For the current generation of Indians, Dara Singh was the affable grandfather in Jab We Met. For those a couple of decades older, he was synonymous with Hanuman in the TV mythological Ramayana.
People of my vintage growing up in the 1960s, however, remember Dara Singh as a superhero symbolising power, high achievement and entertainment.
His films as hero were a testimony to this. I saw most of these on the sly not because they had anything salacious about them, but because they were released in theatres that invited parental disapproval.
We watched several movies around the sleazy Playhouse area; in Moti, Daulat and Silver cinemas, bunking school, hoping nobody would see us. Every movie was like every other: good versus evil, a damsel in distress and a vamp inviting wolf whistles and lots of dishum-dishum for the claps. But the thrill in seeing Dara Singh taking on scores of villains bare-handed never diminished.
The films, however, were only an extension of his more sterling persona: a champion wrestler who evoked awe and admiration, and for teenaged boys, the most potent metaphor of strength and virility.
I recall in January 1973, shortly after appearing for our Senior Cambridge exams, a couple of friends and I decided to join an akhada (as local gyms were called then) in one of the bylanes where the JJ Hospital campus ends.
College beckoned and thoughts of girlfriends began to haunt our imaginations. In a competitive environment, we told ourselves, machismo was important — and size did matter. Fancy gyms, as we see them now, have proliferated in Mumbai only in the past decade. Back then, they were rudimentary. Even a treadmill was unheard of. To be a body builder you had to start with dands and baithaks.
This particular akhada was discovered by a friend on his way to our school in Mazgaon. “They’ll make Dara Singh out of us within a few months, he convinced us. Alas, such hope fizzled out in three days.
On the first day we had free-arm exercises for half-an-hour followed by 12 squats; we finished with 15 minutes of bends and stretches. On the second day, six push-ups were added to the regimen.
One of my friends failed to rise from the floor after the fifth. On the third day, my sixth squat was my last. There was to be no fourth day at the akhada. Being Dara Singh was best left to Dara Singh.
Almost 40 years later, as I peel back memories and juxtapose these with a better understanding of life, society and this country, Dara Singh emerges an even bigger hero.
His films were crude and escapist, the wrestling, as we came to know later, mock. But his appeal was genuine nonetheless, stifling the snobbishness about C-grade films and a low-brow sport like wrestling.
What was it about him that has earned him eulogies and accolades from all quarters after his death? I suspect it has to do with our collective self-esteem.
The 1960s were actually a rather trying decade for India. We lost a war against China in 1962 and another war against Pakistan in 1965 hurt our economy badly.
Two prime ministers died within two years, leading to political uncertainty. Compounding the problem was brain drain, as many of the country’s best educated people, disillusioned, chose to go overseas.
Poverty, famine, floods, high taxes and unemployment was our lot. Misery was the staple of news reels put out by Films Division before the start of every movie to the doleful strains of a shehnai.
In sport it wasn’t much better. Heck, we were just not good enough.
In many ways, Dara Singh was among the few who held hope for a people short on achievement and low on pride.
True, his fights were contrived, but his strength was real and never better exhibited than when he deployed the aeroplane spin, in which he would lift his opponent, swirl him around and hurl him out of the ring. Khalaas!
Long before Bombay got television or WWE and its derivatives afterwards, Dara Singh was capturing our imagination like no one before him. I’ve been to a few of his bouts in the 1960s at the Vallabhbhai Stadium at Worli and can aver that the frenzy he evoked remains unsurpassed.
For more than a decade his figure towered over Worli on giant hoardings, almost competing with the Haji Ali dargah for attention, and on posters plastered across the city on walls, bus stops and lamp-posts.
He took on King Kong, Lous Thesz, Masked Marvel and a host of other villains seeking to usurp him as world champion. None ever did.
Very little else made us feel as proud, strong and good about ourselves. In a way, Dara Singh made us believe we could all be Rustam-e-Hind.
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds.