Story of Dara Singh, the original king of the dangal
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dara Singh’s name was synonymous with wrestling in India. A new biography introduces the legend to a generation that is rediscovering the sport.
Now that Aamir Khan’s Dangal is set to become the greatest hit in the history of Indian cinema, interest in wrestling has never been higher. We have already had Salman Khan’s Sultan and John Abraham is working on a biopic of Gama, the legendary pre-Partition Indian wrestler.
These days, most of us only know two kinds of wrestling: the competitive style made famous by Aamir and Salman’s movies and the loud melodramas of American professional wrestling (the WWE, for instance) which mix blood, sex and abuse on TV channels all over the world
Both kinds have their place. Wrestling is an ancient Indian tradition and it is good to see Hindi cinema celebrating it. And American pro wrestling has been more influential than we realise. Just listen to one of Donald Trump’s press conferences. He sounds uncannily similar to one of those bad guy wrestlers who stand in the middle of the ring and hurl trash talk that is both boastful and intimidating. (And Mike Pence looks just like his stolid but slightly dimwitted tag team partner.)
But there is a third wrestling tradition and it is slowly being forgotten. British professional wrestling was a slightly more genteel version of the American version. It was less violent, there was no sex talk and profanities were frowned on. Hoping to invoke the legitimate character of boxing, the matches were divided into rounds with three falls deciding the winner. The referee, in the manner of a stern PT teacher at a secondary school, gave two “public warnings” to a wrestler who did not follow the rules before disqualifying him.
Of course, there was nothing particularly ‘legit’ about British professional wrestling either. The outcome of the matches was decided beforehand and the wrestlers were simplistically divided into good guys and bad guys.
This brand of wrestling was brought to India by an enterprising brand of (mainly Parsi/Irani) promoters in the post Second World War era with the help of a canny Hungarian wrestler named Emile Czaja, who called himself King Kong when he wrestled. Czaja was already in his forties when wrestling took off in Bombay and taught his Parsi/Irani promoter friends the tricks of the trade that he had picked up during his travels around the world.
The key to a successful British-style bout was the creation of a hateful bad guy (King Kong himself) who was punished by a God-like good guy avenger. Czaja and the promoters settled on Dara Singh, a young sardar who had previously wrestled in Singapore, as their top good guy because of his charisma.
Throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s, Dara Singh attracted such a fan following that his name became synonymous with wrestling in India. Yes, the fights were fixed, but Singh made it all look real.
Outside the ring, he was a soft-spoken, very nice man who didn’t say much. But once he got inside the ring, he had such star quality that it was impossible to take your eyes of him.
Because wrestling matches were scripted dramas anyway, cinema was the logical next step and throughout the 1960s Singh made a series of low-budget Hindi movies in which he played versions of his wrestling character: the good guy who used his strength to defeat the bad guys. He continued wrestling but movies paid the bills.
The high spot in his wrestling career came in 1968, when the promoters invited the ageing Lou Thesz (he was at least 52 at the time), a veteran wrestler who had won many US ‘titles’ to Bombay. Singh, who claimed to be 40 (yeah, sure) at the time, defeated the older man, called himself world champion and declared he would retire in a couple of years, hoping to devote his time to cinema.
But then, Hindi cinema changed. The era of romantic heroes like Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Dilip Kumar etc. ended and the new heroes began beating up villains themselves. As Dara Singh’s brother Sher Singh Randhawa (also a wrestler and Dara’s co-star in many movies) complained bitterly to me in the late 1970s: “When we did it, they were called stunt movies. Now Amitabh Bachchan does the same thing and they are called blockbusters.”
Dara Singh was forced to return to wrestling in the 1970s as stunt films ceased to be produced and his bouts followed the same pattern: a foreign wrestler would “insult” India and Singh would give him a walloping while the crowd cheered. (Dara Singh later went on to join the BJP, having first aligned himself with Sanjay Gandhi.) It was good knockabout stuff but the magic was already fading.
Television saved Singh’s career in the Eighties and most people now remember him as Hanuman or as the kindly old uncle in innumerable TV shows and a few movies. Sadly, the generation that remembers him for the wrestling legend that he was is dying out. And so, even though wrestling is big again, hardly anyone mentions Dara Singh.
This book is an attempt to redress the balance. Based largely on conversations with Dara Singh’s family, it devotes half its length to the Punjab and Singapore days before he become famous. Those sections, written in fictionalised form, with made-up quotes may be inspired by a desire to evoke the spirit of Dangal and Sultan but they take up too much space.
The golden years are badly covered, the wrestling stuff is weak or sometimes, just wrong and I suspect that only about a dozen people (me included) will really want to read re-imagined conversations between Dara Singh and Tiger Joginder Singh (a now forgotten wrestler).
Still, it is nice to see one of 20th Century India’s legends getting at least some of the attention he deserves. I interviewed him a few times and was always struck by his basic decency. To its credit, this biography manages to capture that. But it is sad in that in the age of Dangal, Dara Singh is being forgotten.