Dara Singh had both physical and mental strength: Author Seema Sonik Alimchand

The life story of world champion and India’s foremost wrestler comes alive in author Alimchand’s book, Deedara aka Dara Singh!

Sonal Pandya

Deedara Singh Randhawa, known more popularly to film fans as Dara Singh and wrestling fans as the champion Rustam-E-Hind, lived an extraordinary life. A new book authored by Seema Sonik Alimchand details the wrestler-turned-actor-turned filmmaker’s journey from the fields of Punjab, to the wrestling stadiums of Singapore and Malaysia and finally to the bustling studios of Mumbai.

His name was changed from Deedara to Dara on an immigration form while travelling to Singapore from Chennai and it stuck all throughout his wrestling and film careers. Singh first appeared in a film The World (1952) which he filmed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is also listed as an actor in many places for the Dilip Kumar-Madhubala starrer Sangdil (1952), however, Singh does not appear in the film. In 1965, he had 12 films, from Rustom-E-Hind to Sherdil, running successfully at the box office.

He made friends in the industry from Raj Kapoor to Dharmendra, whose friendship lasted until Singh's death. Singh became a popular pair with the actress Mumtaz, with whom he appeared in 16 films together. But while Singh became the larger-than-life legend, he remained true to his family and his wrestling roots. In 1954, he defeated Tiger Joginder Singh at Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Mumbai and was crowned Rustam-E-Hind, the ultimate wrestling champion of India. While he pursued acting, he continued to wrestle in tours around the world.

Seema Sonik Alimchand spoke to about his not-so-accidental journey into the film world, how she came to write the book and what she takes away from Singh’s life and values.

The book cover of
Deedara aka Dara Singh!

How did Dara Singh transition from wrestling to cinema?
When he came back from one of the biggest tours he did in Russia and Singapore in the 1950s, Dara Singh was invited to Sri Lanka to fight. There he [defeated] King Kong and he became a big name. Then he went to Chennai (Madras at that time) [where he] and the other wrestlers were treated very well. There were these heroines, the Travancore sisters — Padmini, Ragini and Lalitha. Padmini was Raj Kapoor’s heroine in Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai (1960). The three sisters were very fond of wrestling and they used to always be in the front row, watching these events. He and the other wrestlers were invited to a studio. It was a one-of-a-kind studio where shooting used to happen on various levels of buildings. That was his first tryst with cinema.

He realised, like him, [when he] rehearsed for his matches and in the same way, actors had to rehearse for their film roles so it’s all like orchestration for the final result. That’s where a film was offered to him as a wrestler, to do a wrestling bit. The World was a South Indian film. He kind of did it for fun. It was wrestling for him all the way. But when he came back to Bombay, a lot of people [offered him roles], seeing his popularity and how people were crazy about wrestling. For a wrestler, he was really handsome. He used to do these small wrestling roles with Om Prakash. He did one movie, Pehli Jhalak (1955) and a couple of small things between his wrestling matches.

Seema Sonik Alimchand with Akshay Kumar at the book launch.

What kind of research did you do for the book?
irst, I went to Punjab, obviously, that’s where he was born and his childhood was spent. I spoke to a lot of people and saw the village where he was born and lived in till he was about 18. After that, there’s a book that he himself has written — it’s used in schools in Haryana and all. It’s a small little book.

Was this from his autobiography?
It’s called ‘Meri Atmakatha’. It gives an insight into what he was thinking [at the time]. That helped me and then obviously, the family helped me a lot. His wife was there, she passed in March 2016, but I spent one whole year with her. She lived in Bombay, I met her and talked with her about her part of the whole life that they spent together when they got married and his earlier wedding too. I spoke to his older son, Parduman Singh Radhawa, from his first marriage, who lives in Meerut.

I went on websites for the matches. [His children] didn’t know much about his wrestling. But his brother-in-law who used to go with him for many of the wrestling matches, he gave me a lot of insight into wrestling. By the time he was 18, he had gone away to Singapore to look for work because they were very poor. That’s where wrestling began professionally for him. Earlier he used to work in the fields with his father. He was married by the age of nine.

How did you get interested in writing a book on him?
I had written a book earlier [on Rajnikanth] and I was in Punjab for research [for a fictional book]. I was just near the village Dharmuchuk where Daraji lived. My mom’s village is about 10 minutes away. The name ‘Dara Singh’ kept popping up. So I thought, why not start? I don’t know if you’re aware of the butterfly effect, one movement I made and things started falling in place. I went to Chandigarh and met his younger son, Amrik. My sister is good friends with him. We stayed in his house and he gave me a fantastic interview.

I met [his older son] Vindu, Vindu’s mother and they gave me amazing information. I met Mumtazji. She made her debut [as a lead] with him. She gave me a fantastic interview, it’s in the book. Then I met Menka Khan, Farah and Sajid Khan’s mother. She was very close to Daraji and his wife. So she gave me a different perspective. I met Prem Sagarji [son of Ramanand Sagar for whom Dara Singh played Hanuman in the television series, Ramayan, in 1986], [actor] Prem Chopraji; I spoke to Dharamji (Dharmendra) over the phone. For the wrestling, I also took articles from [the internet] because nobody knew about [his fights]. There was no record of what he had done, what happened, which fight, who boxed whom? Who dropped out? I got a lot of that from online.

Author Alimchand with Kumar and Dara Singh’s son, Vindu Singh Randhawa

What did you discover about Dara Singh during the research of the book?
How rooted to the soil he was and how grounded he was! Dara Singh comes from a background where he was made to work in the fields of Punjab at the age of six. He was taken away from school and he was desperate to get educated. He was so determined that he educated himself. By the time he was 30, he was reading historical books and other philosophy. He was such a disciplined person. That is what got him into the wrestling field. It is not only hard work that he put in, but also his dedication to his work which came from a disciplined lifestyle and the fact that he never wanted to harm anybody. Every punch he took on the chin and he just bounced back. Secondly, it was not only his physical strength that got him through, it was also that inner strength that he possessed. In Hindi, we say ‘shakti’ and ‘bal’, ‘bal’ is the physical and ‘shakti’ is the inner strength that he had. He had to have both.

Today, people may just think of him as ‘Hanuman’ and even I used to do that. But once I read about him, I learnt and went deeper into his psyche, I realised here’s a man who has come up from nothing — he went from farming to wrestling, from wrestling to films. He never cheated anybody. He never abused. The only abuse he ever, that’s what I was told, was ‘uloo ka patha [fool]’. (laughs) That is typically Dara Singh. In the film industry, everybody has their moments of weaknesses, but he never had a fight with anybody, he never hurt anybody and even when he passed away [in 2012], he had a smile on his face.