In this new series, The Hardest Thing, Gayle Sequeira asks members of the film industry to talk about their toughest, weirdest and most challenging assignments.
Staging scenes in which characters leap off buildings, jump onto moving cars and ride off into battle on horseback might be all in a day's work for Bollywood's action directors, but it's a day filled with long hours, tough calls and a lot of practice. They look back at their careers and break down the hardest stunt they had to choreograph:
Parvez Shaikh (action director, Thugs of Hindostan, Kesari): There's a sequence set inside a 'maut ka kuan' (well of death) at a circus in Bharat. Salman Khan and another actor have to race their bikes around the walls and then ride in between two cars coming from the opposite direction. That scene was very dangerous because the vehicles were all so close together that a miscalculation of even 1 or 2 seconds could result in a crash. There was a 99% chance of death. For an action director, this is hard to pull off safely. We managed during that shoot, but if I'm ever asked to direct such a sequence again, I'll say no.
There are other scenes in the movie in which Salman's character jumps through hoops of fire and jumps from a height to earn money, and while those may look difficult, it's all in a day's work for us. But this maut ka kuan scene was a lot of work. We first created a storyboard and then an animated sequence of what it would look like. We found two motorbike riders who had done maut ka kuan stunts before and explained how the scene would work. They initially said no because they'd never done a stunt like this before. So we reassured them and told them that our stuntmen would give them whatever training they needed. We then built a set at Film City in Mumbai. We rehearsed the sequence for 20 days but many things went wrong. One of our stuntmen flipped his bike completely. The other stuntman would get dizzy and out of balance after riding round in circles a few times. The first few times, they practised riding around the well separately and then gradually, we got them to try riding at the same time. There were a few times they almost hit each other but they eventually got comfortable. We trained the men driving the cars in the same way. It took us one week to wrap this scene. That was a long week.
Sham Kaushal (action director, Gangs of Wasseypur, Dangal): One of the hardest sequences I've worked on is the war sequence in Bajirao Mastani, which had 400 horses and riders slamming into each other from opposite ends. It had trained professionals and untrained locals, weapons, huge crowds, and animals. It was very difficult to shoot and involved a lot of planning. Dealing with animals is difficult because you have to be very gentle. You have to rehearse with them and only then will they know what they're supposed to do. It took us three months to train the horses. While working with local riders, you have to figure out how to convey the scene to them because they aren't familiar with the world of films and they need guidance. When you're working with weaponry, you need to create dummy weapons first and figure out how to ensure that people won't get hurt even if they fall or faint during the battle scene.
It took about two weeks to plan this sequence on paper. I storyboarded it and shared it with the director and the other departments, like the art team and the costume team, so they knew what was expected from them. We divided the 200 local riders into teams of 10 and each of my men trained one team. We taught the riders that they should only act emotionally charged, not actually get emotionally charged and wind up hitting someone else. Safety comes first. At the location, it took us just two days to figure out where the cameras would be and what we had to do. When you shoot scenes like these, you're always nervous. You're praying that nothing will go wrong because so many things can. Even if the riders are flawless, the horse might make a mistake and ride too fast, or the armour could come loose or crack. It took 12 days to shoot this sequence and it was scary throughout.
Vikram Dahiya (action director, Sacred Games, Saaho): I've been an action director for many years and won the Filmfare Award for Best Action in 2019 (for Mukkabaaz). My toughest project was Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. It's not like there are superheroes flying around in that film. All of the action is grounded and realistic, which was a challenge to choreograph. There's an action scene that's meant to be set on the big water pipes in Bandra — we couldn't have shot it on location because your head will split open if you fall on the hard metal pipes. So we had to build a set but we couldn't make the pipes out of plastic either because if they break, they'll pierce the person. We made our pipes with a mixture of iron and some other materials, which still hurt if you fall on them, but not as severely. The scene is set on a rainy night and we had to get special shoes made so that the performers didn't slip and fall on the pipes. It took us four days of rehearsals to get it right. The exterior shots of him climbing the pipes were shot on location, everything else was shot on set.
For the bike chase, we looked at many locations across the city and decided on Jogeshwari. We rehearsed for four days on an open ground, using cones to map out the turns that the driver would have to take. We had to figure out how to ride a bike off a train and so we built a small platform for the driver to practise on. We couldn't practise on the actual train because getting on is expensive. We had to shoot the actual scene on a Sunday, when there were fewer trains and fewer people at the station. We reached the Jogeshwari station platform at 1 am and only had two hours to get the shot. That's where the rehearsals came in handy because we were able to get it in just two takes.
Sunil Rodrigues (action director, Drishyam, Extraction): I joined Mukkabaaz very late, when some portions were being reshot. Since it wasn't a big-budget film, we didn't have much time and had to work fast. I had one day to rehearse the scene with Viineet Kumar Singh and then two days to shoot the climax. It was the hardest action scene I've choreographed because it was very challenging for someone like me, who does larger-than-life action, to get into this realistic zone. Viineet had been training as a boxer for a long time so it was easy to work with him. Since the action in the film was hand-to-hand combat and didn't involve weapons, a lot depended on the choreography. It had to look natural and the audience had to buy that this is how a boxer would punch in reality. It's all about the actor's expressions and how he reacts to a punch. There are also some basic guidelines that you have to keep in mind — like if someone punches you in a certain way, you'll fall in a certain way. You won't lift your leg or do something dramatic. These guidelines help keep the action realistic.
Ravi Varma (action director, Agnathavasi, Venky Mama): There are certain sequences that become really difficult because you need to figure out a location, the composition of the sequence, whether the artist is available and how to ensure that they're comfortable. One such sequence was in Raees, in which Shah Rukh Khan had to jump from one building to another. We thought of shooting it on location, so the first thing we did was to check the distance between the buildings and how safe it was. If the distance between two buildings was too much, we built a small extension or added a pipe. The idea was that the stuntman is attached to a cable and so he runs across that extension and then jumps safely. On the other hand, if the space between buildings is too little, there isn't enough room to attach a cable. We also checked how old the buildings were because you don't want the building to break when someone jumps on it.
We planned all of this, but when we went to the set, the crowds were too large and we weren't able to control them. So we then had to figure out how to shoot this inside a studio. We were worried about creating a set big enough for it to look realistic but Excel Entertainment took care of that for us. We rehearsed for three days and then it took us five days to shoot the entire sequence.