For Sholay‘s Reshma Pathan, Raavan‘s Sanober Pardiwalla and Kalank‘s Geeta Tandon, three stuntwomen from different generations, leaping off cliffs, running through fires and jumping out of helicopters are all in a day’s work. They’ve mastered the art of keeping calm while sinking into a 30-foot-deep lake without oxygen or being dragged off by a tiger. They spoke about how the industry has changed since its first stuntwoman stepped into the shot until now:
Has been in the industry for: 45 years (1972 to 2017)
How she got started: S Azim, who was a fight director in Bollywood, used to see me doing somersaults and tricks on parked taxis and cars and jumping around when I was a child. He convinced my father to let me join the stunt industry. At first, my father was angry. He was against it because this was not something girls did. But we were living in poverty and going to sleep hungry every day so he eventually gave in. The first stunt I ever did was for Ek Khiladi Bawan Pattey (1972) as a double for Laxmi Chhaya. There’s a club in which she dances and I had to fall from the stage. It was difficult, otherwise why would they have called me? I got Rs 100 for doing it. I was so young, I had no knowledge or expectations of what the payment would be. I didn’t have a membership in the union, otherwise I would’ve been paid more, I’m sure.
The hardest stunt she had to do: Azim bhai had asked me to audition as Hema Malini’s body double in Sholay (1975). I had to ride a tonga on Juhu beach, which I knew how to do. I got selected and had to go to Bangalore for the shoot. There’s a scene in which Basanti is driving her tonga and being chased by Gabbar’s men. The tonga was supposed to have two fake wheels. When one breaks, it keeps going. When the second one breaks, it should come to a halt. The tonga had been fitted with an actual (second) wheel by mistake, so it didn’t stop. I hit a rock and was thrown from the tonga. It overturned and fell on my leg. I needed 16 stitches. I was Durga Khote’s body double in Karz (1980), for which I had to stand in the path of a speeding truck and jump out of the way at the last minute. The truck didn’t stop in time and I injured my head badly. There was another film in which I had to wear silk clothes in the middle of a fire. I had to give multiple takes and it was very dangerous because had my clothes caught fire, they would’ve gotten stuck to my skin. I’ve shot for the ‘Maa Sheranwali’ song in Mard (1985), where a real tiger drags me by my sari.
Sexism in the industry: When I was shooting for Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978) in Rishikesh, not a single woman was part of the Movie Stunt Artiste’s Association. To work as a stunt artiste back then, it was necessary to have a card made. I was doing stunts with a card that said ‘junior artiste’. For Ganga Ki Saugandh, they had hired me as a ‘junior artiste’ and were paying me Rs 90 a day despite the fact that I was working as a ‘stunt double’, which entitled me to Rs 175 a day. They thought they could get away with underpaying me like that. I was quiet on the first day but on the second, I refused to change into my costume. They paid me the correct amount from then on and we completed the shoot. I returned to Mumbai and told the association that I wanted to be a member. What was the point of risking my life if I was going to get underpaid? We had three-four meetings and there were people who objected to me becoming a member. They said the organisation would be tainted if it let women in. I knew my worth so I fought back, I said the organisation would be better off if it let women in. They finally gave me the right card.
I was the first female stuntwoman in the industry. At the time, men would dress up in wigs and act as doubles for the actresses. So when I joined, they kept telling me, ‘You’re so beautiful, you shouldn’t be a stuntwoman. Your face will get ruined, your hands and legs will get broken. Nobody will marry you.’ They were insecure about themselves and their own jobs, which is why they would taunt me. I’d always reply, ‘You do your work, I’ll do mine.’ They kept up the taunting for a year, after which they realised that I would always have a comeback and so they stopped. If actors were rude to me, I’d talk to them about it. I’d try to make them understand that I was only there to help them. That I was risking breaking my bones for them. I was bindaas. Slowly, they started treating me with respect. They knew I would embarrass them if they tried anything with me.
This misconception doesn’t exist today, but back then, the stunt world was not considered to be a place for women. My family, neighbours, everybody felt that way. I had to ignore all of them, they weren’t paying my bills after all. They only accepted they were wrong after Sholay released, became a super hit and journalists started interviewing me.
Her advice for women wanting to join stuntwork: Practise as much as you can. Prepare yourself. Accidents and injuries are part of the job, you can’t control them, but you can control the way you perform. Women aren’t lesser than men in any way. There are stuntwomen who get up, make food for their children, drop them off at school, do a dangerous stunt and then come back home and make dinner. No one can work as hard as them. They’re so strong. I’ve done stunts even while five months’ pregnant.
Has been in the industry for: 19 years (2000 to present)
How she got started: By the age of 12, I was a black belt in karate. I was very good at it. My reflexes and my eyesight were sharp. I got an opportunity to audition for a stunt for Aishwarya Rai for which I had to do a couple of flips and jump from a height. They selected me on the first attempt, saying I was fair and my skin tone matched hers. Plus I could do the flips. I got paid 10,000 bucks just for one day of shoot. In those times, Rs 10,000 was not even an average salary. It was maybe the salary of a high-paying job. So that’s when I realised, hey why not make my passion into a profession?
The hardest stunt she had to do: There are many on the list. There have even been a couple of close shaves. I did a stunt for an episode of Kalash. There’s this woman who’s a devotee of Devi Maa and the people who are against her try to kill her by tying her hands and legs, taking her on a boat and throwing her into a lake with a stone tied to her. Her body has to sink into the 30-foot-deep lake. The first three-four feet were fine, but if you have no goggles on, you become completely blind after that. I didn’t have goggles on. I couldn’t see anything apart from the colour blue. I had to wear a sari, which became very heavy underwater. My hands and legs were tied, there was a stone tied to me. I had to learn the art of calming my brain down. If you don’t have this ability, you shouldn’t be doing stunts. Say you can hold your breath for a minute. But what if the rescue diver reaches you at one minute, five seconds? You start to panic because you’re out of breath, you’re tired, your hands are tied. What do you do? Your body’s natural reflex is to pump adrenalin. But the higher the adrenalin, the higher the heart rate and the more oxygen consumed. There are so many physicalities to it. We shot this multiple times. So in the first take, you have 100% energy. In the second, you’re tired, breathless. When action retakes happen, your body is absolutely prepared and at 100% performance during the first take. During the second take, it’s at 80%, third, 70%. And it keeps reducing. Each time, you’re able to hold your breath a little less. And every second counts when you’re in the water, blind.
Sexism in the industry: This is an industry in which you have to prove yourself. Just talking won’t work, action speaks louder than words. One funny incident happened – I have an imported bike with a titanium exhaust that makes a lot of noise. I rode that heavy bike to a set where I was supposed to perform a stunt on a scooty. It was a stunt that required precision riding – I had to stop one foot away from the camera. So I parked my bike in front of the entire crew and I got asked, “Do you know how to ride?” People are just dumb and blind at times. You’ve just seen me ride my bike! Really? But once people see you do your job, there’s nothing they have left to ask. So you have to take all of this with a pinch of salt.
When I just started out, people would not agree to pay you a certain amount as fees. So if there was a guy who would agree to do the stunt for less than a quarter of the price, the producer would say, ‘Let’s give him a wig, get him waxed and make him do the stunt.’ It’s not always the case but has happened a couple of times.
The expectations to perform have grown a little unrealistic. You can’t put someone in a swimming costume or a skimpy costume and expect them to perform some difficult action. The person will obviously get badly bruised. You can’t shoot war scenes with a skimpy costume, you need a military outfit.
The demand is that you have to look skinny but also be as tough as the Hulk. So you get told, ‘Hey you look so skinny, it’s a perfect match for our actress.’ And then the next statement is, ‘Since you’re so skinny are you sure you’ll be able to do the stunt?’ So it’s a contradiction and sometimes you feel like it’s a crime to be skinny. Other times, even if you’re super skinny, wearing a harness adds an inch to your figure. It’s natural, there are buckles and belts and buttons. But there are times people call you fat in that avatar. Even if you’ve just jumped off a 10-storey building, there’s someone going, ‘But you look a size bigger than the actress.’
Her advice for women wanting to join stuntwork: I would not recommend it. Woman-to-woman, I would suggest that you become a stuntwoman only when you have a backup. Because the job is 99% hard work, 1% luck that can be either good or bad. If you get injured badly once, you may not be able to work again. So always, always, always have a backup. I’m a fitness trainer, a nutritionist and I’ve completed my doctorate in clinical physiotherapy, which I practise. You won’t be able to keep performing stunts at the age of 50, even if you’re fit because your body changes. Your hormones will fluctuate. It shouldn’t be that you pursue stunts and then realise it’s too late to do anything else. Stuntwork is not a daily job. There are times when there are no shoots for three months and you won’t earn a single rupee.
Has been in the industry for: 11 years (2008 to present)
How she got started: I decided to separate from my abusive husband and so I needed money. I did a lot of odd jobs here and there for 50 rupees, 100 rupees, but couldn’t find a steady source of income. I started working as a bhangra dancer. We used to go for film shoots and on one of them, I met two-three women who told me about stunt work. They said it involved some risk but I’d get enough money to run the household. The risk wasn’t a problem, I needed the money. I asked around and got the number of another stuntwoman. I called her for two months continuously and then she finally sent me to audition for a stunt. I went there, I didn’t know anything about how stunts are actually shot. I saw a vanity van for a first time. I had to jump off a building and dangle from a rope for this Superman-type serial in 2008.
The hardest stunt she had to do: The second stunt did was for a chips ad. I had to dance with my dress on fire. On one take, the wind blew the fire into my face, eyebrows and nose. My face got burnt. Usually, such stunts are done in just one take because of the risk involved, but they made me do it five times. I got Rs 3,000. Now I know what my limitations are and how safety can be maintained but back then, I didn’t. I’ve injured my spine thrice. The first, when I was new to the industry. I wasn’t wearing padding around my back because I didn’t know what it was and nobody told me I had to put it on either. It was a scene in which a man was chasing the heroine, who reaches the top of a building. She says, ‘Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump.’ I jumped and hit my back on a rod. Had I been wearing some padding, the impact wouldn’t have been as much. I fractured my back twice, the second time was just last year. So now I do yoga, even when it hurts, because that’s part of the recovery process.
Sexism in the industry: When I started out, there were people who used to say, ‘She’s a girl, she won’t be able to do it.’ That the industry is male-dominated is not a secret. People would say, ‘She’ll only stick around for a few years and then leave. She won’t be able to handle it. Once her arm or leg breaks, she’ll leave.’ They had decided this beforehand. But I had also decided that if this profession was going to help me run the house, educate my children and make a name for myself, then I would treat it as a second God. I’ve gotten hurt, been burnt, injured my spine but I’ve still not given up. For one movie, the director wanted a stuntwoman to do a car sequence. Not a lot of stuntwomen here know how to drive a car and even if they do, directors are generally sceptical. I had to request them: Just give me once chance, sir please. After much begging, they gave in. After the stunt was done, they told me a stuntman in a wig was waiting to do the sequence in case I couldn’t. Good thing I could. Now I can ride a bike, horse and drive a car well. I’ve even driven a Volvo bus once.
Sometimes, there are action sequences with the heroine wearing skimpy clothes. So when you’re in the same costume, there’s no place to stuff the padding and you wind up getting hurt. Whenever there’s a shoot in the sun, we stand in for the heroines while the cameras and lights are being set up. The result is that we get severely sunburned or tanned. We have to maintain our weight and exercise four times a week even while a shoot is ongoing. If we become fat, how will we be able to stand in as doubles for these thin actresses?
I want to become India’s first female action director. But the mentality is that a woman can never master anything. People think a woman will get married, get pregnant and then stay at home. A few friends encourage me but the rest make fun of me. But I’ve being working for 11 years and I know I can do it.
Her advice for women wanting to join stuntwork: Stay focused. Don’t try to look out for small acting roles, just focus on the stunts. Many people give up the moment they get their first small role. Getting a role is great but if you only focus on that for a few years, getting back into strenuous stunt work is going to be hard. Decide to master the craft and stick to it. We get paid per day. Sometimes, we get Rs 3 lakh a year, sometimes it goes up to Rs 6 lakh. With this, I have to run the house, pay my children’s fees etc. I don’t have any additional source of income. Nowadays, stuntwomen also work as junior artistes to earn extra. It’s a good thing.