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Dangal in the Jungle  Indian cinema and wrestling


One of the oldest sports in India, wrestling has languished behind other more popular sports in cinema. As two of Bollywood's heavyweight Khans put their muscles behind films based on wrestling, we look at the three names who were at the front of Indian cinema's first tryst with wrestling.

Shriram Iyengar

Wrestling and cinema are almost parallel dimensions. Both deal in a sense of the fantastical and are made of people who have to live out their lives in a kind of cultivated reality and images. It is not strange then that members of these two fields have interacted and crossed over with comparative ease. Aamir Khan and Salman Khan are set to enter the ring with their next releases 'Dangal' and 'Sultan' respectively. But even before them, Indian cinema's connection with pehelwans goes a long way back.

1. HS Bhatavdekar : The obsession with the craft of wrestling began early with Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar's 'The Wrestlers'. Save Dada, as he was called, was among the earliest creators of motion pictures in India. In 1896, he filmed a wrestling match in the city of Bombay. It lasted for 30 minutes and is considered the first ever documentary filmed by an Indian. It was the beginning of a whole new genre of historical documentation in India. The magic and excitement of watching fighters wrestle long after the match was over, was thrilling for audiences who had never witnessed the magic of cinema before. Many historians consider the film to be a milestone event for the birth of documentary filmmaking in India. Save Dada went on to film several other documentaries about local incidents and events including the coronation of Edward VII at the 1902 Delhi Durbar. His connect with Indian cinema continued through the Gaiety theatre which he purchased and owned till his death.

2. Sabu Dastagir: Although he was not a wrestler, Sabu was an elephant herder in the palace of the Kings of Mysore. He was spotted by Frank Korda who was taken by the charismatic nature of Sabu. Soon, Korda cast him in his first technicolour epic, 'The Thief of Baghdad'. Sabu would go on to star in several adventure movies including 'The Arabian Nights', and 'The Jungle Book'. His lithe figure and daredevil stunts in the films would set him up as one of the earliest action stars in Hollywood. Many of Korda's films used action stunts based on the Indian wrestling style – a method that was familiar and added authenticity to Sabu's image as an 'Indian' in Hollywood. His connection with wrestling happened posthumously when wrestler Terry Brunk took up the name as his identity in wrestling. Soon, Sabu was once again famous among audiences. Sadly, Indian cinema never found out much nor connected with one of its first foreign exports.

3. Dara Singh

Born in 1928, Indian cinema's most solid connection with the wrestling fraternity was through the iconic Dara Singh. Trained in the Indian form of wrestling, Dara Singh was already a name synonymous with strength and bravado by the time he made his onscreen debut. His imposing frame and wondrous strength brought him fame through films. He was soon a regular cast in films like ‘Sikandar-e-Azam’, ‘Lootera’, ‘Daaku Mangal Singh’. But it was mythology that rendered him immortal. His performances as Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar's epic tv serial 'Ramayan' made him one of the most loved faces in Indian cinema. It was in him that Indian cinema found its most complete cohesion of wrestling and filmmaking. From the most daring action scenes to the explosively funny moments, Dara Singh became the icon for strength and courage in Indian cinema. Mehmood getting into the ring with the great wrestler in 'Kunwara Baap', or Rajesh Khanna seeking his help in 'Anand' turned Dara Singh from an intimidating figure to a more adorable gentle giant. This image remained enshrined in the hearts of his fans long after he had retired from films.