It wouldn't be an exaggeration if you were called action king Akshay Kumar's ancestor in the movies, right?
(Laughs) Ab main kya kahoon? Action always existed in the industry, even before Akshay Kumar or I came in. When I had just joined the industry, I realised that all those who performed action, were actually acting as if they were punching or kicking someone. My background was kushti. That helped me introduce the real daav pech. After that, everyone copied me.
Do you feel the action in the movies is for real?
Yeah, I am sure. In fact, there is only action and a hero. Koi maqsad nahi raha filmon ka. The stories have gone missing.
Didn't they go missing in movies like Guru Suleman Chela Pahelwan, Chambal ki Rani, Rakhi aur Rifle and Aaya Toofan?
(Laughs loudly) How do you know about these movies? They must have happened way before you were born. To be honest, I've worked in many more titles than just these. There was Thief of Baghdad and Rustom-e-Hind which I had also enjoyed. I would work for everyone then. It was work and the remuneration that mattered because biwi bachchewala aadmi tha main. The quality of the movie, whether it lacked a story or not, was the producer's responsibility, not mine. I didn't have to worry. Action would take care of everything. It would cover up the world's most bizarre stories. And the movies became blockbusters.
But it's said that you never wanted to become an actor?
Films had happened by chance. Tab to ye hota tha. I became a professional wrestler in Singapore. Before that, I was a regular at the akhadas in my hometown. I trained with the most famous pehelwans of that time. And I was only 20 when I took up the profession.
I landed a chance to go to Srilanka, Madras and Delhi. People down south had loved my kushti. It had become a rage with the youngsters then. After extensive travelling in less than a year, I came to Bombay, it wasn't Mumbai then. The sport became famous here too. When I started defeating international wrestlers is when the sport actually got its momentum. London and Europe had become hubs in the early 1950s. In 1959, I became a wrestling champion at the Commonwealth Games in Calcutta, it wasn't Kolkata then.
A producer saw me in the ring in Calcutta and came to me with a proposal. He said, "Thodi acting kar sakenge?" I didn't even watch cinema then. Kabhi theatre ki shakal nahin dekhi thi. I didn't know the man. But he was very clever. He assured me everything will go well. I signed. The film was Sangdil. It became a hit and plenty of other producers jumped the bandwagon. Everyone wanted me to appear in their films. Some even assured me that I will be given the time to practice wrestling because I wanted to become a world champion.
Eventually, you gave in to the movies, right?
I became a world champion too. Bachche, wrestlers don't have a life in India. Meri dekha dekhi, plenty of other wrestlers tried to make it to the movies. One of them was Sardar Singh Bawa. I made it, they didn't. The reason everyone jumped on to the movies is that wrestlers don't earn in our country despite being everyone's heroes and winning medals.
In hindsight, how do you look at your movies like Awara Abdulla, Samson, Hercules, Boxer, Jawan Mard, Tarzan and King Kong, Tarzan Comes To Delhi and Thakur Jarnail Singh?
With pride of course! I am not ashamed of any movie I have done. I must have done over a hundred movies. I'm sure today's generation may find a lot of them unintentionally hilarious. But I was an honest worker. And that's why, I take immense pride in the way I managed my family with my hard earned money.
You didn't make another movie after Rab Dian Rakhan?
The dynamics and economics of movies have changed. Today, there are hardly any independent producers. Corporate companies have taken charge. I don't think I can adjust with their ways of working. And ab to sehat bhi nahin rahi waisi.
Umar ho gayi hai beta. For the last few months, I haven't been well. I have been visiting doctors regularly in Delhi. Still, I feel I am fitter than a lot of youngsters. I have a balanced diet and a long walk every day.
If you are not well, why did you take up 100 Per Cent?
It didn't pressurize me too much. Thodasa kaam tha. And I was assured that the show would take up the cause of wrestling and bring it out of its dire situation.
Do you see hope in the sport now?
Yes, though I know the association has nothing its hands. The sports ministry is not concerned enough about doing enough for wrestlers. Some of them I've seen are under nourished. But after the Olympics and seeing Sushil last year, kuch umeed bandhi hai. I think if well groomed, our boys can become world champions too.
Where do you think are we lacking?
I think we need to make wrestling a well-paying sport. The reason too many boys don't want to take up the sport willingly is that there is no scope to earn and they don't find prospects of a bright future in wrestling. They are paid a pittance for a fee. Earlier, we didn't have a ministry control and the sport actually flourished.
Do you think special attention needs to be paid towards women's wrestling?
Of course! The Wrestling Association is doing nothing for the men. The women are obviously in the under-privileged class there. Private akhadas I know are on the verge of shutting down but still, I have not lost hope yet. There are some sarkari ones that are still trying to crawl.
Are you hopeful about your son Vindoo's career too?
Baap hoon! And I am hopeful that one day my son will shine. He's still trying to get somewhere in life. He needs that one big hit and no one will ask me this question again. His debut movie was an average runner. Had it been a hit, he would have become a star.
You played Hanuman. So did Vindoo. What do you think of the Hanuman in the recently concluded Ramayan?
I didn't see it through and through. But of whatever I saw, I felt that the boy was honest and was working hard to convince people that he was Hanuman. Eventually, I think he couldn't pull it off. It was a key role and should have gone to another actor, who was slightly seasoned and could deal with the role better.
Didn't Vindoo ever show signs of becoming a wrestler?
I don't think he ever had that inclination for the sport. I don't blame him because an entire generation had stopped following wrestling. Today, with some publicity, maybe we can revive the sport and save at least some akhadas from shutting down.