What’s a good Bollywood action sequence if it doesn’t have back-flipping, or sky-diving, jumping off a cliff or even rolling down the stairs? An army of stunt doubles, a mostly invisible bridge between a script’s lofty ambitions and an actor’s limitations, rise to the occasion to give you the best bang for your buck
Every tourist magazine and website will tell you that the Athirapilly falls in Kerala’s Thrissur district is best visited during the monsoon. Between June and October, the falls, drunk on the rains, is nothing short of a spectacle. Nature is at her best — bountiful, playful and dangerous. In 2009, Sanober Pardiwala scaled the mountain, looked at the water that gushed down and crashed into a misty pool nearly 300 feet below, and jumped. Twice. It was not arrogance or a death wish that led the petite 22-year-old woman from Mumbai to leap into the falls. As Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s stunt double in Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (2010), Pardiwala was simply doing her job.
Like a song sequence, an action scene in mainstream Bollywood aims to be a thing of beauty; a stunt, not the star, can be the scene-stealer. The action can take place anywhere, anytime — the introduction of the hero or the villain, in the middle of a song and dance, in a room during an argument, and, of course, when good meets evil and when people, apart from sparks, fly. In the world of make-believe, the stunt double is the bridge between a script’s lofty ambitions and an actor’s physical limitations.
“Even though actors can perform stunts, they can’t be used for everything — rehearsals of action sequences as well as trial and patchwork shoots. With so much money riding on them, it is not advisable to make actors do stunts. That’s when we fall back on doubles,” says Sham Kaushal, a 59-year-old stuntman-turned-action director. Kaushal breaks down the basic requirement for a perfect “stuntie” or double: they have to be “daring” and their physique should match that of the actor. If the look and skin tone of the double and actor are similar, it’s a bonus.
So, when Riyaaz Sheikh reported on the sets of Baazigar (1993) in place of his brother Feroz, it turned out to be a happy discovery for director-duo Abbas-Mustan. Sheikh’s body structure is similar to Shah Rukh Khan’s, and they were happy to have found a “perfect match”. Following this, the son of stunt master Naseer Sheikh, fondly known as Naseer Boss, went on to become Shah Rukh’s stunt double in several films — Yes Boss (1997) and Duplicate (1998), Veer-Zaara (2004), Ra.One (2011). The 46-year-old recently shot for the star’s 2016 release Fan.
Pardiwala, now 28, bears no similarity to Rai Bachchan but is remarkably familiar with the actor’s movements. “The double’s performance should not come across as a stunt, it should match the actor’s body language,” she says, sitting in the cosy Walkeshwar home she shares with her husband. She would know, she began her career at 12 by somersaulting for Rai Bachchan in a jewellery advertisement. The industry, strapped for female stunties, showed its appreciation by flooding her with assignments. “Earning Rs 10,000 in a day, nearly 13 years ago, gave me a huge high. That’s almost what my mother made as an optometrist,” says Pardiwala, who has a black belt in karate and embarked on a career as a stuntwoman for the thrill of it. Since her film debut in Bhooth (2003), (in which she was “thrown” from the 16th floor), Pardiwala has performed several chilling stunts — tied in front of a running train in Luck (2009), bike stunts for Esha Deol and Rai in Dhoom and Dhoom 2 respectively, sword fighting in Goliyon Ki Raas-Leela, Ram Leela (2013) and falling on her back from the balcony into a pool in bullet-hit Deepika Padukone’s garb.
For some, the trade runs in the family. Meet Afzal Khan, a third generation stuntie, who has been a double for Salman Khan (Ek Tha Tiger, Jai Ho, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and the upcoming Prem Ratan Dhan Payo) and Aamir Khan (PK). His grandfather, the late Fazal Khan, was a tall, strapping Pathan employed as a watchman at a south Bombay theatre in the 1950s, when he was cast opposite Dara Singh and Dharmendra in fight sequences. Later, he did stunts and acted as a double for Raj Kapoor in Dharam Karam (1975) and Mera Naam Joker (1970).
Fazal’s demise after being hit on the chest on the sets of Sunil Dutt’s Zakhmee (1975) forced Usman — the eldest of seven siblings — to take up stunt assignments. “Those days, I used to be in demand and pressed for time as I moved from one set to another, doing action for different heroes,” says Usman. The 60-year-old has worked in the industry for the past four decades, and in a filmi twist of fate, found fame as Kapoor’s son Rishi’s regular double — from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (1977) till last month’s release, All Is Well. The Khan family’s ties with the Kapoors have now come full circle with Afzal performing stunts in the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Jagga Jasoos.
The father-son duo have another thing in common: they have both performed stunts in women’s clothing. For Mere Apne (1971), Usman, as Meena Kumari, was hit by a car. “I’ve also performed stunts for Sadhana and Reena Roy, and trained Hema Malini in fencing for Seeta Aur Geeta in 1972,” he says. Years later, when he took Afzal on the set of a television serial for his first on-screen stunt, it turned out to be for a girl. Clad in a skirt, Afzal jumped from a Mumbai bridge. “Since then, I have strictly said ‘no’ to doing any stunt that requires me to wear women’s clothing,” says Afzal. He bent the rule for Players (2012) — he wore a wig and jacket to pass off as Sonam Kapoor in a car chase sequence.
For those who work under an action director, their projects are determined by their boss; they must perform stunts irrespective of who it is for. In their salad days when their bodies were leaner, Sanjeev Kumar aka Bittu, 38, and Ramesh Katal, 40, played women in rather dramatic, if not unwittingly comic, action scenes. “In 2003’s Parwana, I stepped in for Ameesha Patel. I had to wear a sari and get hit by a car and topple over, with a puja thali in my hands,” says Bittu with a straight face. Katal was a double for Juhi Chawla in many films and also performed Manisha Koirala’s stunts in Maharaja (1998).
Even though women are joining the industry to perform as stunties, their numbers are low. In the soon-to-be-released Jazbaa, stuntman-turned-action director Aejaz Gulab, employed the 5’ 8” tall Asma Sheikh for all of Rai’s running shots, and Geeta Tandon for the car stunts. Both Asma and Tandon chose this career to support their families. Mumbai-born Tandon, a spirited woman in her early 30s, lost her mother at a very young age. By the time she was 15, her father, a jagrata singer, had married her off to a relative’s son. At 20, she was separated from her husband. “With no proper qualifications, the only job I could get through my father’s acquaintances was that of an extra in a dance troupe,” she says.
To make more money, Tandon began doing stunts in a handful of television series produced by Balaji Telefilms. “As is the nature of such shows, I had to roll down the staircase, get caught in the kitchen fire or get hit by cars that often led to memory loss and a twist in the plot,” she says. Asma, who works to support her three teenage sons, performed similar action scenes. Their lives were on the brink of fame when they were selected for India Ke Jaanbaaz, a stunt-based reality show by Zee. The show never took off, but the month-long intensive training they received for it, especially in the bike and car stunts, made them better stunt artistes.
The training and practice of stunties is an ongoing process. Over the years, Pardiwala has invested in learning new skills — martial art forms such as kung fu, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, muay thai, as well as adventure sports like sky-diving, bungee jumping and scuba diving. She is an exception. Most of the stuntmen usually practise on the Juhu or Aksa beach in Mumbai. There, seniors pass on age-old tips, training and guidance received from their predecessors. Most aspiring stuntman undergo intensive training for a year or two before they can get the Movie Stunt Artistes’ Association (MSAA) card, a must-have to find work in movies. “Every year, nearly 50 candidates go through a series of tests conducted by the association. Only those who are found to be sharp, physically fit and courageous are given the cards,” says Gulab, vice-president of the association.
In 2007, Mansoor Khan, then 19, came to Mumbai from Delhi, ready to experience the thrill of doing stunts and living on the edge. With the support of his maternal uncles Nishant Khan and Sattar Ahmad, both veterans in this field, Mansoor began to train as a stuntie.
Mansoor received the MSAA card after a year and today, the 27-year-old is recognised as one of the best in the industry. With his gym-toned body and curly hair, he has boeen a double for Hrithik Rshan in Agneepath (2012), Bang Bang! (2014) and will soon be shadowing the star in Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2016 epic, Mohenjo Daro. “Hrithik is one of those few actors who love to do their stunts. In Bang Bang!, after I rehearsed and showed him a jump from the top of a 30-storyed building, he volunteered to do it himself,” says Mansoor with a lazy drawl.
As the years go by, technical advancements have made the choreographing of action sequences easier and allowed stars to perform some of their own stunts. “Masters” choreograph the action scenes, shoot and edit them during rehearsals and then show it to the movie’s director and leads. “If the actors are comfortable, then they do the stunts during the final shoot. Otherwise, their shots are mixed with that of a stunt artiste’s to produce the desired effect,” says Kaushal. With films becoming more realistic in their treatment, he says, more actors are venturing to do their own stunts. If difficulties in executing a tough stunt linger, VFX can fix that.
Stunt director Pervez Shaikh, fishes out his iPhone and shows a video of the rehearsals for Bahubali. In one scene, a stuntie practises climbing against the backdrop of a green cover. “The green screen can be converted into a waterfall, mountain or anything the director wishes,” says Shaikh. The high-quality recording provision on his phone has also helped him overcome the communication problem he once faced due to his lack of fluency in English. “Now, I can record any sequence on it and just show it to the directors without wasting words,” says Shaikh, who used to be a garage mechanic before working with Kaushal. The 47-year-old is a successful action director today.
And while technology has made the actions more lifelike, it cannot eliminate the occupational hazards. The stunts are becoming increasingly complex and allow no room for error. A combination of factors favour the brave — well-developed cognitive skills, super-quick reflexes, proper harnesses and perfect coordination with the crew operating the cables. Crash mats, airbags, cables, protective gear and others minimise the risk of injury, but every single stunt is a tightrope walk. Every time Pardiwala does a stunt, she has to calculate the risks. If she senses something amiss, she asks the action directors to make changes. In most cases, they oblige. Yet, accidents happen. New to the field, Tandon had injured her spine while falling on her back after being hit by a fake bullet while shooting 2012’s Monopoly: The Game of Money. In retrospect, the mother of two boys, who could not report to work for the next six months, believes she could have been briefed better and rehearsed more.
Habib Haji, 45, was acutely aware of the perils of the profession. His father, Haji Syed, died while performing a stunt for Anil Kapoor’s Humla (1992). “My father was supposed to drive a car into the lake in Mumbai’s Film City, unlatch the safety belt and exit the vehicle. The belt did not unlock and he could not be rescued in time,” says Habib, who was 22 at the time. But the respect his father commands and his own deft driving skills, made him choose to work as a stunt double. “I never take unnecessary risks or attempt anything that seems too dangerous,” says Habib, who has invested in the latest protective gear. Once a stunt is done, he calls his mother up to say it went off well. While Bittu and Katal do not discuss their work at home, Pardiwala always tells her mother about the shoot beforehand, if not the nature of the stunt.
What really hurts some of the artistes is that in spite of the risks they take, at times, credit is not given to them at the behest of actors who want to give the impression that they have performed the stunts.
When accidents occur on the sets and an artiste is injured, as per the association’s rule, the producer clears the medical bills and pays for a minimum of 15 shifts till he/she recovers. According to the association’s rates, minimum wage for a stunt artiste is Rs 3,750 per shift and Rs 8,440 for a stunt double, apart from additional allowances for conveyance, outdoor, and foreign location shoots. In case of a death, the association negotiates with the producer for suitable compensation for the family.
In the earlier days, there used to an easy camaraderie between stunt artistes. Usman, a habitual prankster, picked up a mock fight with Dharmendra and once scared a 12-year-old Bobby Deol, playing in the vicinity. On another occasion, he caused much heartache for Neetu Kapoor and Govinda’s wife Sunita Ahuja. “The shooting for Maha-Sangram (1990) and Khoon Ka Karz (1991) were on simultaneously in Ooty. We were celebrating Madhuri Dixit’s birthday at a hotel there one evening when I dressed as a woman and started dancing with Govinda and Rishi. Later, they had to explain to their wives that it was a prank,” says Usman with a laugh. Today, there might not be scope for such personal relationships, but there is greater professional regard. When Pervez became an action director, Shah Rukh Khan hired him for a number of commercials produced by his company Red Chillies. Pardiwala, who also works as a physiologist, nutritionist, and trains actors as well as advises them on their diet.
The next step for most stuntmen, once they start aging and the body slows down, is to take up action direction. Kaushal, who admits being an average stuntman, became an action director when his friend Nana Patekar was making his directorial debut with Prahaar (1991). Usman, too, wants to become a “master” soon. His son, Afzal, wants to pursue acting, though. He plans to do a course at Anupam Kher’s acting school. But Pardiwala is certain that for now, becoming an action director is a big no-no. “Why would I choreograph a stunt for others and not perform it myself and relish the adventure?” she asks.
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