He could slaughter fire-spitting giant lizards with a kitchen knife, twirl the biggest monsters like rag dolls before tossing them aside, chase villains to the moon much before Neil Armstrong was spotted there and stop an aeroplane with his bare hands. Ask anyone who grew up in the 1960s — impossible was nothing when Dara Singh was around.
Long before the Great Khali was born and much before pretty-boy superstars started to flaunt six-packs, Dara Singh was the real testosterone-charged McCoy, the original Singh who became King.
Even now, as he turns 80 on November 19, the rugged masculinity endures in popular consciousness. That’s why he looked perfect as the patriarch in Jab We Met. It may also be why even red-hot Akshay Kumar wants him for a film tentatively titled, Patiala House.
But Dara Singh, six-feet-two-and-half inches tall and 115 kg in his prime, isn’t just another champion wrestler who happened to deliver a clutch of low-budget, adrenalin-pumping Bollywood hits. He is a symbol, perhaps almost a concept. Flex muscle in the Hindi heartland and you would still be admonished with a question: Apne aap ko Dara Singh samajhte ho kya? As sociologist Yogendra Singh puts it, he remains “a symbol of invincibility.’’
The story of the Sikh boy who went on to become lord of the rings began in Dharmuchak village, about 20 km from Amritsar. He didn’t like to study, so he was happy to head for Singapore, where he had family.
He worked in a factory before a supervisor foresaw his calling: professional wrestling. Singh knew a few traditional moves but the promoters also got him a Chinese guru to add to his wrestling repertoire. That’s when he cut his hair. His four-hour daily exercise regime included 1,200 push-ups and 1,200 sit-ups, followed by wrestling.
His first professional bout pitted him against an Italian. “The match ended in a draw. But I was pleased to get $50 for the fight. The result surprised everyone. I was told I could make a name for myself as a wrestler,’’ he tells STOI. Soon he was travelling to Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma as a pro wrestler.
Professional sport thrives on rivalries. Legends are made of stuff like this — the duels between Dara Singh and King Kong, not the fictitious Hollywood gorilla but an incredible hulk from Hungary. Blogger Jacob Matthan recalls one fight. “I saw Dara Singh lift the almost-200 kg King Kong over his head and twirl him round and round. He virtually threw him out of the ring.” Singh recalls, “It was aeroplane-in-a-spin, my favourite move.’’
In the 1950s and 60s, he won hundred such professional wrestling bouts across India and abroad. He body-slammed the best in the circuit: George Zybisco, George Godianko and the great American pro: Lou Theze. Many felt these were just tamasha but the crowds didn’t care. His son, Vindu, remembers being confined in the green room after a wrestling match in Mumbai’s packed Vallabhbhai Stadium. Singh and his family had to wait for adoring spectators to melt away. “Hundreds of them would surround our green Ford Cortina,’’ says Vindu.
Dara Singh’s popularity, especially with the underclass, was immediately noticed by Bollywood. He had played small parts but when Devi Sharma of Santosh Productions offered him the hero’s role in King Kong (1962), he wasn’t too sure. “Being a hero is fine, but who will do the acting?’’ Singh recalls asking the producer. “Don’t worry. My director Babubhai Mistry will handle that,’’ Sharma told the wrestler.
Singh asked for Rs 1,000 for each day of shooting. It was the fee he charged for a single bout then. The producer had initially wanted to shoot for two months but then whittled it down to 40 days when he learnt the condition. “But I got only Rs 35,000 because the last cheque worth Rs 5,000 bounced,’’ says Singh. Also, Singh spoke Hindi with a distinct Punjabi accent. So his voice was dubbed. “I took classes in Urdu to improve my pronunciation,’’ he recalls.
King Kong’s success led to other action sagas: Samson, Lutera, Faulad, Sikander-e-Azam, Rustom-e-Hind and many more. Singh invariably played a hero with steel biceps and a heart of gold, often displaying more flesh than his leading ladies. Mumtaz was often his heroine. The films generally had breezy music by either G S Kohli or Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Recalls Pyarelal, “People still remember songs like Abhi kamsin ho, nadaan ho jaane jaana of Aaya Toofan.’’
But despite these superhits, the mainstream media ignored him. “Barring Screen, his films were not reviewed anywhere. He even visited our office and thanked us for writing about his films. In real-life, he was a gentleman without any airs,’’ recalls film historian Firoze Rangoonwalla, Screen’s film critic at the time.
Rangoonwala also says that initially top heroines refused to act opposite Singh. “Some producers even poked fun at the pahelwan who wanted to act. But he stood his ground in a cut-throat industry and emerged triumphant,’’ he says.
As the years passed, Singh smartly added mythological (Har Har Mahadev) and character roles (notably Anand), to his repertoire. Yet Singh was surprised when Manmohan Desai approached him for a role in Mard. “I asked him, why do you need me? He said, Amitabh Bachchan plays the mard in my movie. Nobody else can play his father but you,’’ says Singh. Desai, the ultimate box-office magician, had rightly judged popular perception, which held Dara Singh to be the most alpha male of them all.
In 1987, Singh played Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayan and became a household name all over again. “I had acted in a hit film, Bajrang Bali, which Sagar saab had seen. I told him, I am almost 60, take a younger guy but he said, you are the best. People have forgotten my films. But that role is etched in everybody’s heart,’’ Singh says.
Brought up on pure desi ghee, the upright Singh is said to have refused a lucrative deal to endorse a vegetable oil product. When a bicycle he had endorsed was found marginally faulty, Singh was flooded with letters. “People believe that anything he endorses must be unbreakable,’’ says Vindu.
Yogendra Singh says Dara Singh’s place in the popular imagination is composed of equal parts of his on-screen and real persona. “He typifies the simple-minded Indian who attained success through discipline and hard work without eschewing basic values like honesty,’’ he says.
These days, Dara Singh remains busy in his newest avatar of politician. The BJP-nominated Rajya Sabha MP has asked 248 questions so far, many on education. “Having received little education, I know its true value. Isn’t it a matter of shame that after 61 years of freedom we still don’t have 100% literacy?’’ he asks. That’s a drop kick nobody seems to have an answer to.
6 months ago