For the longest time, I didn’t know—or care—what his face looked like. All I saw was a pair of eyes rolling theatrically above a monkey snout.
And this despite the fact that I had long heard stories about Dara Singh from my grandmother and her friends: about his legendary prowess as a wrestler, about how handsome, rugged and yet gentlemanly he was when encountered outside a film studio or at the racecourse in 1960s’ Bombay.
But I was growing up in the mid-1980s, watching Ramanand Sagar’s TV Ramayan, in which Singh, close to 60 at the time, played Hanuman. So all-pervasive was that show’s influence in the single-channel era, as a child one couldn’t picture its actors outside a mythological context. I had watched Subhash Ghai’s Karma (1986) and Manmohan Desai’s Mard (1985) around the same time—films in which Singh, wearing his own face, had human-sized parts—but if I ever thought of him, it was as Hanuman; my mind refused to create an image of his real visage.
I am thinking of Dara Singh now for two immediate reasons: one, it’s his birth anniversary this Saturday; and two, I just read a new book about him, Seema Sonik Alimchand’s Deedara a.k.a. Dara Singh!. But there’s another, broader reason too, involving the growing nationalistic discourse we see around us today, and how that discourse has become closely tied to a Hindutva revival. Today the very name “Dara Singh” raises conflicting feelings in me. On one hand, I picture the gentle giant in likeable supporting parts in films like Mera Naam Joker (1970) and Anand (1971). On the other, there is the link with hardline religiosity—via the unquestioning devotion of Hanuman the ultimate bhakt, precursor of some of today’s tweeting hordes, tearing his chest asunder to reveal an image of his God residing in his heart.
There are also associations with a certain sort of Jat machismo, which I became wary of early in my life, having seen a number of hearty Punjabi relatives: sweetly boisterous people in most everyday contexts but containing a capacity for anger and violence that came to the surface when, for instance, the subject of Partition arose.
How could one not feel ambivalent about Dara Singh, given that it is from these same admiring relatives that I used to hear stories about this “invincible” man and his undefeated record. One thinks then about the subtexts of those wrestling bouts of the 1950s and 1960s. In a wonderful fanboy piece about Singh, first published in the Hindustan Times Brunch, Vir Sanghvi noted that the wrestling matches he watched as a boy weren’t real sport so much as carefully scripted morality plays, “a sort of Ram Leela in swimming trunks”—and that Singh was the Indian superhero who was called on to defeat the evil, racist gora. It goes some way towards explaining the roles he would later play, first in B-movies as our Steve Reeves, then in mythologicals.
But this is also why reading the new book was a revelation in some ways. I don’t want to over-stress the merits of Deedara a.k.a. Dara Singh!—it is hagiographical in places; it was written not just with the cooperation and approval of Dara Singh’s family but draws strongly on his memoir Meri Atmakatha; you don’t want to take everything in it at face value. For instance, the author is tactfully compliant and unquestioning when it comes to such subjects as the validity of Singh’s status as “world champion” in a sport that was never really regulated; she simply gushes on about his many victories over famous opponents like King Kong.
But there are interesting things in the book—among them, a sense of personal growth, which comes through best in the passages that don’t present Singh in the best light. A story about how a young Dara, finding himself in tough straits, tries his hand at petty theft, and even gets a sense of power and fulfilment from it, but repents after one of his victims gets into trouble. The long journey of a man who once told his new bride who wanted to continue her education, “No wife of mine will work”, but who, decades later, watched with a mix of pride and bemusement as his eldest daughter began working as a flight attendant with an American airline.
Here is the actor who specialized in playing mythological characters, symbols of pride and inspiration for a religion; and yet—I was startled to learn this—Singh was, according to his family, an agnostic who recognized the important role played by religion in Indian society but himself believed that “you have to do things yourself. There is no God up there who will do it for you”. I have a feeling he wouldn’t be pleased about some of the jingoism that passes in the name of religion these days.
Those of us who are proud of having a liberal or progressive sensibility are sometimes too quick to congratulate ourselves: we overlook the ways in which our upbringing and circumstances were conducive to the early seeding of these qualities; and we undervalue the struggles of people who were born in more restrictive, conservative settings, and who had to feel their way around—make mistakes, then introspect—before grasping the real meaning of concepts like equality and freedom of expression. The Dara Singh story is about a man who grew to contain multitudes, which is more inspirational than any narrative about a beefy pehelwan proving Indian superiority by strong-arming international opponents in rigged matches.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.