How ‘schoolgirl’ crush on Dara Singh helped shoot Jab We Met

Dara Singh

I was nervous about casting Rustam-e-Hind Dara Singh in Jab We Met (2007) as I am from the inbetween generation that hasn’t seen his wrestling career but knew about him from my mother, who would tell us to go to sleep or face Dara Singh’s wrath.

I had heard stories of how he had vanquished foreign wrestlers and the legend of how he defeated the Australian wrestler, King Kong.

I cast him as the grandfather of my heroine in Jab We Met because I needed an imposing north Indian man she was scared of. I was nervous that he would say no. But he read the script, smiled and asked when he should report for the shoot.

We shot in the heat of Punjab’s summer in Nabha near Patiala. On any given day on our sets, there would be a thousand dancers practising, people smoking and shouting. Dara Singh would enter and suddenly everyone would become like school children. He was so imposing and so calm, an embodiment of the typical north Indian virtues of masculinity.

He never complained about anything. The only objection he had was about a dialogue where he scolds Kareena. He had to say, “Agar aise kapde pehenti ho toh Bombay mein nangi rehti hogi (if this is how you dress you must be going nude in Bombay)”. He objected to the word nangi as he didn’t like saying this to a woman. I explained that he was her grandfather and to him, she was but a child, but he wasn’t convinced.

For an earlier generation, he was an urban legend. It was around the time India got Independence and to see an Indian wrestler defeating foreigners was a big deal. Imagine him going all the way to Singapore in 1947 to compete against the best in the world. Stories were stretched into fables and one heard of 10-foot-tall men, Russians who ate 20 eggs at a time and foreign wrestlers who were so huge they ate an entire goat. To see Dara defeating these men was phenomenal and I think it was our revenge on the British. For a nation that got its independence through non-violence, there was catharsis involved in having someone who was emblematic of brute force.

We were shooting a sequence of Jab We Met at the haveli of an old and slightly senile lady. She was quite a terror. I wanted to shoot in a room with antique furniture and she relented only when she found out the film starred Dara Singh. It must have been a schoolgirl crush because she made me promise that I would get him to have sherbet with her. She wore a lovely sari that day and served him the drink.

The amazing thing about him was the way he could harness his power. If you shook hands with him you knew he could easily pull your arm out but he knew his strength and was extremely gentle because of it.

And his discipline was inspiring. He would be awake before the rest of the crew, having partied till late, went to sleep and we would see him taking his morning walks.

For me he remains a reference on how to be a man, on how to carry yourself and how to behave with others. I feel privileged to have personally interacted with him.

— As told to Nishat Bari.

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