A death scene in Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second of the classic Apu film trilogy, never fails to transport me — a dyed-in-wool Bambaiya — to the days of the wrestling mania in Bombay city circa 1960. As his dying father gasps for breath in their ramshackle home in Benares, Apu’s distraught mother sends her son to fetch some water from the Ganga, so his father can drink the sacred liquid as mandated by the religious custom for departing Hindus. Reaching the river bank, Apu—still in his early teens—is transfixed by the sight of body-builders working out against the backdrop of a radiant dawn breaking slowly over the placid water, their bodies rippling with muscles and glistening in perspiration. It’s a marvelous cinematic contrast—the searing montage of a withered human frame juxtaposed against the life-affirming calisthenics of strapping youth.
The same cruel irony was played out when the wrestling “circus” visited Bombay every winter. The “fight-unto-death” bouts were advertised with the muscular torsos of the wrestlers painted larger than life in garish colors on the huge street-facing wall of the Sonapur crematorium in the city’s southern district. On my way to and from school, the sight of smoke from behind the wall would signify a funeral pyre burning just a few feet away from the images of the world’s strongest men primed for the weekend action. His latest opponent’s pictures would soon be painted over with that of the next challenger — a new one every week — but the well-endowed Dara Singh, bare-bodied save his wrestling trunks and his long-laced soft-leather boots, remained a permanent fixture on that wall through the entire season.
I first heard of Dara Singh from — of all people — my mother. She was a big fan of the wrestling icon, and her invocations of Singh’s prowess, both in the wrestling ring and at the dinner table, were part good parenting and part tri-colored patriotism. Years before I actually watched him fight those hulky firang opponents with fanciful names in the 1960s, and even before seeing his photographic images in newspaper announcements and on street posters, my boyhood psyche was already inundated with stories of Dara Singh’s alleged eating habits which — at least in retrospect — appear to have verged on sheer gluttony.
In her efforts to feed me “just one more” roti, my mother fed me visions of the Dara Singh menu. It consisted of the usual abundance of dal and veggies and milk and occasionally eggs, but what took the cake was the number of rotis laden with desi ghee that the man was reputed to consume at every meal. Dozens, no less. How else could I grow into a strong batsman capable of converting lowly fours into towering sixes for the class team? How else could I flex my muscles at any bully who dared to bother me? I swallowed the vision and the accompanying lore — not to forget the extra roti — wholesale. The result: a roly-poly pre-teen who just about managed to be among the reserves on the cricket team, and had more flab than muscle to exhibit before any potential bully. My mother however was thrilled: her son was not only well fed, but also looked it. That was her badge of maternal honor.
But while the myths and legends surrounding Dara Singh’s dietary protocol may or may not have raised the nutritional levels of a generation of Indian kids, there was no doubt that his exploits in the kushti ka akhada carried unmistakably nationalistic overtones. Dara, the darling of the unwashed desi masses, answered to the title of “Rustom-e-Hind” and was always pitted against a foreigner, never another Indian. The foreign wrestlers bore exotic names — remember the black grappler Sili Samara? — but if they were tongue-twisters like Emile Czaja, they simply became King Kong. And so you had them marching onstage one after another — Flash Gordon, Red Scorpion, Sky Hi Lee and a host of others, some masked, others bare-faced — to be vanquished fair and square by Singh, the King.
Any serious analysis of Dara Singh’s early popularity as a wrestler must take into account its strong socio-political underpinnings. It was the era just after Independence, which was achieved not through a bloody and violent overthrow of the foreign-born ruler, but with a change of heart accomplished by the miraculous but barely understood power of ahimsa or non-violence. The residual shame of centuries-old repression by a succession of overseas invaders still rankled though. And so the wrestling ring became the crucible of the nation’s collective vengeance, and Dara Singh the vehicle of our primal urges. It is no accident that while the “aeroplane swirl” with which he once hoisted and threw King Kong (who was nearly a hundred pounds heavier than Singh) out of the ring and into the crowd was apocalyptic by any yardstick of professional wrestling, and while he routinely applied the elegant “scissor lock” with his legs and deployed the acrobatic “drop kick” on his way to many a decisive victory, we applauded the loudest whenever Dara won a bout with his signature “Indian Death-Lock.”
The post-victory celebratory ritual had a special edge to it as well — particularly if the vanquished foreigner was masked. The mask was more than a mere piece of holed fabric that concealed an individual’s identity. It represented the deviousness with which the wily colonial power had usurped the country’s wealth and sovereignty, and rendered it poor and powerless. Its unveiling was the reclaiming of that power. And so Dara Singh, to the accompaniment of thousands of spectators baying for blood in the packed open-air Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, would circle coolly around the firang wrestler who would await his unmasking, his head stooped and body hunched as if ready for slaughter. Dara would then stop behind the masked man, reach over to the knotted string that held the mask in place, and tug it open. After a brief venting of xenophobic emotion, the crowd would disperse. Few would wait to hear the announcer reveal the real name of the unmasked wrestler. His name, his nationality, his identity, his background, his wrestling record mattered very little. What mattered was the humiliation of his unmasking.
Remarkably, Dara Singh himself was never unduly swayed by the crowd’s frenzied emotion. Like a true professional, he did his job as well as he could — and, for us, he did it damn well — exiting thereafter without undue fuss. He was like the school principal, doing little more than his duty, whipping errant boys into disciplined submission with a straight face.
To be sure, Dara Singh himself had no qualms hobnobbing with foreigners. In fact, early in his career, having acquired the basics of wrestling from his Indian guru in small-town Punjab, Singh took off for Singapore where he took up a factory job to survive and to pay for honing his skills under the guidance of internationally renowned trainers. He then travelled across Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma) exhibiting his prowess and earning a tidy buck. He returned to India, his star value in the ascendant.
For diehard wrestling aficionados however, the ultimate thrill in Indian professional wrestling was Dara Singh taking on King Kong. The contest had all the trappings of a David-Goliath confrontation: the hefty, aging but arrogant gora (white man) treating his younger and darker and slimmer adversary as a pushover. Contrary to hyped-up anecdotal hearsay, Dara was never an outright winner in the early bouts. In fact, my mother remembered Dara losing to an overpowering King Kong at least twice in his career in front of weeping Indian fans — including herself — before finally getting the measure of the Australian. This was enough to convince her that Dara Singh’s bouts were never fixed
Life came full circle, in a manner of speaking, when Dara Singh’s first full-length feature film as hero was named King Kong after his nemesis. Given his height (six-feet-plus), his imposing personality and his pleasant looks, Singh’s transition to films seemed natural to all, but himself. He’d played a bit role in the Dilip Kumar-Madhubala starrer Sangdil way back in 1952, but to essay a hero’s character — histrionics and all — was another ball game. “Hero-biro theek hai, par acting kaun karega?” (Playing a hero is fine, but who’s going to do the acting?) a diffident Dara Singh is said to have asked an enthusiastic producer of stunt films who was keen to cast him in a lead role. The astute and worldly-wise producer—probably anticipating Stallone and Schwarzenegger by at least a decade—assured him that heroes in stunt films never really “act,” and that their primary assignment entailed the breaking of the necks and backs of shifty-eyed villains, and a piece of the movie set as collateral damage.
The producer’s words proved prophetic. In the company of Nishi, Mumtaz and KumKum — three small-time actresses of whom only Mumtaz later became a bonafide star — Dara Singh swaggered through dozens of what the film industry contemptuously calls “B-grade flicks.” Truth to tell, Singh’s cinematic foray spawned a new genre of Bollywood stunt movies called “Dara Singh films,” and earned handsome A-grade profits. How else can you explain the fact that Singh demanded and got as much as 450,000 rupees per film in the 1960s? That’s the equivalent of several million rupees today! Clearly, Singh’s fan following had followed him—quite literally—from the brightly lit wrestling arena to the darkened movie theatre, and had enjoyed the on-screen fare he offered.
Besides starring in nearly 60 films as hero, Dara Singh featured in several more in supporting roles. He won no awards for his acting. But who cared? Director Manmohan Desai put it best when he once revealed he had thought of Dara Singh as hero Amitabh Bachchan’s father as soon as he named the film Mard (Man). “Who else can play Mard ka baap, but Dara Singh?” he asked rhetorically. And it’s a tribute to Dara Singh’s humility and earnestness as well as his innate capacity to learn and mature on the job that filmmakers of the caliber of Raj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukherjee cast him in their later films Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Anand (1971) respectively. He was last seen essaying the thoroughly fitting role of a Punjabi family patriarch in the 2007 film Jab We Met.
Before Ramanand Sagar’s 1987 television serial Ramayan immortalized him as the monkey-god Hanuman, an earlier generation of cine-goers related to Dara Singh in the role of Bheem in a host of Mahabharat-based films of the 50s and 60s. It was probably this public image of the mythological strongman that prompted the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to nominate him to the Rajya Sabha in August 2003.
Now that he is no more, it is easy to study the reactions to Dara Singh’s death and conclude that he truly meant different things to different people across the age spectrum. To my mother’s generation, he was the young idealistic torch-bearer of our newly acquired Independence, asserting and reiterating our liberation from colonial rule by subduing the seemingly more powerful foreign wrestlers with wit and dexterity. To me and my contemporaries in our growing years, he symbolized honesty and fair play — he never fouled out in any contest — and stood resolutely untainted by the riches and the glamour that came his way. To the teeny boppers, he was the mighty Hanuman of Ramayan reruns who occasionally changed into street clothes and popped up on the movie screen to play a hero’s dad or, more recently, the heroine’s grand-dad.
For all his many avatars, Dara Singh remained Deedar Singh Randhawa, the Sikh Jat who was born 84 years ago in the Punjabi village of Dharmuchak — the quintessential desi ghee incarnate renowned for his clean, simple and wholesome lifestyle. The common thread that ran through his endeavors was an adherence to the pristine values of goodness and moral propriety. No whiff of scandal — financial or romantic — ever touched Dara Singh. Such was the force of his transparent sincerity that when he endorsed a health-drink for growing kids or a corrugated roofing brand for more durable homes, or exhorted us on behalf of the National Egg Coordination Committee to eat more eggs, we scarcely saw these endorsements as “paid-for commercials” — they seemed more in the nature of well-meaning recommendations from a family elder. No other Indian public figure better embodied all that pure home-made desi ghee, the Indian-style clarified butter, stands for — not least its potential for good honest strength and tenacity.