To put the importance of Dara Singh into context for a North American audience is difficult. The Indian star, who died Thursday at age 83, was the best-known professional wrestler in the history of the country, akin to El Santo in Mexico, Big Daddy in England, or Whipper Watson in Canada, a cultural icon who went far beyond the ring. As well, Singh was easily the most successful pro-wrestler-turned actor ever. Not even The Rock can say he starred in 36 movies in one year.

Dara Singh

“He was a very big name in India, not even in India — he was worldwide. He was known as a top wrestler,” said Darshan Sahota, a Toronto TV producer and personality, who promoted wrestling in Toronto in 1974 with Singh on top.

Referring to the Hindi-language film center, Sahota added: “Also, he was a movie producer in Bollywood and also an actor in Bollywood. He was a very respected name. He made India shine. He was our icon.”

The script of Dara Singh’s life was movie-worthy too.

He was born Deedar Singh Randhawa on November 19, 1928 in Dharmuchak village, about 20 kilometres from Amritsar, in the Punjab region of India. As a youth, he wound up in Singapore, where he had family. From there, the story gets a little fuzzy. Was he working as a shoe-shine boy when “King Kong” Emile Czaja found him? Or was he older, working in a factory? One story says that he hired a Chinese guru to further his wrestling skills while still in Singapore.

Regardless of how exactly it happened, Dara Singh — named after an earlier legitimate wrestling star in India who had been jailed — became a star because of Czaja.

Like other famed pairings, like Superman and Lex Luthor, or Jack Brisco and Dory Funk Jr., Singh and King Kong were natural foes, except that Czaja was the man behind the scenes acting as the promoter, establishing professional wrestling in India.

The 6-foot-2 Sikh was unique in India at the time, with his rippling muscles and chiseled good looks. Facing the rotund, beastly King Kong, Dara Singh rose to the top — and stayed there.

“King Kong was the main guy in India, he was the promoter. Dara was his superstar,” explained Tiger Jeet Singh, who became a fan of Dara Singh’s as a youth.

“He’s the one that inspired me to be a wrestler. He was wrestling in Delhi. I was only 12, 13 years old maybe, and I went with my servant to see his match. It was the National Stadium. He was wrestling King Kong from Singapore. People worshiped him like a god, because he was the only one. It was a brand-new thing in India, we never saw professional wrestling,” said Tiger Jeet Singh. “When I saw this kind of reaction, I said, ‘God, one day I want to be like that.'”

Dara Singh knew the importance of getting his name out there. Early on, he worked in Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma.

It was in Britain that he met the man who would establish his world championship credentials, even if Singh never did hold one of the top “world” titles.

In his autobiography, Hooker, six-time NWA World champion Lou Thesz talked about meeting Singh at London’s Royal Albert Hall in December 1957.

“I hadn’t met Dara Singh before that night, but I had already heard a lot about him during my tour of the Far East earlier that year. A Sikh, he was an authentic wrestler, was superbly conditioned — he did a couple of thousand Hindu squats every day — and he had a great reputation as a performer. He was a handsome guy too, and he had capitalized upon his success as a wrestler to become a popular movie star in India,” wrote Thesz. “I had also heard he was a sharp and very objective businessman when it came to wrestling, and I was pleased to see for myself that it was true. His British Empire title had credibility throughout Europe, India, Pakistan, Canada and Australia, and I’d seen enough large egos in the business that it wouldn’t have surprised me if he had insisted on winning that night. But Dara was smart enough to see real value further down the road for us — not only in England but elsewhere — if we wrestled to a draw, which was what the promoter had in mind. And that’s what we did.”

Their bout, with each taking a fall during the six, 10-minute rounds, set up Singh back home as a contender. Taking back photos of him with the Queen of England, Singh got lots of press from the newspapers.

Thesz also thought so highly of Singh that he convinced his new friend to bail on a plan tour of Australia and head to Canada instead, where Thesz was tight with Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn. (That Thesz got revenge against an Australian promoter who had screwed him was just a bonus.)

In Canada, Dara Singh worked the big cities, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg.

Toronto, Ontario, August 7, 1958.

“He adds a mystic note to the Frank Tunney troupe which already includes such colorful hombres as Sky-High Lee, whose six-shooters come out of his armpits, and Sky-Low-Low, whose oxfords come up to his elbows,” wrote famed Toronto sportswriter Milt Dunnell. “Besides being one of the handsomest characters to arrive in Tunney’s territory for many moons, Dara Singh is one of the most articulate. His native tongue is Punjabi, but he also speaks Malayan, English and Hindustani. So far, he’s baffled by Canadian profanity.”

Surprising given his short stay in Canada, running from mid-1958 until the end of the year, Singh was given a run as Canadian Open tag team champion with Yukon Eric.

Singh would return to Canada a few more times over his lifetime, including “World Cup of Wrestling” shows in Toronto in 1974 and 1979, where he headlined against Danny Lynch (’74) and Brute Bernard (’79).

When Thesz finally arrived to face Singh in India in 1968, he was awed by the 10’x10′ posters around town to promote their rematch.

“It would be hard to exaggerate how big a name Dara was in India. He was already a movie star and important sports figure when we first met, and he had become even bigger, almost an institution, in the years since then,” wrote Thesz.

At their rematch, 60,000 turned out at the soccer stadium. The following bout in New Delhi was oversold, leading to a riot and police using tear gas to quell the crowd. “Dara and I figured we had to go ahead with the match or risk an even more dangerous situation, so we fought our way into the ring, did our thing as quickly as we could, and then got out of there.”

Thesz said he had no problem losing to Singh, whose business acumen he praised. “I wasn’t really comfortable with the idea of how the Indian crowds would take Dara losing.”

Singh and Thesz would rekindle their battles in India in 1973.

A 1971 UPI story that ran in countless papers examined the growth of the film business in India — known as Bollywood — and singled out Dara Singh, who started acting in 1952, as one of the reasons.

“Indian movie stars sometimes make pictures for two or three studios at the same time, and even travel from one studio to another to shoot different pictures on the same day,” reads the article. “Male stars average about 12 pictures each year. A former wrestler named Dara Singh whose talent has sometimes been questioned, but whose energy and box office appeal have not, holds the record with 36.”

Upon his 80th birthday, Dara Singh reflected back on his film career for the Indo-Asian News Service.

“I was never interested in doing films. I was pulled into the industry because of the fame I received from wrestling. I was forced to do King Kong (1962) and it became a hit and that started my film career,” said Dara Singh. “But I made it clear to the filmmakers at that time that my main concern was my wrestling career and I would not compromise on that. They agreed. However, after beating American wrestler Lou Thesz in the 1960s and becoming a world champion, I started concentrating on my film career.”

With his muscular body and oozing machismo, Singh took a variety of roles in film and television, from heavily made-up character parts to action star to serious actor. He performed in both Hindi and Punjabi.

Paul “The Butcher” Vachon was a Canadian wrestling in India in 1962-64, and got to know Dara Singh in the ring and away from it, even attending the christening of one of Dara’s children despite being a villain to Singh’s hero.

“He was a modern Sikh. He was a wrestler that had been taught to wrestle by King Kong,” Vachon said. “When I was there, King Kong had made some movies with him. He hired him like he hired me to play villains in big fights and stuff like that. I made some movies with Dara Singh just because of that.”

The fame of Dara Singh increased through the years, said Vachon. “He was the most well-known, probably, except for Raaj Kumar, Dara Singh was the most famous movie star in India, and all over the world, because Indians are all over the world. I wrestled him in the main event in Bombay a couple of times.”

Other well-known names that took on Dara Singh include Canada’s George Gordienko and John Da Silva of New Zealand.

Vachon explained that Singh was a wrestler not a shooter; he knew how to work and get a good performance. “He was the best worker of them all. His brother, Randhawa Singh, was just as good. They wrestled modern style. He really knew how to work.”

Dara Singh and Tiger Jeet Singh during a visit by Dara to Toronto. Photo courtesy Tiger Jeet Singh.

Singh retired from in-ring action in 1983. He’d long before figured out that it wasn’t the wrestlers or the actors that made the money, said his friend, Tiger Jeet Singh, who is also a celebrity in India and has been receiving many calls to comment on the passing of the only Indian wrestler more famous than he is.

“Wrestling, Dara never made any money in that,” said Tiger Jeet Singh. “Very smart businessman, but India, in the wrestling, you can’t make any money; the promoter makes money. They hardly pay you anything. He ended up going into the movies.”

In the film business, Dara Singh established Dara Studio in 1978 to better have a say in that industry. He would be a writer, actor, director and producer at various times. In wrestling, he may have never been a front-line promoter, but he did help organize tours for American wrestlers, often in conjunction with Thesz, and offering up “sold” shows to others.

He also was a public servant, taking various government roles through the years on committees, consulting on youth affairs, film and technology.

A legend in India, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter inducted Dara Singh into its Hall of Fame in 1996.

Dara Singh and Harv Sihra of the Bollywood Lions.

When TNA Impact Wrestling made a deal with an Indian company to work on the Ra Ka King product, Harv Sihra of the Bollywood Lions tag team got a chance to meet Dara Singh. “I had [the] privilege and honour of meeting him during my stay in Mumbai in 2010 and will forever cherish the few blessed moments I got to spend with the Indian legend,” Sihra, a Vancouver native, wrote on his Facebook page.

Dara Singh had a heart attack on July 7, and was admitted to hospital. With his diagnosis grim, he was allowed to return home on July 11, at the wishes of his family. He died July 12 at his home in Mumbai. Widowed and married for a second time, he left behind three sons and three daughters. Cremated, a funeral service was held in Mumbai.

Tiger Jeet Singh actually tried to see his friend one last time. Their families had become close through the years, visiting each other whether in India or Canada. Jeet Singh and his son, Tiger Ali Singh, had a big, free charity show set for a park in Brampton, Ontario, on Canada Day, July 1, and wanted his hero to be there.

“He was my idol and I wanted to honour him,” said Jeet Singh, recalling the conversation where he asked Dara Singh to present the trophy to the event’s winner.

“He talked to me. He said, ‘Tiger, I’m so thrilled that you think that way.'” Dara Singh declined the invitation, and revealed that he was wheelchair-bound and had to be fed by a servant. For such a robust personality, it was extra painful, said Tiger Jeet, saying his friend felt ashamed.

Dara Singh urged Tiger Jeet Singh to present the cup instead. “He said, ‘You do this honour yourself, but always think behind your head that I’m just standing beside you.'”