Peta’s Sexiest Man Alive

The story of how an arthritic village boy who was laughed at became a celebrity wrestler with a cause
True Life
JET SET: Singh has promised himself that he’ll take his parents  to New York some day (Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)

“Dara Singh has come to fight.”

This is how five-year-old Sangram Singh was ridiculed by young wrestlers when he expressed his desire to be one like them. As a child, Sangram Singh alias Sanjit Kumar suffered from debilitating arthritis and was confined to a wheel chair. This condition “robbed me of my childhood,” he says. Born into a poor agrarian joint family in Haryana’s Rohtak district, Singh went on, through sheer grit and against all odds, to represent India in various International competitions. He is now 28, a model, and has to his credit a film—Dharna Unlimited—that didn’t trouble the box office much. He won India’s first wrestling reality show. He has now acquired celebrity status. He is invited to schools to give motivational talks to impressionable children. He has pledged the donation of his organs after death. Life seemed to have come full circle when recently he was offered the part of Dara Singh in a biopic on the wrestling legend.

Due to his chronic arthritis, doctors had ruled out a normal life for Singh. He was dejected, but the only option left was to try. He was adamant. He started by forcing himself to stand as long as his shaky legs could support him. As weeks went by, he could stay standing longer. His capacity to bear pain, he realised, also increased. He would try to stand holding a bucket full of water. His perseverance was transforming into strength in his limbs. His confidence, too, was growing. By the time he was in his early teens, he had won the battle against arthritis.

In Singh’s village, there is a wrestler in every family. It’s a privilege no one wants to miss. His older brother was a wrestler, but when a freak accident left him impaired, Singh decided he would become the family’s wrestler. His mother was supportive, and so was his brother, but his father’s lack of support was explained by his lack of faith in Singh. “My mother would hide a glass of milk for me every day,” he says, something virtually impossible to do so in a joint family of paltry means. Every day, he would walk 10 km to the village dangal to practice. There was no turning back.

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“I promised myself that I would fly my parents to New York one day,” he tells me, when we meet at a coffee shop in Delhi’s Khan Market. He orders fresh juice with a firm ‘no’ to a cup of coffee. He returns the glass of water because it is too cold for him to drink. He is not being finicky, he explains—food makes a man; it’s not just about what you eat, but the way you eat it.

“Nature cures,” he insists. He is a pure vegetarian, and has great faith in naturopathy. He follows his routine and diet with religious fervour. The body, he believes, has an immense capacity to cure, repair and fight diseases—a good diet helps the body reclaim itself. As an example, he cites his own miraculous recovery from a debilitating aliment. He claims to have cured himself of arthritis by following diet rich in dairy products and including a regular intake of gooseberry, aloe vera, black pepper and other herbs readily available in nature. He would also get a regular massage with sesame oil. “One day I will write a book on naturopathy,” he says, restating his belief: “nature cures.” Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) nominated him the ‘sexiest man alive’. A vegetarian, he has even posed nude to promote the cause.

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Despite representing India at various international competitions, Singh didn’t have enough money. He is demanding of life: good food, good clothes, a car, and a constant struggle to do something that would redeem him. For him, redemption meant material well-being. It was time for him to go professional.

“I didn’t have money to treat the injuries I sustained while fighting,” he says. He participated in mud wrestling fights—mitti ka dangal—where the winner could make anything from Rs 2,000 to 20,000 per fight, depending on its severity and the reputation of the opponent. He liked fighting for money; it honed his fighting skills and provided a ready supply of cash. He fought so he could pay for the treatment of injuries, and sustained even more injuries trying to. This approach wasn’t sustainable. He broke his knee and was out of business for months.

Yet, thankfully, he managed to collect enough money to give his ambition wings. He flew to Russia in 2007 to train in Greco-Roman-style wrestling for five months. He became a better fighting machine. What he had learnt from India’s age-old wrestling tradition was sharpened by these modern techniques of wrestling as a competitive sport. He was ranked among the top ten professional wrestlers in the world, and was recently conferred with an award for the World’s Best Professional Wrestler by the South Africa-based World Wrestling Professionals (WWP). This was high-level recognition and success. He is a record holder, he informs me, for tossing a man the most number of times—36—in a minute.

Later that year, he travelled to Dubai for a fight. He won the fight, some cash, and an offer to play a lead role in 100% De Dhana Dhan, a reality wrestling show made for Indian audiences. The show changed the circumstances of his life. Its shooting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa; Singh hobnobbed with the glitterati. He did two more reality shows: Big Toss and Survivor, the internationally famous show where contestants are left on an island to survive the elements, construct shelters, build fires, find water, scrounge for food and do whatever else they must to survive for around 45 days. Singh survived the gruelling reality show for 45 days, losing 15 kg of weight and his wrestler’s bulk in the process. It was a blessing in disguise. He now looked athletic, suitable to play a lead role in a Bollywood movie, and not just a hulking wrestler who would most likely be cast as the villain’s man Friday.

Model Veena Malik proposed to him on the sets of Survivor, tantalising the grapevine. But by then, he had found the love of his life. He lives with model-actress Payal Rohatgi in Mumbai. They are an odd couple. A rural lad with good looks—he resembles Sylvester Stallone, his role model, a bit—makes a home with a glamour girl in the city of dreams. Some call this oddity opportunistic. “It is not a marriage of convenience,” Singh clarifies, “We are not doing each other a favour.” They are together because there was no other way. He is not an underdog, either. He has 45,000 plus followers on Twitter, while Payal has only 25,000. He also has a following on Facebook that would make many celebrities look the other way. He regularly posts wisecracks.

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Besides being an organ-donor and a mascot of vegetarianism and naturopathy, Singh is also big on charity. He has formed an NGO, Love n Courage, which aims to offer love to disabled children and give courage to women. He wants somebody to write a book on him and make a movie on his life. This might seem boastful, but Singh is convinced his life is his message.

There was a lot of push-and-pull. The ride to Mumbai was not easy. He walks through the world of glamour flaunting his earthy rusticity, still a wrestler at heart. His strong foundation, a deep connection to his family, supports the weight of his ambitions.

Having worked on his diction, he is now fairly articulate in English, but is not evasive about his humble beginnings. He has made assets of his liabilities. At showbiz gatherings, he speaks in Hindi. This is not a compromise, but an assertion—he knows it adds to his rustic sex appeal. He wears his honesty on his sleeve, and is politically correct to a fault. His wisecracks border on clichés, but he makes them with conviction. That he acts on his words is perhaps what sets him apart in an arena of patent shamsters.

Before he moved to Mumbai two years ago, he was an employee of the Delhi Police. In Delhi, a daily visit to Lodi Gardens, where the rich, famous and influential go for evening strolls, was a must. It inspired him. He would arrive late in the evening in his golden coloured Maruti Wagon R, with two loaves of bread that he would feed ducks with. They seem to know him, waddling to the shore of this Lodi Gardens pond upon hearing his voice. Then he would do his customary jog and body weight exercises. This was his quality time with himself.

Not much has changed. He still wears tight jeans and a body-hugging shirt that emphasises his muscular frame, with polished boots. His stride has a certain lethargy. Walking towards his car after our meeting, he says, “In Bollywood, one has to perform all the time, on and off the sets. I am playing my part.”

Those laughing faces that ridiculed him as a child are still vivid in his memory. “Those laughing faces visit me, motivating me to change. I am not a laughing stock,” he says. “They keep me going. I have miles to go before I sleep.”