How Dara Singh led the way for Sultan and Dangal

The entry of the two big Khans into the holy ring of Indian wrestling is a tribute to Hindi cinema's first action star, Dara Singh. On his birth anniversary, we look at the wrestler's last directorial venture which featured him in a role that both the Khans are set to repeat.

Shriram Iyengar

Hindi cinema's fascination with the ring dates back to the early '50s. Films like Rustom-e-Hind (1965), King Kong (1962), Tarzan were examples of the mass entertainers that featured the sport of wrestling. Even Amitabh Bachchan had a turn with the freestyle sport in films like Mard (1985) and Naseeb (1981). In recent years, Mary Kom (2014), Saala Khadoos (2015), Brothers (2015) and now, Sultan (2016) have revived the interest in the ring among audiences. The fascination stems from the myth of these contact sports being a representation of life's harsh conditions. Salman Khan's latest Sultan is the eternal underdog story of a down and out wrestler turning into a Mixed Martial Arts champion. Aamir Khan's soon to release Dangal will see him as a former wrestler who seeks to pursue his dreams through his daughters. These are heroes of the lost cause, survivors who refuse to tap out. This quality is always a winner at the box office. Just as Sylvester Stallone and the entire Rocky franchise. 

Dara Singh with Amitabh Bachchan in Manmohan Desai's Mard (1985)

Dara Singh's last directorial venture, Rustom (1982), is a marker of this very trend. Released in 1982, the film arrived at the fag end of the genial giant's career. The film starred him as a down and out wrestler who works as a stable boy, before his child's needs push him to fight one last big money fight. It is likely that the plotline was inspired by Stallone's Rocky series. Like Stallone, Dara Singh is the scriptwriter, dialogue writer, and director of this venture. The other members of the cast include Rajendra Kumar and Tanuja, with special appearances by Bhagwan Dada and Sohrab Modi. The magic though is not in the cast, or in the plot. It is in the scenes of wrestling in the ring. As an actor Dara Singh is but mediocre, but in the ring, he is a professional. The opening credits alone make watching the film worthwhile. 

Like Sultan, Dara Singh's Rustom finds life away from wrestling untenable. Like Sultan, he struggles with a personal life. Like Sultan, he finds the inspiration to return to the ring from his love. The only difference though is the lack of a six pack or a toned physique on Dara Singh. Yes, the muscles still make a show. There is raw power at display, but none like the toned, hi-definition ones on Salman Khan's body. Dara Singh had the added advantage of knowing how wrestling works. His feats in the ring ensured that his moves on screen were never questioned. 

In 1982, Dara Singh's wrestling career was on its last legs. His career highlights included defeating world heavyweight champions like King Kong, Bill Verna, John Da Silva, and Rikidozan. Rustom finally sees the hero make a winning return to the ring, but with a price. His ultimate battle leaves him on his death bed. Cue some tearjerking drama from his son, and the hero rises again. 

The story of the underdog is always a cinematic treat. It provides context and substance to characters. It helps connect the hero with the audience, at the same time raising him into an aspirational idol. Be it Salman's Sultan, Aamir's Dangal, or Dara Singh's forgotten Rustom, the underdog wrestler continues to fight his battles on screen.