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Dara Singh: Wrestler and Bollywood star

  • @AndrewBuncombe

Dara Singh succeeded in two careers at a time when India was in search of heroes. First, he made his name as a traditional wrestler, taking on all challengers and delighting crowds across India with his strongman antics. Subsequently, he took his rippling muscles and clean, masculine charms to the silver screen, similarly thrilling audiences as perhaps the nation's first all-action star. For a number of years he excelled in both roles simultaneously.

Born in Punjab in the north of India, as a young boy Singh took up pehlwani, a South Asian style of wrestling that he learned in arenas known as akharas. He was very successful and soon made his way up through the local and regional ranks before securing national and international titles. Standing at 6ft 2in and with a commanding presence, he won a Commonwealth medal for India at the 1959 Games and then another at the World Wrestling Championship in 1968. To his fans he was known simply as "Rustam-e-Hind", or Champion of India.

While Singh practiced traditional wrestling, some commentators have suggested that a number of his fights may have been scripted in a way familiar to audiences of televised WWF wrestling in the West. In days before television, he took on opponents with names such as Flash Gordon, Wong Bok Lee and King Kong, in heated, theatrical clashes. One contest against King Kong, a Hungarian-born Australian-based wrestler whose real name was Emile Czaja, has gone down in Indian folklore after the local hero floored his opponent, who was said to weigh more than 400lb.

A crowd of 30,000 people that attended the bout in the city of Chennai became agitated after King Kong landed a blow on the referee, leading him to be disqualified. The local newspaper, The Hindu, reported that the fiercely loyal crowd's actions resulted in "police intervention, which all gave quite an exciting end to the proceedings".

Singh was born Deedar Singh Randhawa, to a Sikh family in Dharmu Chak, near the city of Amritsar. It was there that he would hone and perfect the wrestling skills that brought him success both in India and abroad, traveling to Singapore in 1947 and scooping the Malaysian Cup. It was reported that in more than 500 contests Singh never lost once.

His entry into the world of film came in 1952 with Sangdil, and he would go on to appear in more than 140 other movies, both Hindi and Punjabi, his last screen appearance coming in 2007 when he played the grandfather of Kareena Kapoor's character in Jab We Met. Often appearing as a bare-chested hero, it was said that Singh always insisted on performing his own stunts. Many of his films involved grappling scenes and an entire, earlier generation of cinema-goers grew up with Singh as their matinee hero.

"A lot of his fame came from wrestling and many of his fans were children," said Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "He embodied masculinity and Punjabi maleness."

During the 1980s, Singh found another audience when he appeared in a hugely popular Indian television adaptation of the Hindu classic, the Ramayana. During the 78-episode series which attracted up to 100m viewers at a time, Singh appeared as the monkey god, Hanuman. "He was Hanuman for every kid and the God of all wrestlers, the original action hero who truly inspired me," the Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said.

In later life, Singh, who was affectionately known as "Balwanji", or wrestler, established a production company in the city of Mohali and directed several films. One of his sons, Vindu Dara Singh, followed him into film and television as an actoe. Between 2003-2009, Dara Singh also served as a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament, having been nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Singh had recently been taken to hospital after suffering heart problems and his condition worsened, leading to brain damage. Once doctors said they could do no more for him, his family had taken him back to his home in Mumbai, where he died.

Dara Singh, wrestler and actor: born Dharmu Chak, India 19 November 1928; twice married (six children); died Mumbai 12 July 2012.