Getting through to South India’s most sought after professional stuntmen is nearly impossible. “Saar is shooting, and cannot be disturbed,” is their assistants’ usual response.
Easily the most popular stunt director, Chennai-based Vietnamese-fight sequence coordinator Peter Hains is a veritable idol there. But he’s in Malaysia on work and won’t be back for ten days.
Filmmaker S.S. Stanley, who assisted Mani Ratnam in Raavan/Ravanan (and has worked with Hains) insists that when it comes to action sequences and stunts, the South Indian film industry is much ahead of its Bollywood counterparts technically and thematically. Take the bridge scene in Mani Ratnam’s Raavan. A 170-feet bridge was constructed, three cranes were used to dangle the actors with ropes while a fourth one took up the make-up artist or water boy whenever required.
Taking a break from shooting an upcoming Tamil action flick, Anmai Tavamel (AT), Ravi Raj, 42, veteran stuntman in films like Inferno, The Triumph of Sandokan and Mangal Pandey, says, “In Bombay, people don’t take as many risks as we do. We wouldn’t mind the risk if we get some name. Sadly, the heroes claim to have done the stunts and we remain the unsung heroes.”
Director of AT, Mohan sums up South India’s stunt industry: “Low cost, low safety, but same risk”. Which is why stuntmen here push the proverbial envelope more to earn the same money. If Hollywood takes a month to plan a shot, Bollywood takes a week. “In Tamil or Telugu films, we go to the spot and make do with whatever is on offer,” says Mohan. These days, though, the stuntmen are more organised. The South India Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artists Union has 577 members, fixes minimum wages and regulates potential stuntmen’s entry into the profession.
As with actors, there are hierarchies with stuntmen too. Top ‘artists’ get their asking rates, which could be as high as some mid-level ‘stars’’. But at the end of the line are the daily wagers whose pay scales are agreed upon by the stuntmen’s and producers’ unions.
Men like Peter Hains, Kanan Kanan and Super Subbarayan may not be known beyond the Southern — and increasingly Mumbai — film industry. But next time you marvel at how far things have moved from the fists-missing-the-face-by-a-mile ‘dhishoom-dhishoom’ of an old Hindi flick to the more realistic choreography of today’s Bollywood knucklebusters, you’ll know that it’s probably been tried and tested in some Tamil /Telugu movie years ago.