On the sixth floor of Dilkap Chambers, in the bylanes of Andheri, is an office that resembles the adda or den of a Hindi film villain of the 1980s.
In the largely unfurnished room, the villains’ henchmen sit playing carom. But these are not real goons lying in wait for the hero to storm in and single-handedly beat the daylights out of them.
They are, in fact, Bollywood’s oft-forgotten daredevils, the stuntmen who remain behind the scenes even as they risk their lives to make the hero look good — and the audience gasp.
There are 30 stuntmen in this room, all members of the 530-strong Movie Stunt Artists Association.
And as the controversy over just who took that 80-feet dive off a cliff and into the ocean in Raavan continues to simmer — stuntman Balaram claims it was him, but so does actor Abhishek Bachchan — these men are unaffected.
“We don’t expect the actors to give us credit or be our friends,” says Rafiq Qureshi, 65, one of Bollywood’s oldest active stuntmen. “Most of us are only doing it for the money to feed our families. Credit is secondary.”
Is he bitter about the lack of recognition? “Like other stuntmen, I came to Mumbai to become an actor,” he says, “but eventually made peace with risking my life as a body double.” And after 42 years as the man behind seemingly death-defying stunts in over 400 movies, body-doubling for everyone from Dharmendra in Bhagavat (1982) to Salman Khan in Veer (2010), he says he is now addicted to the art form. “I don’t need the money any more,” he says. “But I continue to work for the thrill… and to stay fit and feel alive. My doctor says I have the body of a 40-year-old.”
Of course, it’s not all fun, games and fat paycheques. Just registering with the stunt association and qualifying for work is a long, unpaid process (see box).
On the set, safety norms for stunts are often flouted.
It is, in the end, a job for a daredevil who doesn’t mind staying behind his mask, admits Tinu Verma, president of the stuntmen’s association. “I got into the business because my father was a stuntman, but then it became about the thrill of it,” says Verma, who started as a body double for the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna and is now the industry’s best-known action director. “A stuntman goes on adventures all over the world, if he knows his job well, he has fun and gets paid for it.” And the fear factor? “It’s dangerous only for the inexperienced or unfit,” says Verma.