Dara Singh in one of his last films ‘Jab We Met’ (When We Met) in 2007
Growing up in the 1960s, unchecked masculinity meant Dara Singh. If someone told my childhood friends that Dara Singh could lift the earth with his left hand even while eating his breakfast of aloo paratha with his right, their only question would have been “How many parathas?”
Fussy boys who picked at their food were routinely told that if they wanted to be as robust as Dara Singh, they had to eat everything. “Dara Singh would have finished this instantly,” was a commonly heard expression among exasperated mothers.
Singh’s wrestling bouts, some of which took place in Ahmedabad, lent themselves to fantastic embellishments with every retelling of what happened in the ring during a particular fight. My memory is a bit hazy but a wrestler named Randhawa (his last name), who I think was his sibling, was often Singh’s arch nemesis. People in my neighborhood disliked Randhawa because of the simple fact that he challenged Singh in the ring. They forgot that wrestling does require two wrestlers in order for it to be wrestling. I mean Dara Singh could have just strutted about in the ring alone for ten minutes and regaled his huge fan following but what would be the point of that?
One of the stories I remember about a Singh-Randhawa encounter with some memory gaps recalls how Singh just picked up Randhawa by his ankle, twirled him around and hurled him into the audience. Even as a suggestible child eager to believe improbable things about Dara Singh, I had my doubts about this one. For instance, why would he do that to his fellow countryman? The question had to do with the fact that wrestling was often sold to us an instrument of nationalism. Dara Singh was the premier specimen of that nationalism in those days. Considering India had been independent for less than two decades when I was growing up the cauldron was bubbling with all kinds of nationalist braggadocio. One popular legend being that global wrestlers ran from Singh with tails between their legs. “He could defeat King Kong with his little finger,” was frequently heard.
At six feet two inches Dara Singh was an unusually big presence for most Indians, particularly in Gujarat where the average male was mostly never more than five feet seven inches. His fabled reputation as the “world’s greatest Indian wrestler” found repeated reiteration in his dozens of movie roles, many unabashedly underscoring his physical prowess. The combination of his real life persona as someone invincible in the ring accentuated by his screen avatar made Dara Singh quite easily India’s most authentic action hero in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In particular, his frequent turns as Hanuman from the epic Ramayan put him above all human frailties in the eyes of his millions of fans.
A handsome man who exuded none of the confected viciousness of a prize wrestler Dara Singh, in fact, had a naturally comedic face. In later years he did do some roles that tapped into that side of his. With close to 150 films to his credit since his debut in 1952 with ‘Sangdil’ (Selfish), Dara Singh successfully harnessed his iconic status as a wrestler and sportsman. What helped him in the movie world was his imposing presence as well as measured body language that came from his years training as a wrestler. His bearing lent itself naturally to showbiz. Not a thespian by any measure, Singh made up for that shortcoming by his sheer charisma. He was one of those actors whose presence was enough to make the average audience feel that things are going to be just fine.
A little over a year ago I had written about Singh in connection with a kitschy mythological movie called ‘Bajrangbali’ which featured Singh as Bajrangbali (Hanuman). There I had said, “What Sean Connery was to James Bond, Dara Singh was to Hanuman.” It was as if his entire life distilled itself into that one super powerful character. For someone who did close to 150 movie, it is a tad unfair to let just one character overwhelm his entire body of work. As Hanuman Singh had to be content with two and a quarter expressions because of the ape makeup. In one of his last movies ‘Jab We Met’ in 2007, where he played a patriarch of a traditional Sikh family, a man with tough exterior but gentle heart, Singh was charming.
Singh’s passing today at age 84 brings to a close perhaps the most celebrated athlete-actor combination in India.