Sunday, July 15, 2012

More than just a star

By Swapan Dasgupta

When I joined St Stephen’s College as a fresher exactly 40 years ago, we were subjected to certain rites of initiation. In the main these consisted of imbibing lewd songs—the exposure of mollycoddled public school boys to a crude, real world. One of these was a parody of the well-known patriotic song of the 1950s: “Aao bachcho tumhe dikhaye jhankee Hindustan kee.”.

The verses of this ribald variation of Pradeep’s legendary offering to a newly-independent nation hardly bear repetition. What was interesting, however, was the chorus. Instead of Vande Mataram, the genuflection to the motherland, the salacious version had inserted an invocation to the loin of Dara Singh, often with the added garnishing, “Jai, Jai Hindustan”.

Despite the obvious crudities of the exercise, the allusion to India’s Rustom-e-Hind was fitting. Till the macho heroes of an increasingly glitzy Bollywood began dominating popular culture, Dara Singh was more than a pehelwan who also starred in films: he was the personification of rustic, home-grown manliness. Like Milkha Singh the ‘flying Sikh’ who was synonymous with speed, Dara Singh became a generic term for strength. In mythology there was Hanuman and Bheem; in the contemporary world there was Dara Singh. To an India suffering from a deficiency of national power, the wrestling champion from Punjab personified muscular nationalism and associated saintliness.

This may not have been easily apparent to the cosmopolitan elite that gave the early films of Dara Singh—with evocative titles such as ‘Trip to Moon’ and ‘Tarzan comes to Delhi’—a very wide berth. However, to audiences in villages and small towns, both unfamiliar and suspicious of the trappings of secular modernity, the B-films screened in the rundown cinema hall next to the railway station, were the logical extension of the bioscope and the mela on festival days.

Viewed from a 21st century perspective, the early Dara Singh films were farcical, almost in the genre of a Monty Python skit. In ‘Tarzan comes to Delhi’, where Helen performs one of her early item numbers, Dara Singh is seen swinging all the way from Qutub Minar and landing on the ramparts of Red Fort. In ‘Trip to Moon’, made just two years before Neil Armstrong took a big step for mankind, the moon-based astronauts are shown with basic crash helmets and Converse All-stars (which was known to Indians those days as hockey boots). The robots under the control of the villain looked strangely like metallic variants of Rajasthani puppets.

The film-makers, it would seem, were always anxious to link fantasy with something familiar. The fight scenes invariably involved Dara and another pehelwan and were attempts to re-create the magic of real-life exhibition wrestling matches (attended by crowds of over 10,000). Therefore, instead of the dhishum-dhishum that became the hallmark of films after the 1970s, there was much thigh slapping and grappling. The bush telegraph had created a legend out of Dara Singh’s encounters with King Kong, as the Hungarian-born giant Emile Czaja was popularly known, and the fights on the screen became old-fashioned wrestling matches for tamasha-hungry people.  

Of course, there was the inevitable touch of the absurd. In ‘Trip to Moon’, after Dara had resoundingly knocked out the bad pehelwan and rescued the heroine clad in an incongruous ball gown, the villain unleashes his final weapon: a rhinoceros who staggers dopily on to the screen before being felled by the Rustom-e-Punjab.

Like the shows of strength in the mud pits of akharas, Dara Singh gave Bharat countless hours of wholesome entertainment. But he was more than just another popular performer. Much before he was exposed to a new generation as the Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, Dara Singh had already, in the popular imagination at least, become a force for the good. He may have played opposite buxom actresses and even appeared faintly romantic, but the values with which he was associated were distinctly traditional: strength of body, nobility of mind, commitment to country and respectful of the Gods. In an India that fought three wars in just nine years, Dara Singh epitomised the folk craving for both strength and goodness against the perfidious. He was more than just a star: he was a phenomenon.

Sunday Times of India, July 15, 2012

1 comment:

Sudipto said...

Having grown up on the streets of Calcutta in the 70s with lot of slum children as friends, I always thought I knew all the dirty parodies that were worth knowing, until I read your column on Dara Singh. With my curiosity aroused I had to find out the parody you alluded to. And my goodness, you have put me to shame :-) I was really missing something in life. Thanks for enlightening me. But one question lingers - would you really call that Dara Singh's loin?