inspiration.

“There are no shortcuts, you have to be prepared to slog in the gym.”

– P R Senthil Kumar, 21

Senthil Kumar ran track in middle school. When the athletic program shut down and he couldn’t continue, his father decided to enroll him in a gym. Though he didn’t show much flair in the first three years, he hit his stride once he graduated from high school. His skinny frame provided him with the necessary motivation to give competitive bodybuilding a shot. He got in touch with the editor of a local bodybuilding magazine, Master, who in turn introduced him to a veteran bodybuilder, S. Kumarananthan, winner of multiple Mr. India titles and a sort of father figure to many bodybuilders in the city. Senthil Kumar expressed his interest in the sport and became Kumarananthan’s mentee overnight. Since then he has grown as a bodybuilder, both literally and figuratively. Unlike other competitors, his off-season lasts only a couple of months and that kind of discipline has led him to ten podium finishes in the last four years.

“I overheard my dad say, ‘[My son] is not too keen on sports.’ That and Bruce Lee’s movies prompted me to take up bodybuilding.”

– N. Arun, 23

Arun has always had a burning desire to do well in extracurricular activities, thanks in large part to his older brother, who was an exceptional athlete in his prime. But Arun spent most of his free time during his younger days looking after his father’s gift shop, and had little opportunity to engage in any kind of leisure activity. Eventually, bodybuilding proved to be a great avenue to release all his pent-up energy. When Arun broke his left ankle at work early last year, he couldn’t have imagined that in another seven months he would be kneeling in prayer on stage at an inter-district bodybuilding championship, after placing first in his weight division. That win gave him his first-ever podium finish. It could not have come at a more opportune time. He has no plans of slowing down until he is crowned Mr. India.

“You can teach a sport like cricket to anyone but bodybuilding cannot be taught. It all boils down to genetics.”

– K. Karthick, 26

Karthick hasn’t been to a movie, or any kind of social gathering for that matter, in several years. He hits the gym twice a day, including weekends, and yet manages to make some time to look after his uncle’s supplement store. On top of that, he freelances as a personal trainer, earning extra cash to buy the essentials required to get ready for competitions and pay off money borrowed from acquaintances for contest prep. Just a few months back, Karthick turned down a rare opportunity offered by a leading supplement company to promote their brand at a fitness expo held in Mumbai. Instead he opted to participate in a bodybuilding contest held in the city, where he smoked the competition in his weight division and also managed to finish third overall.

“Everybody is addicted to one thing or the other. I’m addicted to bodybuilding.”

– G. Kumar, 30

Kumar was twelve when he moved to Chennai with his mother after his parents separated. His mother worked as a maid to support the family and had a tough time making ends meet. Kumar left school and started working at a butcher shop to supplement his mother’s income. Despite working seven days a week, his pay barely made any difference in his family’s financial situation. He left the job to work as a daily wage laborer, hauling bricks at construction sites. With better pay, this new job somewhat steadied the ship. Kumar first stepped into a gym at eighteen, at the insistence of his friends. Though he wasn’t particularly interested in bodybuilding as a sport, he changed his mind after winning a citywide contest in 2000. He was declared the overall champion in that same competition the next year. Since then, he has slowly but steadily made a name for himself as a bodybuilder. Additionally, as a personal trainer he boasts a high-profile clientele that includes regional actors and movie moguls.

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Naveen P M is a freelance photojournalist based in Chennai.

Vigneshwar Raj is a software engineer by profession and a photographer by passion.