Those who think Salman Khan started the trend of leading men taking their shirts off have no idea that it begun more than 50 years ago by a pehelwan who came to the movies completely by accident. Yes,it was Dara Singh who was to be seen,chest rippling,muscles shining,in almost all the films he did when he was a strapping young man,newly arrived from his Punjab village into mayanagri Bombay.
He was truly the first real He- Man of Bollywood,who put to shame the mostly effete heroes of the 50s and 60s Hindi cinema. Dharmendra continued his legacy.
In an interview I remember catching some years ago,Singh recalled his days of kushti in his village which now falls in Amritsar district. Like a true Punjabi,Singh pronounced it Ambarsar,and proceeded to tell the awestruck interviewer about how he never watched movies because there was no time. And what did he do all day? Wake up at the crack of dawn,grapple in the akhara with fellow pehelwaans,have a hearty breakfast,followed by a three- hour nap,proceed to another round of wrestling with seniors,then dinner and bed. Who had the time for such flighty past-times like the movies?
Before he faced the cameras,Dara Singh had already received worldwide acclaim. Bhagwaan ki kripa se,main champion ban gaya, he used to say. He was a famous wrestler not only in India,but abroad as well. They called him Rustam-e-Hind,and his expertise in the ring was what brought him into the other arena,cinema,which he did not leave till just a few years ago.
If you see him in his earliest black and white films,you will note exactly how awkward this 6 ft 2 inches giant was. He did not know how to place himself in front of the camera,or to say his lines. But he didnt take any lessons to wade into a lake in a 50s film Watan Se Door to frolic,shirtless,with his leading lady.
By the time he turned up with his most famous discovery,Mumtaz,Singh had,by his own standards,become almost polished. He still stood with his arms folded,his mighty biceps bulging,and letting Mumu do all wiggling and jiggling,but his smile had become less fixed. But he was always at his best when he was bashing up the baddies. You could hurl any number of bad guys at him,and he would run through them like a knife through butter.
Singh never really receded from the movies,and our memories. He kept acting all the way through,reaching epic proportions,literally,in his role of Hanuman from Ramanand Sagars Ramayan. The mega popularity of the serial kept him going though minor roles in movies and TV serials. His last major role in a big Hindi film was in Jab We Met. By that time,he had turned into the leading ladys dadaji,and looked perfectly suited to the part.
He may have turned from the handsome,well-built Punjabi hero to a patrician grandpa,but one essential quality always shone through his humaneness,and gentleness. Dara Singh was,and remained a gentle giant…