But while Depp’s pirate is quirky and quixotic, wrestler-cum-actor Dara Singh played it straight as an arrow. And in the ’60s, he became my first childhood hero. The cinematic calibre of Dev-Dilip-Raj dawned on me much later — when I sprouted a moustache, staked claims to maturity and made a habit of matinee shows. As a child, I thought Dara Singh had an edge over all other heroes because he was all-powerful and simply indestructible.
With age comes the realisation that childhood notions are like sandcastles. This Thursday, just as I was reading newspaper reports that Dara Singh was very ill, my wife, Anita, who was surfing the Internet, suddenly put down her cup of tea and stoically declared, “Dara Singh is dead.”
Dara Singh passed away on July 12
I felt a profound sense of loss. Not just the loss of a larger-than-life actor, but the loss of an era that represented innocent times — when good vanquished evil, when men fought with bare fists and not bazookas, and when truth always prevailed. In the days when I stuck film pictures in a scrap book, Singh was an amalgamation of Tarzan, Phantom and Mandrake. I saw the Dara-Singh-Prithviraj Kapoor silver-jubilee hit Lootera three times at Mumbai’s Super cinema. And each time, returned home with my childhood fantasies of becoming invincible fanned even further. A rare colour film of Singh’s, Lootera was one of the early successes of Laxmikant Pyarelal (‘Kisiko pata na chale raaz ka, ki hai aaj vaada mulaqaat ka’ can be still heard on the airwaves). Aside: Producer Rajkumar Kohli went on to helm hits with A-listers in the ’70s while the film’s heroine, Nishi, became Mrs Kohli.
But I liked Singh better when he was paired with Mumtaz. He was reserved; she was full of joie de vivre. The contrast worked well. From 1963 to 1968, they co-starred in a dozen stunt films and costume dramas.
A Dara Singh film was a thrill-a-minute, not-to-be-missed experience. I have happily ventured into cinema halls such as Taj (to see Wattan Se Door), Royal, Paradise and Diana. His audience was almost entirely male — the hoots and whistles when he beat the baddies to pulp gave me an adrenalin rush. Like the audience, I would revel in the sword fights, the horses leaping from one cliff to another, and the hero and villain duelling on splintered bridges while the damsel-in-distress hung by a slender thread of rope and hope.
The much-married Dara Singh (he was already married when he started playing the hero with 1962’s King Kong) worked with a bevy of beauties — Kum Kum, Mumtaz, Helen. However, while he held his rivals in a vice-like grip at those amazing wrestling bouts I watched from the first row at Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium, he held his heroines like fragile china. His goofy smile and awkward embraces, surprisingly, contributed to his hulk-with-a heart appeal.
In the ’70s, Mumtaz moved into Rajesh Khanna’s orbit, while Dara Singh ungrudgingly segued to character roles with Lalkar. He grappled with a boa constrictor and a new avatar. Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were the new superstars but ever-the-loyalist, I kept tabs on Dara Singh’s see-sawing career. From his many roles, those that I remember are Mera Naam Joker (the circus ringmaster), Anand (the pehalwan whose strongest muscle was his heart), Karma (Anil-Jackie’s trainer in the art of combat) and Jab We Met (the patriarch). But the films that endeared Dara Singh to Dharmendra, Naseeruddin Shah, me and many more, are the piquantly named, shoe-string-budgeted, black- and-white films like Hercules, Hum Sab Ustaad Hain, Samson, Faulad and Aaya Toofan with a soundtrack abounding in ‘dishum dishum,’ comedian Maruti as a sidekick and a pretty femme fatale to add grist to the mill.
The not-so-nice aspect about growing old is that you realise everything — including your childhood hero — has a finite life. But memories remain invincible.