One of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes, any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted. However, in the case of mainstream Bollywood films — especially those made prior to Bollywood’s “globalization” — even those films that are characterized as falling within a familiar genre often don’t conform to our notions of what that genre should looks like.
Instead they combine seemingly clashing elements from a large number of genres — comedy, melodrama, romance, action — into a whole that never really sees any one of those emerge as the dominant narrative tone. Furthermore, when it comes to those cozy B movie tropes that cult film enthusiasts are most likely to find inviting entry points into a country’s pop cinema — rubber man-in-suit monsters, flying saucers, masked heroes, mad scientists, and the like — a survey of most of the Indian cinema that is currently accessible could easily give the impression that such wonders lie on the far side of a line that Indian filmmakers, for whatever reason, refuse to cross. That is, until you dig a little deeper, at which point you’ll find wafting up at you the familiar aroma of pure trash that is Bollywood’s classic B-cinema.
Often made by scrappy independents outside of India’s mainstream filmmaking channels and targeted squarely at audiences in the country’s lowest economic strata, such films have been held in a disrepute that, given their disproportionately small representation among the vast number of old Indian films available, appears to linger even today. Such an abiding disdain carries even more weight when you consider the fact that, for a long time, work in any aspect of India’s film industry was considered disreputable, regardless of pedigree or artistic aims. As a result of this, today most of the old B Movies that there are to be found reside within the cut-rate world of poor quality Indian market VCDs, most free of English subtitles, and many compensating for their invitingly low prices with scads of advertising that often interrupts the film itself or obscures it by appearing as a crawl at the bottom of the screen. And don’t get me started about those ubiquitous onscreen manufacturers logos. Nonetheless, it’s well worth the effort. For, once you’ve discovered these movies, it’s as if you’ve opened a rich and previously hidden vein in Indian cinema, unleashing before your eyes a wondrous stampede of rampaging dinosaurs, Martian invaders, heroic apemen and hoochy-coochying femme fatales.
One of the dominant genres found in India’s classic B movies is that of the “stunt” film. Stunt films have a long and colorful history in Indian cinema, and no discussion of that history can avoid mention of a certain pair of brothers by the name of Homi and J.B.H. Wadia. While it can’t be said that the Wadias invented the stunt film, they are certainly the figures most associated with its rise to prominence. Elder brother J.B.H. Wadia’s interest in filmmaking grew alongside a fascination with American adventure serials, action films and westerns, and when he and brother Homi first collaborated as filmmakers, it was on a series of swashbuckling silent features fashioned after the Douglas Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro, made under their Young United Players banner during the late twenties and early thirties. They would then go on, in 1933, to establish the Wadia Movietone studio, where they would continue to focus on producing inexpensive, action-oriented fair targeted at India’s poor and working class masses.
It was the younger of the brothers, Homi Wadia, who would serve as Wadia Movietone’s primary director, and it was under his guidance that the studio had its first major success, with a series of films starring an Australian circus performer by the name of Mary Evans. Re-christened as Fearless Nadia, Evans became a national sensation in a long string of fast-paced adventure programmers, playing an assertive, rough and tumble heroine of a type that would have been unimaginable had she been played by an actress of Indian descent. Nadia’s very foreign-ness seemed to allow Indian audiences of the day to let their appetite for spicy thrills override their deep social conservatism, and as a result they couldn’t get enough of her. And neither, apparently, could Homi Wadia; the director eventually married his discovery, which would have either made him Mr. Fearless Nadia or her Nadia Wadia, which is grounds enough for marriage in itself.
J.B.H Wadia’s identification with the populist sentiments behind Zorro and his ilk perhaps went a bit deeper than did his younger brother’s. Thus, when the elder Wadia’s socio-political concerns began to exert a more marked influence upon the content of Wadia Movietone’s films, Homi Wadia went packing, starting his own Basant Pictures in 1942. There he continued to make the same kind of thrill-a-minute action pictures he made at Wadia Movietone, but this time alongside the production of mythologicals, a staple genre of Hindi cinema that brought to colorful life events depicted in India’s major religious epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In this last regard, Wadia received a great deal of help from Babhubai Mistri, a cameraman and director who had pioneered the use of modern special effects techniques in Bollywood films. Thanks to Mistri’s clever use of traveling mattes, forced perspective and other in-camera processes, Basant’s mythologicals were able to depict the many miracles and mystical feats described in the epics with a degree of realism seldom seen in Indian movies at the time. Mistri, while a key player at Basant, would also work extensively as a director, special effects man, and art director under various other banners over the course of his career. During this time he directed numerous films, many having fantasy elements that enabled him to showcase his special effects skills. Among these was a low budget production he helmed for Santosh Productions in 1962, a little number with the somewhat misleading, but conveniently familiar title of King Kong. The film ultimately became both a big box office hit and an acknowledged classic of B stunt cinema.
Fearless Nadia’s reign over the world of stunt films was long over by 1962 and, while there had been a steady parade of bargain bin heroes and heroines to walk in her paces in the interim, there was certainly, at this point, room for a new star to come along and stake a claim of ownership over the genre. And it is at this point that the burly form of one Dara Singh appears on the horizon. Born in the village of Dharmuchak in India’s Punjab region in 1928, Dara Singh grew up in humble circumstances and with little education. At the age of eighteen, he relocated to Singapore to join relatives and find work, and it is there that he first entered the world of professional wrestling. Soon he was appearing in matches throughout Southeast Asia, and would go on in the proceeding decades to take part in high profile matches throughout the world, gaining a celebrity that would eventually lead to Bollywood knocking on his door with dollar signs in its eyes.
It’s impossible for me to discuss Dara Singh’s stature as a wrestling-icon-turned-screen-superhero without drawing comparisons to Mexico’s Santo. And though the two stars are dramatically separated by one’s insistence on hiding his identity behind a mask, in other respects their careers are strikingly similar. Both men reached the peak of their wrestling stardom during the fifties, with the move into films occurring for both as they approached their middle years, Santo making his movie debut in 1958, just four years before Dara’s. Like Mexico’s lucha libre, the Indian professional wrestling that Dara practiced was as much a form of theater as it was a competitive sport, and the many titles he won over the course of his career were, just as in Santo’s case, decreed as much by his innate star quality as by his impressive physical abilities. Continuing the similarities, both men, once settled into their respective movie careers, proved to be prolific in their output, though Dara Singh easily trumped Santo’s career total of 54 films by appearing in over 150.
Even the films that Dara Singh and Santo made, especially in the early days of their careers, were similar: low budget, black and white B pictures that emphasized action and frequently incorporated elements of the fantastic. In Santo’s case this last attribute more often than not meant that his movies drew upon the Hollywood horrors of the forties, pitting him against vampires, werewolves and the like, while for Dara Singh the movies tended to veer more toward the sword-and-sandal genre, with Dara often having to fight off all manner of mythical beasts in the course of rescuing captive princesses and dethroning corrupt emperors. As with Santo, the nature of Dara’s fame to a large extent determined the nature of the action in his pictures and necessitated that those pictures’ casts be stocked with his fellow wrestlers so that audiences could be assured of seeing Dara practice all of the patented moves that he was known for in the ring. As a result, many of his movies from the sixties seem like a marriage of equal parts Mexican lucha libre film and Italian peplum, with some standard Bollywood trappings such as frequent song and dance numbers and occasional elements of family melodrama adding a bit of South Asian spice to the mix. At the dawn of his stardom, Dara even shared with Santo the humiliation of having to have his voice dubbed by another actor, due to producers objecting to his thick Punjabi accent.
But the most important similarity between Dara Singh and Santo is the fact that, for their audiences, the perception of who they were was as much determined by their exploits on screen as by those in the “real world,” with the distinction between the two spheres being hazy to the point of near irrelevance. Of course, unlike Santo, who was always just “Santo” onscreen, Dara Singh was at least nominally assigned with portraying a character in his films, though such considerations were little more than a pale formality. To his public, what they were seeing on screen was Dara Singh, pure and simple, with the acts of bravery and strength he performed in his countless heroic underdog roles being merely an expression of the man he was. Dara’s producers, for their part, did little to discourage this notion, insuring that there was little to distinguish the characters that Dara played from one film to the next, and, on one occasion, doing away with the whole pretense entirely by simply naming his character and the film he appeared in Dara Singh. During this period, so deeply was this perception held that the name Dara Singh came to be something of a generic brand name that could be applied, mockingly or not, to any man who aspired to great strength, or to describe the state of vigorous super-masculinity that such a man might aspire to.
As the film that marked Dara’s debut as a leading man, King Kong fed into this spirit by introducing a particular story element that would pop up again and again in his films. This conceit saw him cast as a man of apparently humble origins who, unknown to others — and often even himself — is actually a child of nobility, and who must, in the film’s final act, fight the corrupt powers who have wronged his family and robbed him of his birthright. This narrative was very much in tune with the perception of Dara as a figure who, despite his lowly beginnings and in brave defiance of India’s rigid class boundaries had fought his way to the top through sheer hard work and determination; and who, once there handled his fame and fortune with the grace of a man born to achieve it. This drama would in turn play out in Dara’s film career, with him becoming both a star and a major box office threat despite the fact that his films were, at worst, held in disdain and, at best, ignored by both the mainstream film industry and the media charged with covering them, not to mention polite Indian society as a whole.
King Kong begins by giving us a good look at the fearsome beast of its title. However, there’s a high likelihood that this particular King Kong will not be the one that you expect. To backtrack: Just as in lucha libre, Dara Singh’s brand of wrestling depended for its drama on the presence of established good guys and bad guys, as well as on the ongoing, often epic rivalries between them. In Dara’s case, one of his most legendary rivalries was with a Hungarian wrestler by the name of Emile Czaja, who went by the name King Kong in the ring. King Kong was what would have been called a rudo, or bad guy, in lucha libre. It’s easy enough to guess upon seeing him how he came to have that in-ring monicker. Not only is the man both hirsute and imposingly big in all directions, but he also has a tendency to demonstrate some markedly bestial behavior when engaged in battle, exemplified in particular by the way he accompanies his moves with a surfeit of distressingly loud grunts and explosions of guttural, incoherent jabbering. Add to this that, whenever one sees King Kong on screen (and he is a fairly ubiquitous presence in Dara Singh’s movies), one gets a pretty good idea of what he looks like naked since these movies, following the peplum model, tend to dress their male stars in as little as possible. This practice offers little trouble in the case of the handsome and well-sculpted Dara Singh, who spends much of King Kong in an outfit that consists of little more than some furry leopard print hot pants and what look to be Ugg boots; but when it forces one to contemplate the hairy and mountainous topography of Emile Czaja’s torso in all its fleshy reality, it can be a bit of a challenge.
After an introductory sequence which sees King Kong furiously driving a chariot toward a castle in the heart of whatever mythical land King Kong is supposed to be taking place in, we are taken into the court of the craven King Hingoo. Little time is wasted before the thrills commence, and with the entrance of an agitated group of soldiers we learn of a fearsome creature that is terrorizing the countryside. Hingoo dispatches King Kong, his personal strongman, to deal with the beast, and with that we cut to what will probably be the biggest surprise for any seasoned Bollywood viewer having his or her first introduction to the stunt film genre. It’s an honest-to-goodness man-in-a-suit giant monster of the type we thought only the Japanese were making in 1962, in this case looking like a cross between a dinosaur, a giant cow and a wild boar and which breathes steam out of its giant, flaring nostrils for good measure. It turns out that Indian audiences of the sixties were treated to this kind of spectacle on almost as regular a basis as their Japanese counterparts.
Alas, King Kong and the cow monster’s showdown is not to be, because the beast makes the unfortunate choice to pick on a village belle, played by the actress Kumkum, who happens to be the sweetheart of Dara Singh, here playing a strapping, Ugg-wearing village boy. A fight ensues between Dara and the monster that is realized via some nicely composed forced perspective shots, ending with Dara vaulting into the beast’s mouth and stabbing his spear into its brain through the roof of its mouth. King Hingoo, King Kong and the King’s guards arrive on the scene shortly thereafter and are surprised to find the behemoth vanquished by this lowly stranger. Dara tells the King that, because of his feat, it is he who should rightfully hold the title of King Kong — which means that, while King Kong is referred to as “King Kong” in this movie, it is really just a designation that the King confers upon whoever his chief muscle is. A wrestling match between Dara and King Kong is commanded on the spot, and after a bit of disconcertingly loud grunting and jabbering, the younger, more human-looking man makes quick work of his opponent. The king agrees that Dara Singh should take King Kong’s place and prepares to welcome him into his castle. However, it is soon discovered by him that Dara is in reality the son of the former king, whom Hingoo murdered in order to seize power. With this begins a series of attempts by the King and his minions to eliminate his rival’s heir once and for all.
Despite Dara Singh’s top billing, it is clear from watching King Kong that its producers took pains to hedge themselves against the possibility of their wrestling star not being able to carry the picture. Dara is actually absent from the screen for large swaths of the film, with other actors stepping to the forefront to move the story forward. Among these is Chandrashekar, who plays a character who, unknown to everyone, is Dara’s long lost brother. This character also romances the King’s beautiful daughter, which essentially makes him the true romantic lead of the film. In contrast, the relationship between Dara and Kumkum is mostly played for slapstick laughs, with Dara being portrayed as something of a thick-witted brute who is constantly shoving the girl around and showing her the back of his hand. Ah, comedy! Kumkum in particular bears a heavy load when it comes to carrying the film. Not only is she called upon to play the lead’s love interest as well as put her skills as a comedienne to extensive use, but she is also assigned to perform all but one of the movie’s several vigorous song and dance numbers. She even proves handy at providing some stunt-based thrills of her own. This preponderance of Kumkum is one of King Kong‘s greatest strengths, since she’s a very appealing performer. Much like her contemporary Helen, she worked as a supporting actress and “item” dancer in mainstream films during the fifties and sixties but found in B movies an opportunity to play heroine and leading lady roles.
As far as I know, Kumkum didn’t star opposite Dara Singh in any films after this one, but beyond her the list of Dara’s leading ladies is a short one. This is due to the fact that, even at the height of his popularity and box office drawing power, most of Bollywood’s female stars refused to appear onscreen with him, a result of them considering him to be of low class origin. Because of this, you will see the same female faces appearing over and over again in his movies, including those of Helen and, especially, the teenage actress Mumtaz, who used her work in B movies as a springboard into a career in mainstream films, where she appeared during the ’70s alongside many of the era’s biggest male stars.
Having so many others on hand in King Kong to shoulder the acting burden frees Dara up to do exactly what his audience came to see him do and, in fact, very little else. In other words, whenever the man shows up on screen, you are more or less assured that some kind of brawl, usually pitting Dara against a dozen or so comers, is soon to follow. In this respect he performs impressively, repeatedly pulling a maneuver in which he picks a man up over his head, spins him around and hurls him into his remaining attackers — and keep in mind that these are clearly real, full grown men that he is hurling, not dummies. Of course, given that this is essentially a peplum, he also performs that time honored ritual of picking up and hurling staggeringly phony-looking boulders and, at the conclusion, brings the palace down by singling out and toppling the primary load-bearing pillar.
Ultimately, all of the filmmakers’ efforts to protect themselves and their audience from Dara Singh’s potential to give a weak performance were unnecessary. While he may not have been a great actor, he displayed enough natural charisma throughout King Kong that, watching it today, you actually wish that he was in it a bit more. This would be corrected for in the wake of King Kong‘s success, and subsequent films would see Dara commanding a lot more screen time, as well as being allowed to function as a more traditional romantic lead, with fine results. In fact, while King Kong is for the most part a charming and delightfully entertaining little film, the real thrills in Dara Singh’s catalog come later on, when he had come into his own more as both a screen performer and icon.
Like most Bollywood B’s of its era, King Kong clocks in at just about two hours, a fairly modest running time compared to the typical 150 to 180 minute duration of most mainstream Bollywood films. Despite this, it still manages to shoehorn in a good deal of the type of lengthy comic relief episodes and instances of verbal exposition that mark those more well-appointed films and which are sure to make viewing it a bit tough going in places. The film employs a gimmick that seems to have been fairly common in low budget Indian films of its day, that of having a couple of its musical numbers, as well as its climax, appear in dazzling full color. The saturated hues on display are indeed eye-catching (or, at least, would be, if the colors on the presented print weren’t so faded), but have the unfortunate side effect of making you feel a little let down once the film returns to its original black and white — which is too bad, given that, had those color sequences been absent, you probably would have been perfectly content watching it in monochrome. It’s basically like someone serving you some perfectly nice cookies but then telling you that you could have had cake.
Cake withholding aside, as a fan not only of Bollywood but also of pulp cinema in general and lucha movies in particular, those minor difficulties inherent in watching King Kong were well worth soldiering through. It was like witnessing the moment of impact between all of those things that provide me with some of my most profound movie-watching pleasures. In fact, had I known several years ago that I could be watching films that combined wrestling, men in togas throwing boulders, giant suitmation monsters, and Kumkum dancing frenetically to catchy Bollywood music, I probably never would have seen Mother India or Sholay in the first place. So it’s probably best for the sake of my film literacy that I didn’t. Instead, let’s just say that the broadening of my experience of Indian commercial cinema to include its products both high and low has deepened my appreciation for it considerably. And just as I would say that anyone exploring that cinema would be cheating him or herself by overlooking the work of artists like Guru Dutt, I would also say that they would be equally shortchanging themselves by ignoring figures from its less esteemed sectors such as Dara Singh, Mohammed Hussain, Babubhai Mistri and the Wadia brothers.
Thanks to the fond memories of those who grew up on his movies, Dara Singh enjoys an iconic status in India that has lasted to this very day, despite the fact that the stunt film as it was known in his 1960s heyday has long ceased to exist. In 1985, hit director Manmohan Desai, who thrilled to Dara’s exploits in his youth, paid him a lasting compliment by casting him as the ultimate he-man in his masterpiece of chest-thumping masala excess, Mard. Playing the father of the character portrayed by superstar Amitabh Bachchan, he was once again cast as a figure of noble birth denied his place as rightful ruler of his people by the actions of nefarious interlopers (this time the evil British Raj). Of course, by the picture’s end, Dara has reasserted himself through sheer might and determination. And just as it is on screen, so it is in life: No force, be it the might of armies, the stigma of class, or the ravages of time, can keep Dara Singh from being on top, right where he belongs.