Dara Singh – Interview
He has not been very active in films of late. His last release was in 2007 and, other than a handful of commercials, we haven’t seen much of him. Hence, even he was surprised when I called to suggest an interview… “Why would you want to interview me now?” he simply asked even as we fixed a date. I marched the following day to ‘Dara Villa’ to meet the first macho man of our industry — Dara Singh!
The octogenarian is seated in a chair on his terrace garden, framed against a wall that bears a huge collage of pictures. Pictures of his heyday, when he wrestled with world champions and brought glory to India, pictures with Indira Gandhi and Nehru honouring him for his brilliance, pictures with friends in the industry like Raj Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan, pictures of his beloved wife and children, pictures of his grandchildren, pictures and more pictures…every decade of his life beautifully summarized and framed on the wall. “These are all my fond memories,” he scans the frames, smiling warmly. Seeing him fondly gaze at the pictures, I suggest a walk down memory lane. Initially, he is a little apprehensive but soon he’s laughing and narrating some unheard of tales of his life. Read on…
Escaping At 18
“I was 18 years old when I ran off from my house to Singapore. Paagal tha main,” he chuckles, “Actually, one of my uncles had just returned from Singapore. He was not supposed to go back but I kept nagging him to take me there. He kept refusing until one day when he was asked to work in the fields… It was summer and we were asked to plough our fields. We went to the fields and when he started working, he realized that being in Singapore was better than ploughing the fields here! ‘Yeh kahaan fas gaga? Isse toh acha Singapore mein hi theek tha,’ he told me. I was only waiting for an opportunity, so I was, like, ‘Let’s go then!’ And we just ran off the next day to Singapore without telling anyone.”
Making Of A World Champion
“Ever since I was a kid, in my heart I always wanted to be a wrestler. I was always drawn towards kusti (wrestling) and, seeing the pehelwans in my village, I used to always tell myself, ‘Main bhi aisa ek din zaroor banoonga.” His eyes gleam as he talks about his passion, which achieved fruition only in Singapore. “It was there that I could realize my dream. I never knew that wrestling was so big over there in those days. And, seeing my physique and interest in it, a lot of people there encouraged me to pursue it. Not only did they encourage me, they also helped in every which way. I had no job there and to become a wrestler is not easy; you need a lot of money to maintain yourself, you need to eat properly, you have to exercise but the people over there helped me a lot. I can never forget them. Because of them I am what I am today.”
Dara Singh started wrestling in the 1940s and soon attained fame. He has fought against many world class wrestlers like Zbysko and Lou Thesz and defeated several of them. He also won the titles of Rustam-E-Hind and Rustam-E-Punjab and, together with Yukon Erich, also won the Canadian Open Tag Team Championship. His name is still held with regard and honour in the world of wrestling.
“In those times, wrestling bouts were held every year in Mumbai. I used to visit the city at that time for the same. Once, a producer came to me and said, ‘Pehelwanji, I want to make a film with you.’ I burst out laughing!” he guffaws as he recollects the incident. “You know, back then the perception was that those who didn’t know to do anything acted in films. And I was, like, ‘I don’t even watch films… Toh aap kaam kaise karvayenge mujse? The man explained that the director had seen me wrestle and the film revolved around wrestling. ‘There are around 6-7 scenes which require you to act…and the director says he’ll manage to get that much acting out of you,’ he told me. I refused initially, it sounded very funny to me and I wanted to concentrate only on my wrestling…but the producer was very persistent. Even I thought ‘Chalo, mazze ke liye karke dekhte hai’ and I finally did the film. And what do I know; the film became a hit too! Afterwards, other producers also approached me and, as I’d enjoyed myself in the first film, I accepted the other offers too. For the first 5-6 films somebody else used to dub for me, then I learnt it. I hired a master to help me with my diction and Urdu and started dubbing in my own voice.”
Donning The Director’s Hat
“I’d seen a Punjabi film and got inspired to make a film as well. I brought a director on board and decided to produce a film. However, the director and I used to have loads of arguments over the story and other things. One day he just left everything saying, ‘You make your own film yourself…I was, like, okay, let’s try this too. And I directed this film which was called NANAK DUKHIYA SUB SANSAR (1970). It also became a hit and thereafter I made a lot more movies
Still Remembered as Hanuman
“Woh toh Hanumanji ka role hi aisa hai,” he says earnestly. “I’d done this film called BAJRANG BALI, where I played Hanuman for the first time. But when I did that film I was young and physically fit. When I was asked to play the character again in the teleserial ‘Ramayana; I was around 59! I even told Ramanand Sagar… ‘Take a younger boy, who can jump around trees and all.’ Hanumanji’s role is such that it requires a lot of strength and it’s also a very important one. I thought I was not fit to do the role as I was nearing 60. But Ramanand Sagar was adamant. He told me that he had done a lot of screen tests but ‘Abhi bhi aap sabse achche lagte hai’ (you still look the best). So I agreed to do it. I never thought it would become such a hit but the way the whole story of the Ramayana was treated, it is still remembered till date. He was a very nice director and writer.”
Controversies and link-ups
He blushes pink at the mention of link-ups with his co-stars and after a hearty laugh parries it, “Time kahan milta tha? My interest mostly lay in wrestling only. Yes, I did work in films too but acting was always my second love. If I was not shooting, I was busy with my exercise and my wrestling. Right from the beginning I used to tell people that only if I had time would I give them dates for films; I was not prepared to let my wrestling suffer because of acting. My first priority was wrestling and I was very sure of that. And if you are juggling two professions, both of which really demand hard work, how do you have the time to go for parties or have affairs or anything?
“As far as controversies are concerned, I have this principle in life — always speak the truth, concentrate on your work and maintain a friendly relationship with everyone. This way no one hates you and you have a nice peaceful environment around you. So there have been no sansanis around me!”
“I grew up in a typical Punjabi village environment playing kabaddi and kusti, working in the fields, washing and taking care of cows and buffaloes. I used to like studying a lot, going to school and learning about things… but I didn’t get a chance to study. My grandfather was not in favor of it. My father was in Singapore at that time — only mother was here — and my grandfather always had the last word in decisions. He used to tell my mother, ‘Saara din school mein rehta hain, gai-bhense bandi rehti hai…unka khayal rakhne koi nahi hai…there is no one to go to the fields.’ mother then told me not to go to school… ‘Dada keh rahe hain toh mat jao. I went to school, I think, only for 7 days and in that short period I also became the monitor of the class! I was also a favorite with my teachers. And after a few days, when I refused to listen to Mother or Dada, they hid my satchel with the slate and all. When I woke up in the morning and got ready and started looking for my bag, they told me I could not go to school anymore. I got very angry. I stormed out of the house…didn’t come back till evening… spent the day eating sugarcane in the fields. Mother tried explaining, ‘Dada ki baat toh sunni padegi, na’… I cried for days. Finally, Dada said, ‘If you want to study, there is a saint in the village from whom you can learn Punjabi and other truths of life. The saint had been a soldier in World War II and he used to teach kids about life in general. The one thing that he kept saying was, ‘Speak the truth always. Don’t ever lie. If you want to become something in life you have to always speak the truth. If you lie you will keep getting scared…and you will become weak. Hence, keep speaking the truth.’ And I always have spoken the truth.”
“During that time there were only three to four heroines who were known and regarded for their work. I was supposed to start work on my second film FAULAD, when the director came to me and said, ‘I have approached all the top heroines but nobody wants to work. I’ve even approached the second-rung actresses but even they are not available. Do you mind if I take on a new girl?’ I was, like, ‘It’s your film, your money is involved…I’m only concerned about my work, you take whoever you want’. One day when we were shooting for some portions on the sets, Mumtaz along with her elder sister Malika happened to be there. The director came running to me after seeing her and asked if we should take this girl. I was, like, ‘It’s your wish’. She was around 14-15 then and the movie became a hit and after that we were paired in a lot of films together. Nishi and Mumtaz were the only two actresses I worked a lot with. The others were, like, ‘Pehelwan ke saath kaun kaam karega?’… At least when I was new this was the attitude. Afterwards, when I gained fame, others started working with me.”
For Dara Singh today both films and wrestling are well nestled in his memories and, other than a few films here and there, life mostly revolves around his family and grandchildren, and visits to his native land now and then for some fresh air, which the urban city of Mumbai refuses to provide (As told to Shweta Kulkarni in 2010).