"There are pehelwans, wrestlers, bodybuilders and towering musclemen - but yaar, there is only one Dara Singh. Daraji da jwaab nahin, by gaad!" These passionate outpourings from my friend Sukhwinder, a great fan, suddenly returns on hearing of the demise of the Grand Old Man of Indian wrestling.
However, as an elitist, westernized and Bollywood mainstream junkie of Mumbai's mid-sixties, connected big-time to Yahoo Kapoor and God Elvis, these raves left me and most of my buddies cold. Sukhi however was not one to give up and forced us to see a Dara-starrer. Frankly, I can't remember whether it was Hercules, Tarzan comes to Delhi or Aandhi aur Toofan, but, yes, this dude was something else, as was the genre of movies he showcased.
Teaming up with a buxom, glam, very young and raw Mumtaz (a planet away from the dazzling and A-lister of the 70's), the friendly Amazon from Amritsar did provide, full-on paisa wasool entertainment of a kind that may not have exactly mesmerized the urban elite but certainly would strike a chord to anyone who went into the darkened hall with an open mind and a willing suspension of disbelief. Admittedly, it was a far cry from the Steeve Reeves version of Hercules we had seen... or most of the stuff we loved and patronized, but definitely kuch baat thi.
Sukhi was right and perhaps there is no better time to try and evaluate what made Dara Singh, in one fell swoop, a hybrid of myth and folklore, fantasy, metaphor, legend and history, all rolled into one.
Lets begin with what Dara Singh stood for. For one, strength of body, nobility of mind, respectful to the gods, but most importantly, unabashed commitment to all that is purely bharatiya. No one celebrated with such patriotic pride, the power of desi ghee as the real thing. It celebrated brand values like basic masculinity, rigour, discipline, loyalty and was encased in a strong moral code.
While the snobs may scoff, they need to be reminded that this was unique because it symbolized power not as a brute force wanting to bash up and rule the world in a tyrannical or egotistical way " but as a reservoir of strength that celebrated protection to an existing way of life; as an instrument of courage and bravery that fought and destroyed all that was evil, unjust or wrong. It first manifested itself when he triumphed over the hugely-feared, globally renowned wrestling icon, King Kong.
For a young nation and culture used to defeat (a draw in cricket in the 60's against any visiting phirang team was perceived as a near-victory) This victory was an unimaginable high and provided the nation a sense of we can do it feeling. Overnight, way beyond any celluloid hero, Dara Singh embodied " in form and spirit - India's pride and glory. This superman as social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan points out "had to derive from Bharat ki mitti, not science fiction. He could never be the Big Hulk or someone from Krypton. He was an out-and-out Desi Ghee and Maa ka khana product!"
The second aspect of Dara Singh (like the other home-grown heroes, Dharmendra and Kapil Dev) was his complete comfort with his desi being and total cool with where he came from, what he stood for, what he could/couldnt do and where he was going. He had the strength of both his convictions and restrictions. When he came to the movies, his legend, persona and reputation preceded him. He practically had to do very little but be himself while the script did its number around him.
His image " rustic, strong, Indian, gentle, chivalrous and protective " was superb and ample raw material for film-makers to explore and exploit. Long before Dharam Garam and gang glamourised the He-man dishum-dishum syndrome and the Big B sent it soaring to another stratosphere with his Angry Young Man chutzpah, Dara's macho-giri held centre-stage. Even after the B-town heroes blitzed the screen with their choreographed, stylized fist-fights, small townies " both suspicious and unfamiliar with secular modernity " continued to prefer and patronize Dara's movies, reflecting deep and abiding love, admiration, respect and belief in their very own made-in-India Superman, made of desi ghee, powered with a true-blue Rustom-e-hind title over the artificial and double-driven fights by leading men who wouldn't stand a chance (in real life) against their desi hero!
Small wonder that at his passing, sportsmen, wrestlers and Bollywood stars " apart from the usual noises made by netas " spontaneously and collectively doffed their hat to a great Indian and a glorious human being. Scripting a narrative that " as Social Commentator Santosh Desai points out " so dramatically contrasts with today "when force translates into power and musculature into a profitable transactable commodity, the great man showed us that this need not be the case. To be strong can be as much about what you withhold - what you choose not to do " as it is about your actions."
That was the iconic, loved and respected Dara Singh, of whom his son could rightly and proudly proclaim.
My Daddy, Strongest!