Deedara aka Dara Singh is a biography of the wrestling champion, actor and filmmaker who died on July 12, 2012. Born Deedara Singh Randhawa in a Sikh Jat family on November 19, 1928, in Punjab, Dara Singh was one of India’s best-known professional wrestlers. He was also a prolific actor, headlining several stunt films and mythologicals from the 1950s to the ’80s. Seema Sonik Alimchand’s biography draws from interviews, archival material and Dara Singh’s autobiography in Punjabi, titled Meri Atmakatha. In an excerpt, Alimchand recounts the troubles faced by Dara Singh over his home production, which had the misfortune of being released during the Emergency.

In 1974–75, he launched Raj Karega Khalsa, which was so far Dara Pictures’ most ambitious project, starring Rajesh Khanna, Neetu Singh, Navin Nischol, and Yogita Bali. However, on the night of 25 June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency across the country. Shortly thereafter, the state Sikh leadership in Amritsar, resolved to oppose the Emergency. Caught between these two warring parties was Dara Singh struggling with his latest film.

As is now well-known and documented, during the Emergency, the national press was gagged and several editors and politicians were sent to prison. Anyone speaking, writing or acting against the government was summarily picked up and sent to jail. Unfortunately for Dara, Raj Karega Khalsa hinted at several such issues and could have been deemed ‘seditious’ by the ruling government at the Centre. It was the story of Kartar (Dara Singh) who is born and raised in a Hindu family in Punjab, and who later converts to Sikhism against his parents’ wishes. He joins the rebel-Sikh warriors, and fights the oppressive Mughal army.

However, in 1976, the film received a clearance from the censor board and opened to packed houses in Punjab on the first day—it ran houseful, which was indication enough of its impending success. Dara and his family were overjoyed. Raj Karega Khalsa was one of the most expensive Punjabi movies of the time, and with the surety of its success, Dara breathed a sigh of relief. But karma had its own designs on Dara’s life and it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

Two days after its release, the then Chief Minister of Punjab and later President of India, Giani Zail Singh asked to see the film. Gianiji was a close family friend and Dara agreed instantly. After watching the film, Gianiji suggested a few changes in Raj Karega Khalsa. When Dara asked for reasons, many excuses were put forward, ‘The Punjab government may view the film as being against the ruling party; change the dialogue, “Woh sarkar jisme corruption hai, use humme ek pal nahi rakhna” (We shall get rid of a corrupt government).’

Dara changed the word sarkar (government) to raj (rule). He readily complied, and carried out all the other edits, as recommended. But Zail Singh wasn’t convinced, and told Dara yet again, ‘Dara, just change the neeli pugdis (blue turbans were the hallmark of the Akalis and the white of the Congress party) to white, then we will try to lift the ban.’

‘How can I do that? I will have to reshoot the whole film,’ Dara reasoned.

‘Oh! Will it be too expensive?’ the CM asked.

‘Yes. If I re-shoot, I will lose a lot of money.’

‘Okay! Let’s see what we can do. But one thing is certain. You may have to change the name of the film.’ The CM concluded the conversation, leaving Dara with the hope that they’d work things out. But instead, two days later, a little-known sect in Punjab, called the Budha Dal raised an objection, and its chief, Baba Santa Singh took over from where Gianiji had left off, and declared a ban on the film. While addressing a congregation, Santa Singh adorned with glistening weapons, presented a formidable image, and thundered from a podium, ‘How can Dara Singh with his chopped tresses play a Jathedar?’

An exasperated Dara Singh, along with a few ministers went to meet Santa Singh. But the leader of the Budha Dal refused to see reason. Instead, he turned his glare onto the large gathering of his followers and shouted out an open threat, ‘If this sanctimonious film is allowed to release, beware all, there will be riots; there will be bloodshed!’Dara and his companions were shocked by the intensity of the leader’s viciousness, but the wrestler somehow restrained himself and submitted, ‘Please see the film once before you announce its ban. It’s for the Sikhs, not against them.’

Santa Singh snapped back, ‘I do not watch films.’

The next day, the CM summoned Dara and said, ‘It’s better to get the film off the screens.’

‘But Gianiji, I will be destroyed. I have borrowed almost thirty-five lakhs for the film. How will I pay back my creditors?’

The silence that followed spoke volumes. And therein began another struggle in Dara Singh’s life. Running from pillar to post, the world champion, the Rustam-E-Hind, did all he could to procure his film’s release, but nothing helped. The only suggestion that seemed workable came from the leaders of the Akali Dal, who advised, ‘Release the film district-wise. Start with a small place, and let’s take it forward from there.’

Dara Singh with Jawaharlal Nehru.
Dara Singh with Jawaharlal Nehru.

Dara first changed the name of the film to Sava Lakh Se Ek Ladaun, synonymous with Akali Dal’s movement in Punjab during the Emergency, when every day, five fasting Akalis would emerge from a gurudwara shouting, ‘Bole So Nihal! Sat Sri Akal!’ And each day, those five Akalis were arrested. It was a form of rebellion and a show of resolve and determination against the Emergency. Sava Lakh Se Ek Ladaun was also synonymous with Dara Singh’s struggle against a draconian law and an unfair regime.

Finally, one-and-a-half years after Zail Singh’s list of objections, Dara released his film in the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Even on the day of its re-release, Santa Singh sent an army of thirty men to disrupt the film’s screening. But Dara stayed calm and turning to Santa’s men, said with utmost humility, ‘Please watch the film once and then decide for yourselves.’ The hearts of the young rebels melted at the sight of their hero, Dara Singh, and they agreed to watch the film and loved it. ‘We will convince Babaji that your film is supportive of the Sikhs,’ they said before leaving. The film ran to full shows and was declared a super hit.

But Santa Singh was left fuming. He pulled up his Nihangs and berated them, ‘How could you watch the film! I sent you to get it out of the theatres.’

‘But Babaji, it is a good film and there’s nothing offensive in it.’

The leader rose to his full height, and roared in anger, ‘I don’t care how the film is. You will be punished for going against our beliefs.’ So incensed was he, that he had the thirty men put into cages, had their noses pierced and with faces blackened, paraded through the village. ‘Let this be a lesson to all those who disobey my orders.’

The film after a successful release in Nave Shehar in its second week, Ludhiana in its third week, and Jalandhar in its fourth week, was finally due to release in Amritsar in its fifth week, but by then, Santa Singh had come up with a new strategy. He’d incited both the Akalis and Nihangs and they now came together to protest as a united group. ‘In the film, the Khalsa Faujis are wearing fake beards. How can these actors wear false hair, beards and turbans and call themselves Jathedars?’

When Dara heard of these new developments, all he said was—‘Baseless accusations!’ However, even the Director General of Punjab Police forewarned Dara, ‘Don’t release Sava Lakh in Amritsar. I’ve received a message from the protestors. There are going to be riots.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dara. ‘We will work it out.’ But worry he had to. On the day of the release, the Akalis and Nihangs landed up at the theatre. On one side stood the huge crowd of agitated rioters, while on the other were scores of Dara Singh fans ready to oppose them. But Dara couldn’t bring himself to risk innocent lives and to avoid violence, bowed to the agitators’ demands. The screening was cancelled. Sava Lakh se Ek Ladaun, a film made with the intention of glorifying Sikh history and inspiring its youth, was banned in Punjab by the Sikhs.

Back home, his wife Surjit burst out crying on hearing the news. ‘How can they do this to us? We are finished.’

‘Relax. Everything will be okay,’ her husband replied seeming calm and collected.

‘Why didn’t you stick to acting? Why did you have to get into this producing and directing? Look where it has got us. We have no money,’ she sniffed.

Toodi bech ke thodi laaye theyy paise? Yahan kamaye hain,’ (We didn’t sell ripened wheat to make this money, have we? We earned it here. We’ll do so again), said Dara to her.

‘Sava Lakh Se Ek Ladaun’.

Dara Singh, the world champion, who’d overcome a poverty-ridden childhood, unfair biases within his family, ridicule from friends and peers, and yet had conquered the wrestling world and the world of films, took this virtual punch on the chin with great resilience. He first paid up all his dues and then a year later, bounced back fighting fit. Yet it wasn’t easy—the ruling party in Punjab, in an attempt to wring out every last bit of the ‘Sava Lakh’ controversy, made it practically impossible for Dara to hold matches in the state. In contrast to this high-handedness from a party he’d supported, was the star wrestler’s forgiving and dignified demeanour. As often happens in the strange world of politics, the same ruling party later tried to make amends and awarded Dara Singh a piece of land in Mohali.

A few years went by. One day while campaigning for the Congress party in 1979 with Sanjay Gandhi and Giani Zail Singh, Dara brought up the Sava Lakh controversy. Sanjay Gandhi promptly turned to the CM and said, ‘Gianiji. Yeh kya ho raha hai? Inki picture lagni chahiye’ (Gianiji, what’s going on? His movie should be released.)

Such was the power of Sanjay Gandhi, which is now legion, that the very next day, the film was released. However what flummoxed Dara the most was an apology letter from Santa Singh, the leader of the Budha Dal. That’s when the fog lifted; it was good old politics at play—this troublemaker had once been a Giani loyalist, who was later allegedly betrayed by the very party he’d aided.

However, by now, Dara was mighty fed up and completely put-off by the whole sordid mess. He shelved all the films on the history and heritage of the country—an idea he believed in strongly, and moved away from Punjab’s politics and politicians.

In June 1983, Dara Singh decided to finally relinquish the world champion title, Rustam-E-Hind, and bade goodbye to the world of wrestling, before a mammoth crowd in Delhi. In a well organized ceremony, four matches were inaugurated by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, with Dara Singh playing referee in the preliminary match. After the last match, in an ironical twist of fate, the news of his retirement from professional wrestling was broken to the nation by none other than Giani Zail Singh, the man who had created one of the worst crisis in his life.

Excerpted with permission from Deedara aka Dara Singh, Seema Sonik Alimchand, Westland Ltd.