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Dara Singh: India's 'first all-action hero'

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Mumbai

image captionDara Singh was described as India's first action hero

On screen he played Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god famed for his presence, stature and strength.

It was a fitting character for Dara Singh, the Indian wrestler-turned-actor, who died on Thursday.

With rippling muscles and standing 6ft 2in (1.82m), Singh was an Indian star known across generations and social groups.

With a successful career as a wrestler, then an actor, he excelled in two of India's biggest passions and has been described by many as India's "first all-action hero" and the country's first "He-Man".

Some of India's biggest names have paid tribute to him. On Twitter, actor Amitabh Bachchan wrote: "A great Indian and one of the finest humans… An entire era of his celebrated presence gone!"

Superstar Shah Rukh Khan tweeted: "Wrestlers are made of sweat, determination and a hard to find alloy called guts... Most apt for Dara Singhji, our very own Superman. Will miss you sir."

Wrestling hero

Singh will be remembered for his fighting prowess, as one of the country's top wrestlers.

Growing up in a village in the Amritsar district in Punjab, he trained in Pehlwani - the Indian style of wrestling - taking part, first, in regional tournaments and even fighting on the request of Indian princes.

He then learnt American-style wrestling and built up a name as a national and international champion, winning the Commonwealth title for India in 1959 and the World Wrestling Championship in 1968.

Such was his strength, it is widely reported, that he remained undefeated in all of his 500 or so professional wrestling fights.

"He brought a good name for India when it came to wrestling and it is thanks to him that the standard of the game improved," says Raj Singh, secretary general of the Indian Wrestling Association.

Raj Singh says Dara Singh can be credited with putting Indian wrestling on the map and popularising the Western game in India as well as inspiring today's generation of wrestlers, including Indian Olympic hopeful Sushil Kumar.

"We wouldn't have success in the game if it wasn't for Dara Singh," he adds.

'Bare-chested fights'

What gave Dara Singh even broader appeal was his move from wrestling to the silver screen.

image captionDara Singh made a transition from a fighter to action hero roles

His broad shoulders and toned physique suited his transition from a fighter to action hero roles.

In 1952, he starred in his first film, Sangdil, and went on to feature in more than 115 films, including King Kong (1963) and Darasingh: Ironman (1964).

In his films, he could be seen fighting bare-chested and did all of his own stunts.

He was best known for his role in the popular Indian television show The Ramayana, an adaptation of the Hindu epic text which became one of India's biggest shows in the 1980s.

In the series, he played the monkey god Hanuman, a role which many say defined him.

His characterisation won him many plaudits, specially from those who grew up watching his portrayal.

"He was Hanuman for every kid and the God of all wrestlers, the original action hero who truly inspired me," wrote Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar on Twitter.

Singh also appeared in mainstream Bollywood films, including Mera Naam Joker (1970), Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), and was last seen playing actress Kareena Kapoor's grandfather in Jab We Met (2007).

He also had a brief political career as a member of the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, for Bharatiya Janata Party, serving from August 2003-2009.