Another tribute, to yet another great who’s passed on. Dara Singh, the wrestler-turned-actor who made such a big niche for himself in a slew of films, especially in the 1960s, passed away on July 12, 2012.
As a child, nearly all my movie-watching was restricted to what was aired on Indian TV—Doordarshan—(and later, the few TV channels that showed Hindi movies). Somehow, I never ended up watching any Dara Singh movies. Despite that, Dara Singh was a very familiar figure and name. A synonym for formidable strength, for something like the Rock of Gibraltar: utterly immovable, impossible to defeat.
I confess I watched my first Dara Singh starrer only a couple of years back, and I was struck by the sweetness of the man: there was a certain naïve charm about him that seemed to shine through even onscreen. And it’s the same with this film: a quintessential Dara Singh showcase, not much in the way of storyline [to be precise, nothing], but everybody seems to have had a lot of fun. Dara Singh included.
Rustom-e-Rome begins in the midst of an invasion. The kingdom of Chhaama [Jaama? It’s not very clear, and it certainly doesn’t sound like any place I’ve heard of] has been attacked by enemies—who, we don’t know. They’ve laid Chhaama/Jaama low, along with its king, who stumbles back into his palace just in time to tell the distraught queen (Rajrani?) that all is lost. The king’s sole regret as he’s gasping his last, is that if only Suleiman had been here—“Who is Suleiman?” asks the queen. “Suleiman is my—” the king begins to blurt out, and then cops it before he can impart that secret.
The queen is inclined to weep while the enemy takes over, but a wise officer advises her to save her two sons and escape through the tunnel that leads from the palace, out of Chhaama/Jaama.
The queen, therefore, gathers up her two sons—both clad in sad-looking frocks [which I later realised might have been an attempt at kiddie tunics]. She manages to get them out into the countryside and lies down to sleep with them in some ruins.
Come morning, and the elder child wakes up and wanders off by himself. He runs up against a cobra, and is so frightened, he loses his balance and goes over a cliff—just in time for his mother to see him fall off. Poor woman. First her husband, then her elder son…
…and, while she’s been away by the edge of the cliff, weeping her eyes out, her younger son too.
A bunch of passing bandits, led by a man in a really badly-crafted mask, happens to come upon the toddler, who’s woken up and begun crying. For some reason best known to himself [and never revealed to us, the poor audience], the leader of the bandits decides to take the baby and bring him up among the bandits.
The bandits go off with the little prince, and are watched—unknown to them—by Darvesh Baba (Rajan Kapoor?), a prophet with a wonderfully gnarled staff. Darvesh Baba makes no attempt to rescue the child [not that he would have been successful, methinks], but seeing the devastated mother make for the cliff-edge to fling herself off, goes and stops her, and brings her to his own home.
The queen doesn’t tell Darvesh Baba who she is, and he asks her to be like a sister to him and bring up his poor motherless baby daughter, Shabnam. The queen agrees and stays on in Darvesh Baba’s house.
Meanwhile, there’s been a minor miracle. The queen’s elder son, who’d fallen off the cliff, has been rescued by a passing soldier named Scipio [Really. Everybody pronounces his name as CPO, which makes me think of Star Wars]. Scipio has brought him to court, asking what’s to be done with the child (nobody knows that this is the prince).
The king summarily hands him over to his rescuer, telling the soldier to bring up the boy [hah. Go around rescuing children, and you get saddled with them for the rest of your life]. Darvesh Baba, who happens to be present, suggests that the boy be named Firdaus [which means ‘paradise’; I have a feeling the foster father doesn’t think this kid's heaven-sent. But he is given no choice].
Years pass, and Firdaus has now grown up (into Dara Singh, yippee!). Firdaus is big and brawny and seems to be pretty untrammelled by a foster-father or any other foster relatives. He lives in the kingdom of Jodia [that’s how everybody pronounces it. I wonder if this was meant to be Judaea. It seems to have some connection to Rome, but nobody bothers to mention what].
Jodia is ruled by the beautiful Princess Ruma (Vijaya Choudhary).
Ruma is right now presiding over a tournament in which contestants generally batter each other until one emerges victor—something like gladiatorial fights, though mostly minus the weaponry. In the fights, one man soon manages to trounce all his opponents: Firdaus. He’s so magnificent that even Ruma is quite bedazzled.
When Firdaus has laid low the last of his competitors, Ruma summons him to bestow on him the title of Rustom-e-Rome. With it comes a splendid jewelled dagger. When Firdaus sees the dagger, he staggers back, confused and puzzled. Where on earth has the princess been able to lay her hands on this dagger? There’s obviously some mystery here.
We don’t get a chance to learn why the sight of the dagger has shaken Firdaus so, because just then, an interloper appears. This is Arsalan (Azad), who claims that the contest is not over—he is here to defeat Firdaus. [In a later scene set in the camp of the masked bandits, we learn that Arsalan is the younger brother of Firdaus, whom the leader of the bandits had decided to bring up. How he’s parted ways with them isn’t explained].
So Firdaus and Arsalan battle it out, and Firdaus pretty much bashes Arsalan to a pulp. Despite the crowd egging him on to finish Arsalan off, however, Firdaus shows mercy. [Ah, brotherly love. Even when there’s no reason to suspect that the other is a brother].
That night, Arsalan sits and ponders over what has happened. His conscience tells him to go and thank Firdaus for sparing his life, and Arsalan listens.
—just in time to enter Firdaus’s chamber to see a masked assassin bending over Firdaus, ready to plunge a dagger into him. Arsalan throws a dagger and kills the assassin himself, and Firdaus, who wakes up because of the racket, is suitably grateful, not to mention puzzled. [I must admit to being puzzled, too: why did this masked bandit want to kill Firdaus? And why did Arsalan—who, after all, was once a buddy to these guys—kill him? Why not simply yell and wake Firdaus, who would no doubt have made short work of the man?]
Because this masked bandit was killed, both Firdaus and Arsalan are hauled up before Princess Ruma, on charges of murder. She sentences both of them to death. [Nobody in Jodia, least of all the dim-witted princess, seems to think that killing an assassin by way of defence is pardonable. Even the much-respected Darvesh Baba, who seems to be the last word in wisdom, keeps mum].
Firdaus and Arsalan obviously believe that actions speak louder than words. Instead of wasting their breath trying to defend themselves, they set about fighting the royal executioner and guards. In a matter of minutes, our two heroes have managed to floor the better part of Ruma’s guard, and Darvesh Baba decides to step in, begging Ruma to pardon them, which she does.
Darvesh Baba has figured out who Arsalan really is [remember? All those years ago, when the masked bandits were making off with the little prince, Darvesh Baba had seen them]. He thinks it’ll be a good idea to re-unite mother and son [how he’s realised that Shabnam’s foster-mother is the queen is never explained]. So he takes Arsalan home, and invites him to live with them.
Not that the ex-queen knows who Arsalan is. For some unexplained reason, Darvesh Baba doesn’t tell her or Arsalan their relationship. They end up floundering for a long time, wondering why they feel such a deep and inexplicable affection for each other. [Does Darvesh Baba have a love for the dramatic, and hopes that when they eventually learn the truth, it’ll be even more joyous for them?]
Thankfully, the scene now shifts to Firdaus, who (having been named Rustom-e-Rome), on the pretext of taking Ruma hunting, has gotten the chance to romance her. We’re treated to a lovely little song and dance in a garden…
And then disaster strikes. [Or rather, the masked bandits do]. Their leader, for reasons best known to himself [and he tells his men so], has decided to terrorise Jodia. He does so by kidnapping Ruma while she’s out gallivanting with Firdaus.
Poor Firdaus again gets hauled up before the law—this time, a high-ranking courtier accuses Firdaus of not having looked after the princess. Firdaus is again sentenced to death.
Once again, Darvesh Baba intervenes. Give Firdaus a day to search for Ruma, he pleads. So, after some cribbing, Firdaus is allowed till sunset to find and bring back Ruma. If he doesn’t, he’ll be put to death. [Nobody stops to think that Firdaus, if he has an ounce of sense, won’t come meekly back to be executed, if he can’t find the princess]. So Firdaus and his friend Naatu (Sundar) go off into the wild, towards the lair of the masked bandits, to look for Ruma.
What is going to come of all of this? What is the secret of the two daggers? Who is the leader of the masked bandits [and why is he masked, anyway]? What is going on? [Warning: a lot of these questions are never effectively answered, so don’t hold your breath].
What I liked about this film:
Dara Singh. Rustom-e-Rome is one of those films where he doesn’t get much to do except wrestle and show off his muscles—even Firdaus’s romancing of the heroine takes second place. Yet, even when he’s throwing punches or hoisting opponents on his shoulders and whirling them around till they’re dizzy, there’s a beguiling, endearing charm about Dara Singh that is very sweet. [Yes, I know. Calling a man who’s that tall and that broad ‘sweet’ is odd. But you just have to see his smile and his eyes, and listen to him speak with that Punjabi accent, and you’ll know what I mean].
The music, by Suresh Kumar. A little-known composer, but he created some good tunes for this film. My favourite is the lovely Yeh bahekti ghataayein, yeh mahekti hawaayein; the qawwali, Husnwaalon ki kya baat hai, isn’t bad, either.
What I didn’t like:
The story. [Or, to be more precise, the lack of a coherent story]. After having sat through the film, I’ve not yet managed to figure out exactly what was going on, how, or why. There’s a much-hyped mystery element which is never fully explained [it has a number of sub-mysteries to it, as well, which also don’t make any sense]. I suspect T Series might be at least partly responsible for this sorry state of affairs, but even they couldn’t have distorted any film to this extent.
At one point in the film, Darvesh Baba observes that Firdaus is looking [and I don’t blame poor Firdaus], ‘hairaan’. He says, “Tumhaari hairaani bahut jald door kar di jaayegi.” (“Your bewilderment will soon be put at rest”). Joke of the century.
The art direction, costume design, etc. What was the brief given to these people? If this was supposed to be Rome (or a Roman-ruled territory, as Judaea was), some of it—the furniture, murals in villas, and Darvesh Baba’s clothes—might have fitted in. But where do sphinxes, pillars decorated with Egyptian art, and statues that look straight out of medieval China fit in? And the tunics are, really, a travesty. Most of the time, they’re too flared and frock-like to look at all masculine. The rest of the time (and this especially happens when the man has to fight), they’re so short, they can barely cover the man’s chaddis.
No, it’s not a great film. It’s not even a good film. But I still think it was a good way for me to say goodbye to Dara Singh, because he was the life of the film. The life, actually, of many totally fantastic (in the literal sense—‘based on fantasy’) films. A life that’ll live on through all these fun, loony, films that he lights up.
RIP, Dara Singh.