Jun 14, 2009

Mumbai's version of World Wrestling Entertainment

The Mumbai version of WWE (World Wrestling
Entertainment) was a rage in the 50s and 60s. Who does not remember Dara Singh?

For Dara, the wrestler-turned-
entertainer, wrestling was a hobby right from his childhood. He used to watch the
muscled wrestlers in his village and aspired to be like them. The
opportunity came when he went on a trip to Singapore, where freestyle wrestling was very p
opular. He there for three years and trained.

Wrestling brought Dara in contact with the best in the world. One of his
finest moments was when he fought Aslam and Anwar, the sons of Gama, the great pehelwan of undivided India, in a match that turned into an India-Pakistan contest and became a money spinner.

If one were to coin a name for that kind of wrestling it could well be ‘Tamasha Wrestling’. Its promoters were Gustad Irani and after his death Peter Patel. There was hardly any sporting entertainment then in the city. Cricket was just Test matches, maybe one in two years. Football was never big. So crowds would flock to the Vallabbhai Patel Stadium at Worli. Everyone knew it was fake, but everyone enjoyed it. For a 7.30 pm bout, people would start queuing at seven in the morning.

The idea was to get hulks into the ring. One remembers the huge cut-outs of wrestlers on the compound walls of the Worli stadium. The walls of the cemetery and crematorium opposite Marine Lines too almost seemed to be held up by pictures of wrestling greats from Dara Singh, his brother Randhawa, legend King Kong and the Pakistanis to foreigners with fancy names like Flash Gordon, Ali Reza Bei, Andre Cotula, Kid Zamboa, Baron Von Hekzi, Tiger Ray Holden and the Russian Bear, George Szybisco.

Of these, the one who captured Mumbai’s imagination was the Sydney-born King Kong. His real name was Emile Czaja. and he weighed 182 kg. He got the name King Kong after playing the part in an Indian movie. His bouts with arch-rival Sheik Ali and Dara Singh were famous. Dara once threw him out of the ring. When King Kong came back into the ring, the referee Wong Bok Lee gave him a drop-kick! Shades of WWE. On another occasion, Dara was thrown out and carried away in an ambulance. There was a call for revenge and a rematch—all mocked up for the pleasure of the audience. King Kong died in Singapore in a car crash in 1970 on his way to a wrestling match. Dara is a ripe 80-plus today.

The public relations of the promoters were excellent. The two afternoon dailies, Evening News of India and Bulletin, were full of wrestling. The bouts would be hyped up: What would Aslam do? Would Dara use the drop-kick, or the aeroplane throw? The popularity of the mock bouts was hurting the real wrestling of the akhadas. Sham recalls how Maharashtra home minister Balasaheb Desai, who was also heading the local wrestling association, decided to oppose it. Matmen from Kolhapur and Satara led a morcha against Mumbai’s WWE. The licence of the promoters wasn’t renewed. But for a decade and more Mumbai had its fill.

The better wrestlers from abroad were much sought after for stunts in films. One from Poland, Goldstein, did stunts in Jungle Ka Jawahar with the great stunt queen Fearless Nadia. Indeed, those were the golden days of Tamasha Wrestling. Everything wasn’t hunky dory though. There was exploitation. There were injuries, there was penury. The last days of King Kong in Hong Kong are shrouded in melancholy. A far remove from the million dollar revelry of today’s WWE.