Dara Singh, gentleman and wrestler
As a life-long Dara Singh fan, I can’t help being devastated by his death. But I am also pleased by the deluge of emotion and affection that his demise has evoked. It is many years since we saw Dara Singh on the screen (Jab We Met was the last significant role that I remember) and decades more since he stepped into a ring. So it is gratifying that his passing has moved so many people, including many who were not even born during his wrestling and film heyday.
And yet, it seems to me that the obituaries have missed something; have not quite captured what it was that made Dara Singh so special. Oh yes, he was a wrestling champion. And yes, he was the star of many stunt pictures in the Sixties. And of course, his role as Hanuman in the TV Ramayan will be long remembered.
But that’s not why a nation grieves today.
The key to Dara Singh’s appeal was that he rose above everything he did, whether it was wrestling, movies or TV. No other wrestler of his era is remembered with affection. No other actor of Sixties stunt movies is remembered at all. And few TV stars have captured the public imagination so completely.
We remember Dara Singh not for the things he did, but for the qualities he represented. He had star quality, all right. But he had much more to offer. He represented an Indian ideal of goodness through strength. His persona – like his real-life personality – was straightforward: he was a good guy, who never did anything dirty or devious and who used his strength to protect the weak and to fight evil.
In that sense, he was the first Indian superhero.
Much has been written in recent days about Dara Singh’s prowess as a wrestler. The truth, as we now know, is that all professional wrestling all over the world is fixed. In America, they are open about scripting the matches and refer to it as ’sports entertainment’.
While wrestlers need to be in great physical condition and often get hurt in the ring, they also know how their bouts are going to end before the starting bell goes off. In the days when Dara Singh started out, wrestling was a morality play, a sort of Ram Leela in trunks. (It is more morally ambiguous now.) Wrestlers were given characters to play. Some were good guys (‘baby-faces’ in US wrestling parlance) and some were villains (‘heels’).
These roles were restricted to the ring. Once the bouts were over, good guys and bad guys mingled freely like a film crew at the conclusion of a day’s shooting. For instance, Emile Czaja or King Kong, who was the most celebrated ‘heel’ of the 50s and the early 60s was no real-life villain. He was actually the promoter of many of the matches, taught the stunts of Western professional wrestling to our home-grown wrestlers and coached them on how to demolish him in the ring.
When King Kong and his original promoters were setting up his Indian wrestling circuit, they needed a good guy who would take on the villains in the ring. The story goes that it was Czaja (King Kong) himself who settled on Dara Singh, then a young wrestler who had fought in Singapore and Malaysia, because he saw something special in him.
King Kong was right. His epic battles with Dara Singh, fought all over the country, became the stuff of legend and are still remembered today. But what nobody saw was that Dara Singh’s charisma was such that eventually, he would become bigger than wrestling itself.
In the Fifties, wrestling tournaments at Bombay’s Vallabhbhai Patel stadium would draw wrestlers from all over the world. But as time went on, it became clear that the crowds only came to see one man: Dara Singh. Whether he was defeating Flash Gordon or Bill Robinson or unmasking the Red Scorpion (yes, comic-book names have always been a part of wrestling), it was Dara Singh who got the masses going.
Stunt film producers picked up on this. The Dara Singh movies of the Sixties did not require Dara Singh to act. Instead, he played a variation of his ring character: the Indian super-hero who fought evil. None of those movies are remembered today. All we remember is the persona: defender of good; battler against villains; epitome of strength.
When Dara Singh was lured back into the ring in 1966, the promoters dispensed with the international tournament idea. Instead, they staged four matches a night, the finale of which always saw Dara Singh battling some foreign wrestler. As the crowds began to respond to this idea, a touch of jingoism was added: Dara Singh was fighting for India’s honour against some villainous white man.
It was a formula that worked well into the early 80s when Dara Singh was a bit long in the tooth (he was in his sixties) and could not do much more than amble through a match before applying one of his trademark ‘finisher’ moves: usually the Indian Deathlock.
I saw many of these matches and while it was clear that Singh was no longer the wrestler he had once been (at his peak, he was strong and agile, much better than the Hulk Hogans and Tripple Hs of today), it was as clear that it did not matter. The audience had not come to see a wrestler. It had come to see an icon.
I interviewed Dara Singh often in his wrestling days and then, to the horror of my producers, in this century as a guest on my Cover Story show on Star World. He recognised that I knew how wrestling worked but he also knew that I was his devoted fan. And while he never deviated from the wrestlers’ code (called ‘Kayfabe’ in America) and refused to discuss the rigging, he offered many insights into what went on behind the scenes.
What struck me about him each time we met was that unlike most wrestlers who turn into different people when they put their streets clothes on, Dara Singh was always Dara Singh, whether in trunks or in kurta-pyjamas. He was our own super-hero but there was no Clark Kent persona. He was Superman all the time.
His personality was open, innocent and straightforward. He really did see life as an adventure where his job was to oppose the forces of evil. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was never devious. He did not know how to be hypocritical or even discreet. What you saw in the ring was what you got in the living room.
Sometimes, reality has a way of breaking through the hype. And I think something like that happened with Dara Singh. Such was the strength of his essential simplicity, goodness and decency that it travelled from the ring, bounced off the screen and reached all of us. In our hearts we knew that Dara Singh was for real: this was a guy who epitomised strength in the defence of virtue.
In the 80s, when Dara Singh had stopped wrestling an ad agency used him as a mascot for a kiddie’s health drink. I was intrigued. Children knew little about Dara Singh, whose heyday was in the Sixties. Why was the agency using him? They told me the answer: all their market research had revealed that Indians of all ages associated Dara Singh with strength and virtue, even if they’d never seen him wrestle or in the movies.
That persona endured till the end. Alas, Indian wrestling did not. Once Dara Singh retired, promoters tried finding new champions and staged new tournaments. But the crowds never came back. As far as India was concerned, we were not going to see wrestling. We were going to see Dara Singh.
With his passing on, an era ends. Not just in terms of movies, TV or wrestling. But in terms of the collective psyche of a nation. Our very own super-hero has gone off to join the Justice League in the sky.