Mumbai: Dara Singh, the professional wrestler, actor, former Rajya Sabha member and a symbol of superhuman strength for several generations, died in Mumbai on Thursday. He was 83.
The cause of death was a cardiorespiratory arrest. Singh had been hospitalized on 7 July and subsequently shifted to his home on Wednesday night.
“It’s hard to even imagine Dara Singh being ill,” said actor Pavan Malhotra, who acted alongside Singh in the romantic drama Jab We Met, which was Singh’s last screen appearance. “When we were kids, there were two names that were said to be the strongest in the world—King Kong and Dara Singh.”
In fact, Tarzan And King Kong, made in 1965, was the name of one of the several films showcasing Singh’s impressive musculature and physical strength.
Singh first appeared on screen in 1952 in Sangdil, and went on to play strongman parts in low-budget action movies with such titles as Faulad (1963), Hercules (1964), Samson (1964) and Jawan Mard (1966). The entry about Singh in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, notes that he was the “best known of the B-grade stunt actors” and that his career was launched by Babubhai Mistri’s version of King Kong, also titled King Kong, in 1962.
The 1982 Asian Games gold-winning wrestler Satpal Singh, 57, who now runs the training centre in New Delhi where Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar learnt to wrestle, recalls the day he went to watch King Kong with perfect clarity.
“My coach, the legendary Guru Hanuman, was completely against movies,” Satpal said. “But when King Kong came out, my friends and I decided that we must go and see it, because it had the legendary wrestler Dara Singh. We were absolutely fascinated by the film. Here was a man wrestling on screen. It was like a dream.” Satpal, though, came crashing back to reality. When the movie ended, he went out to find Guru Hanuman waiting for him. “I got 100 blows in public with his shoes.”
Singh’s rudimentary acting skills didn’t prevent him from earning a fan following. While he never scaled the heights of his fellow Punjabi actors—notably the less brawny but equally stud-like Dharmendra—Singh proved hard to ignore. At 6ft, 2 inches, he towered over most of his co-stars, which often included the petite Mumtaz, against whom he was paired in 16 films. Often clad in little more than a loincloth designed to show off the extent of his brawniness, Singh was one of the original sex symbols of Hindi cinema.
He was born Dara Singh Randhawa to Surat Singh and Balwant Kaur on 19 November 1928, in Dharmuchak village in Amritsar district, Punjab. After earning a reputation locally as a talented Indian-style wrestler, Singh came into the spotlight in Singapore, to which he travelled for work in 1947. After participating in several tournaments there, he returned to India in 1952, and started appearing in small parts in movies apart from working his way into the wrestling circuit. In between building his twin careers as an actor and freestyle wrestler, Singh added householder to his résumé by marrying Surjit Kaur Randhawa in 1961. Writing about the social pressure on Indian wrestlers to practise sexual restraint, American anthropologist Joseph S. Alter says in his study, The Wrestler’s Body: Identity And Ideology in North India, “I was told a story of the great wrestler Dara Singh, who became so strong at a young age that his family and friends quickly arranged his marriage in order to prevent the somatic equivalent of a nuclear meltdown.”
Singh’s rise as an action star paralleled his triumphs in well-attended wrestling bouts, often against opponents from foreign countries. Whether on the studio floor or in the ring, Singh proved to be a consummate performer. Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times in 2009: “Dara Singh had a natural aptitude for wrestling. But he also had something more: an indefinable star quality. Something about his personality made you care for him.” Singh was one of the first professional wrestlers in India, moving away from both the traditional kushti, as well as wrestling as an Olympic sport. He fought sponsored battles with international wrestlers that drew thousands of spectators in Mumbai and Delhi, and popularized wrestling outside the sport’s rural strongholds. “When we were growing up, every young wrestler knew about Dara Singh,” Satpal said. “When he fought, there would be huge billboards everywhere announcing the bout.”
Kartar Singh, a Padma Shri-decorated wrestler who won two gold medals at the Asian Games, described Singh as his idol. “He had such a beautiful physique,” Kartar said. “No other wrestler could match it. People flocked to his fights just to have a look at that great body.”
Gurbachan Jeet Singh, a former wrestler and actor, and a family friend of Singh, said Dara Singh’s popularity as a wrestler was second only to the Great Gama, a legendary Indian wrestler who became India’s first wrestling world champion in 1910. Gurbachan was a regular at Dara Singh’s fights. “He could pick up and throw huge wrestlers easily,” Gurbachan said. “There was no one like him. At the same time, I never saw him get angry with anyone, he was always composed.”
Singh retired as a wrestler in 1983, before which he set up a production company, Dara Films, in 1970. He directed a handful of films, including the devotional Dhyanu Bhagat (1978). Singh’s reputation for superhuman invincibility even after retirement was reinforced by his appearance as the monkey god Hanuman in the television series Ramayan, which was aired from 25 January 1987 to 31 July 1988. It was only fitting, since Hanuman is the patron god of wrestlers in India.
He appeared in other television series and Hindi and Punjabi films in subsequent years, earning praise and affection for being a gentle giant with unfailing cheer and a professional attitude. “Dara Singh was a joy to work with in Kal Ho Naa Ho,” said Nikhil Advani, director of the 2003 movie. Singh played the uncle of lead actor Shah Rukh Khan. “He surprised everyone with his sensitivity and, for lack of a better phrase, Punjabi softness, like a big teddy bear,” Advani added.
Malhotra, who played Singh’s son in Jab We Met, said the actor radiated positivity. “He was very handsome, a huge guy who didn’t give you the feeling that he was such a big person,” said Malhotra. “He was a very pleasant man, and always gave out a positive vibe. He always had a smile on his face.”
Singh was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2003. He is survived by five children, including actor Vindu.
Anupam Kant Verma and Rudraneil Sengupta contributed to this story.