A recent string of articles on Saaho, which has Baahubali star Prabhas in the lead, and is up for release in August, centred on the film’s use of Hollywood stunt-master Kenny Bates. Bates has worked on films like the Transformers series and Rush Hour 3. Big-budget Indian movies and their PR machinery publicising the use of Hollywood technicians as a promotional selling point is hardly new. 16 Out of 28 mainstream Hindi action films since 2017, for instance, have had foreign action directors. So much so that opting for a foreign action director has become almost a default choice for such movies. This is especially true for star-driven commercial vehicles such as Race 3, Tiger Zinda Hai and Baadshaho.
Producers and directors opt for foreign action teams assuming that it will help them provide ‘Hollywood-ness’ in the action — even if the action scenes in these films are anything but remarkable. Ali Abbas Zafar, the director of films starring Salman Khan such as Sultan, Tiger Zinda Hai and the upcoming Bharat (all three of which feature foreign action directors) says that it’s about keeping up with Hollywood.
“Movies like Avengers today is raising the bar of the viewer’s visual appetite with every film. Now unless you match that visual appetite with your own biggest film that year, you will fall short of his expectation” says Zafar.
On the far side of the spectrum are the smaller films looking overseas for a specific skillset that they are unable to find in India. For Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, which had the kind of hand to hand combat and martial arts sequences one rarely sees in Hindi cinema, director Vasan Bala roped in an action team from LA to meet the specific requirements of his film. “Indian (action) choreography is as good (as abroad). There’s nothing wrong with it, but the issue I sometimes face with Indian choreographers is they prefer flamboyance over simplicity and here that becomes a problem when you want something really simple. Here we always think simple is easy and what is easy is not good”. Bala found his Action Director Eric Jacobus on YouTube, after watching Rope-a-Dope, a short film Jacobus made showcasing a style of martial-arts fuelled action comedy that he was looking for, for Mard.
2019 has been a (unusually) good time for Hindi action films. Apart from Mard, there was the sleek precision in the action choreography in wartime drama Uri, and Abhishek Chaubey’s Western-like Sonchiriya featured elaborate shootouts. Ankur Khanna, Associate Producer at RSVP Movies, the production house behind all three movies, says that foreign action directors adhere to higher standards whereas Indian counterparts are dated in their execution and design. “They’re doing more interesting work and pushing the envelope,” Khanna says, “They have a lot more training with action, a lot of them have martial arts training from Hong Kong schools”. These action directors have a higher level of expertise simply because they have more experience in working in the genre (Hollywood makes a lot more action films, and not merely films which have some action scenes, compared to Bollywood).
The action teams from the West are also structured differently. Jacobus says that typically, a Hollywood action sequence is overseen by a team of specialists that include fight choreographers, action designers and stunt coordinators — each an expert in their respective field. In India these various professions are clubbed under the title of “action director”. “I shouldn’t be able to claim that this was my choreography, nobody should. If I coordinated the action, Prateek (Parmar, Action Designer) did the martial arts training. Nobody was the jack of all trades” Jacobus says. Parmar, who previously worked on Bhavesh Joshi, trained in Hong Kong to study not only martial arts but also martial arts filmmaking.
Action Director Parvez Shaikh considers it a point of pride that Indian action directors have to do it all. “We are leagues ahead of them. They come here and tell us they’ve never seen anyone work as fast as us,” says Shaikh. Shaikh says that he’d like to add that the recent Kesari, which he worked on, boasts of some of the best action scenes from any film in recent memory. He says that Indian action directors often have to work within limited resources, as opposed to their foreigner counterparts. “If a foreigner is on a project, he’ll get the resources he asks for, but if it was me on the same project I wouldn’t. For us here sometimes they just turn up on set and tell us what they want.”
It’s not that Indian action directors are out of work. Shaikh is currently working on movies such as Hrithik Vs Tiger, Brahmastra and Shamshera. Sunil Rodrigues worked in collaboration with Anton Moon in Sonchiriya. And Sham Kaushal, an industry veteran, has done the stunts for Student of the Year 2. But there seems to be an increasing gap between the demands of new action films and what the established action directors have to offer.
While director Zafar says that working with global pool of talent is only going to increase, Bala and Khanna talk about a new generation of Indian action directors and stuntmen who think differently. Khanna says “the younger lot is tired of our action, which has been largely in the unrealistic space.” “The internet has changed their access to knowledge and equipment,” he says. According to Bala, the situation is a bit like other technical departments in filmmaking in India. “Zoya Akhtar worked with a foreign cinematographer in her last film, now she works with Jay Oza who is delivering as good as any cinematographer out there,” he says, “Eventually action will go through the same curb and we will all be working with local talent very soon. It’s only a matter of time.’