Bollywood makes room for everybody. The chef from Bangkok becomes Akshay Kumar; the bus conductor from Bangalore becomes Rajinikanth; the Canada-born porn star becomes Sunny Leone.
Sometimes, however, a filmi hopeful must push at the borders of the success story and make room for himself. Like director Aejaz Gulab – the man who had to “give up on education” and “risk [his] life with dangerous action stunts” to support his family.
Gulab’s directorial debut, Ab Tak Chhappan 2, hit theatres earlier this year. He has already worked on big films like Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaara! (2013) Raanjhanaa (2013) and Ek Villain (2014) as an action director, in addition to the upcoming Jazbaa (Aishwarya Rai’s comeback film) and Wazir (Farhan Akhtar and Amitabh Bachchan’s thriller).
“My father Gulab Rao had done some work with Bachchan sahab,” recollects Gulab, who took his father’s first name to maintain familiarity in Bollywood. His father was a small-time action director in the ’70s and ’80s. “Stunt doubles shared a very intimate relationship with big stars; there was so much camaraderie, that one couldn’t tell who was the celebrity and who was the double.” This impressed Gulab no end and he started dreaming of the same profession and coveting the relationship with big stars.
But he had to step into his father’s shoes much sooner than he intended to. Education was important to him, but much like a Bollywood potboiler, destiny had different plans. “My father’s health started deteriorating and we had to make a choice: either I could continue studying or my brother could. So I stepped out of his way, and decided to go into my father’s profession,” he says. “I was trained by my dad’s colleagues and landed my first job as a stunt double on the 1991 Hema Malini film, Insaaf Bhawani Ka.”
Gulab, then 19, had the lean body that matched Malini’s frame. Moreover, she played a bandit, and mostly wore shirts and pants, which helped Gulab pass off as the star. “Hemaji helped me a lot,” Gulab recalls. “She taught me the way she walked, how she held a gun; that made it easy to mimic her.”
Throughout the 1990s, Gulab stood in for many Bollywood heroes in dangerous scenes, including Aamir and Salman Khan. He also got a mentor in the legendary action master Abbas Ali Mogul. “Aejaz caught stars’ nuances faster than my other protégés,” says Mogul. “He’d learn the way they sat, their shoulders hung, and their necks tilted while talking. He was one of my stars.”
Learning the ropes
Gulab even replaced Aamir Khan’s regular body double, Usman Khan, on Mogul’s insistence. “Usman used to do all of Aamir’s stunts,” Gulab recollects, “but after 1995’s Baazi, I took over.”
He only made the transition from body double to action direction after he was done with a to-do list of stunts. “The last thing on my list was a car-topple sequence,” he says. “As soon as I did that, I switched to action direction with my partner, Javed.”
Gulab was vigilant on the film set. “His sense of observation is impressive,” says Javed, who was offered a chance to co-direct Ab Tak Chhappan 2, but decided to leave it in Gulab’s capable hands. “He constantly wants to do something or learn something new.”
Gulab would sometimes help out with the camera team, sometimes move lighting equipments or just be a fly on the wall, when there were no action scenes to film. “I learned a lot about filmmaking on the sets of Lagaan (2001),” he says. “Ashutosh Gowariker’s process is fascinating. There used to be a lot of down time on the sets, so I would observe him.”
It’s Time For Action
The mentor who helped him climb up the ladder, however, was Ram Gopal Varma. “While shooting for Rakht Charitra (2010), he was very appreciative of my inputs,” says Gulab. “And after that, he consistently motivated me to turn director by sending scripts my way. After I turned down a few offers, he gave me Ab Tak Chhappan 2.”
When technicians are at the helm, they often highlight their own skill in the movies (Farah Khan and Prabhudheva have elaborate dance numbers when they direct; Santosh Sivan has magnificent camera work), but this was something Gulab wanted to steer clear of. “I could have done extensive action sequences,” he says, “but I would have had to cut down on the story, and I did not want to do that.”
Gulab has bigger projects in store for 2016 (an action-packed potboiler with Akshay Kumar included), but somewhere down the line, a film on the body doubles of Bollywood is likely to happen. “The state of junior artistes is better now; safety measures are in place,” he says. “But their story still needs to be told. And the most difficult part will be showing their importance while keeping them in the background – just like in real life.”
Follow @misterbister on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 16
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch