They risk injuries and put their lives on the line. But Bollywood’s stuntwomen are more than willing to take the dangerous plunge
They JUMP off cliffs, set themselves on fire, emerge from shattered windshields and ride bikes at break-neck speeds. And then they swiftly move out of the frame to be replaced by a glamorous face.
Meet the stuntwomen of India’s film and advertising industry. They’re women who chase fame, and yet, in a bittersweet irony, are happy to be the shadows of celebrities.
A single parent to two children, Neha Tandon, 26, is aware of the risks of her job. “When I leave my house in the morning, I pray to God to keep me safe for the sake of my children,” she says. Sometimes, her prayers go unanswered; she recently burnt her nose during a fire scene for a Bingo chips commercial. But the accident didn’t scare her off stunts. Her resilience is remarkable as she points to her nose and asks, “The doctors did a good job. You can’t see any scars, can you?”
She adds, “When John Abraham tells me after a shot, ‘Very good Neha’, ‘You are great, Neha,’ the risks seem worth it.” But she concedes, “Nobody wants to really risk their life, but you learn to look at danger in the eye and go with that attitude.”
This Class VII dropout has no formal training in stunts but says she was always a “tomboy”. It was the money and the desire to “make a difference by adding value to films” that drew her to the field. “You see the scenes in films where the heroine is hanging from a cliff? That’s done by artists like us. The heroine just sits pretty,” she jokes.
The real star
For 19-year-old Ume Salma, whom Tandon considers a “senior” artist, stunts and acrobatics are the raison d’etre. Born to a former stuntman, Salma had an easy entry into the field. She knows that her work is that of someone who does the grunt work and lets someone else take the credit for it on screen. But that feeling dissipates on the sets.
One of the few women to work as a stunt artist in Mumbai, Salma has lost count of the number of films and ads she has done. She has doubled for top-notch actresses like Bipasha Basu (in Dhoom 2), Deepika Padukone (in Om Shanti Om), Priyanka Chopra (for the forthcoming Drona) and Kareena Kapoor (for the impending Tashan). “I can ride a horse and a bike, do acrobatics, and crash through glass,” she says, balancing herself on a bike under the watchful eye of ‘Masterji’ — stunt director Manohar Verma.
Salma’s father, former stuntman Alim ‘Sando’ Shaikh, says his daughter refused to study after Class 10 and wanted to join the army or the police. “She wanted to do something rugged. Finally, I had to give in,” says Shaikh. “Being a Muslim, I see other women covered in burqa but I’m glad my father considered me equal to my brothers.” But does she also feel equal to her celebrity counterparts? “I don’t feel any less than them,” she says.
Move over men
Salma knows that for her, everything depends on how fit she is. So, she follows a strict diet to remain agile and flexible even though she knows there isn’t much competition yet. “There are only 5-6 stuntwomen in Bollywood. It is a male-dominated field and usually, the men dress up as women and double up for actresses,” says Verma.
“I often get cuts and wounds but the praise makes up for the injuries,” she says. Her father adds that things are getting better for stuntmen and women. “During my time, we didn’t have insurance. It’s great that stunt artistes are protected now,” he says.
The Movie Stunt Artists Association regulates payments and compensation. Duplicates like Tandon and Salma make about Rs 2,900 for a day-
long shift, and have few, if any, retakes. They are part of a different production house each day. Tandon says she makes about Rs 35,000-40,000 a month and hopes to double the amount by performing bigger and better stunts. She dismisses the fact that she may be considered a junior artist. “We have a good life, even the actors respect us. You get a lot of support on the sets,” says Tandon. Salma agrees, “Abhishek (Bachchan) is a good friend.”
These women are determined to make a name for themselves. And if it requires wielding a double-edged sword, they do so bravely.