“Khud ko Dara Singh samajhta hai kya?” (You think you are Dara Singh?) That familiar taunt, used frequently even today to sneer at people’s delusions about their physique or strength, draws attention to how the nation saw its most famous pehalwan, or wrestler — a symbol of power, heroism, righteousness and supremacy.

Dara Singh, who died in Mumbai on Thursday at the age of 83, made a good fist of two parallel careers — cinema and kushti. It was in the latter, the desi form of mud wrestling which he learnt in akharas, that propelled him to fame. He fought 500 bouts without losing one. Although there is no proof to this effect, some of his freestyle wrestling encounters were probably scripted — a form of sports entertainment that predates the World Wrestling Federation’s orchestrated and widely televised high-voltage antics.

In his time, he was pitted against men with fanciful names such as Flash Gordon, Hulk Hogan, Wong Bok Lee and King Kong. His bouts against the last, an Australian who is said to have weighed 200 kilograms, were legendary. On January 4, 1962, 30,000 people had gathered in Madras to watch them battle in the South-East Asia Championship. There was an unexpected twist in the second round when King Kong aimed a blow at the match referee, leading to his disqualification and Dara Singh’s declaration as winner. The Hindu reported that a section of the crowd, which didn’t like the way the bout ended, began booing and turned restive, “necessitating police intervention, which all gave quite an exciting end to the proceedings.”

His popularity cut across classes, regions and religions, his fame spreading from the fields of Punjab, where he was born Deedar Singh Randhawa in a village near Amritsar, to the warren of lanes in old Delhi and to far-flung places well south of the Vindhyas. Until the 1970s, he travelled across the globe for his freestyle wrestling bouts.

On celluloid, his rippling physique became a selling point even before the expression six pack was invented. In Hindi and Punjabi cinema, he made macho acceptable through more than a hundred films. In 1959, he starred in Jagga Daku. His entry into the film world was believed to have been responsible for the spurt in B-grade action films in the early Sixties. Made with modest budgets, released without much fanfare, these films attracted a new audience to cinema.

Following a number of such B-grade films, he took to doing character actor roles, always speaking in Punjabi-accented Hindi, sometimes to hilarious effect. However, he suffered from something of an image trap and it was difficult for him to live down the way people liked to represent him — as a muscular he-man. More often than not, he did action films with revealing titles like Samson, Hercules, Rustam-e-Hind, Sikander-e-Azam. The popular actress Mumtaz often used to be his leading lady before she graduated to a higher league with hit films opposite Rajesh Khanna.

On the rare occasion when Dara Singh had a chance to flaunt his acting skills, he gave a good account of himself. As for instance in Bhakti Mein Shakti, a mythological that completed a record run at Delhi’s Imperial cinema. It attracted the devout from the gurdwaras and temples in the vicinity and the masses saw in Dara Singh an avatar of the guru. After the film completed a hundred days, Dara Singh, who also directed it, visited the hall. That was enough to secure 28 housefull shows over the next seven days.

In the sunset of his life, he showed his softer and even funnier side in a film like Shararat, which was one of the early films of Abhishek Bachchan’s career. His last notable act though was in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met.

He carried his image into television as well. His Hanuman in Ramanand Sagar’s epic series Ramayana is the stuff of popular legend. He did a similar role in B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharat for one episode.

Though he always remained a prisoner of his image, that is what he was and that is the way the nation will remember him — as a hulking champion of the people, an earthy homespun hero who could challenge and bring down a slew of foreign wrestlers, a hearty and convivial giant who never knew the meaning of defeat.