As far as I can tell, Dara Singh is the closest thing to Santo that Bollywood has to offer. True, he never wore a mask, but there are plenty of other striking similarities. Much like his Mexican counterpart, Dara Singh achieved stardom as a professional wrestler during the 40s and 50s and, as his middle years approached, moved into film, starring in a prolific series of low budget, B action movies throughout the 60s. These movies typically contained a sprinkling of oddball fantasy elements and featured a host of other pro wrestlers in their casts in order to give Dara ample opportunities to show off his moves.
Of course, being that they were Bollywood movies, they were also musicals -- but, as fans know, Santo's producers weren't averse to including the occasional song and dance number in his movies, either. Like Santo in Santo contra la Invasion de los Marcianos, Dara Singh even brought his formidable arsenal of scissor holds and headlocks to bear upon hostile invaders from Mars -- in his case in the loopy 1967 entry A Trip to the Moon, a very rare instance of Bollywood making a pass at the space opera genre.
Dara would eventually move up to starring in the occasional big budget mythological feature (including the 1965 classic Mahabharat) and, in 1985, would be cast by Manmohan Desai as Amitabh's father in Mard. But, of his early B movies, one of the few available on English subtitled DVD is 1964's Aaya Toofan. The film borrows its plot from the 1962 American feature Jack the Giant Killer -- which itself was an attempt by director Nathan Juran to recapture the magic of his earlier, Ray Harryhausen-fueled special effects extravaganza The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Like its model, Aaya Toofan tells the story of a humble village boy (Dara) who saves a princess (Helen) from a giant ogre sent by an evil wizard to abduct her. However, to pad the yarn out to acceptable Bollywood length, the makers provide a considerably greater amount of obstacles to the budding romance between Dara and Helen's characters and even include a love triangle involving the King's mistress.
Fans of Santo movies might find themselves a bit dismayed by the amount of actual story contained within Aaya Toofan, but will no doubt be right at home with the abundance of charming, old school special effects and sweaty two-fisted action featured in the film's first and final acts. As for Bollywood fans, the inclusion of Helen in the cast -- and doing what she does best in a generous assortment of energetic musical numbers -- is alone enough to warrant giving this one a look.
The aforementioned A Trip to the Moon also offers a lot to love, with Dara portraying a sort of Bollywood version of Flash Gordon and Helen playing a high-hoofing Martian princess. Unfortunately, the only way that I know to see that one currently is as an unsubtitled stream from the Bollywood.tv site. Hopefully, more of these trashy treasures from Dara Singh's filmography will be made available in a format friendly to English speaking Bollywood fans in the future. Because, from what I've seen, they definitely merit further investigation.
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