I stood my ground among bullies and harassers: Reshma Pathan
Courage is sometimes the outcome of being rendered choiceless. When your only option is to be brave, it doesn’t take much convincing to do something that will send shivers down the spine of others. Reshma Pathan entered the film industry as a stunt double in 1968 at the young age of 14 when her only option was either to be courageous or let her family starve.
Her family was struggling with extreme poverty. “My father was unwell. My mother used to smuggle rice to make both ends meet. I helped her day and night. Our survival was at stake,” she remembers.
As a child, Reshma remembers risking her life by jumping over fountains and performing tricks on top of parked taxis and trucks. It gave her both thrill and a little money to help with the household expenditure. But working in the film industry was something that the girl from a conservative Muslim family had never imagined. “Film line ko bahut bura maana jaata tha ladkion ke liye. (Film line was considered inappropriate for girls) My father was dead against me doing stunts in films,” says the woman. But poverty changed his mind. Reshma was spotted by Bollywood fight director S Azim. He tried convincing Reshma’s father to let her do stunts for movies. “We were told that I will get good money. I could not see the suffering of my family and I was eager to work. In a bid to stop me, my father beat me up. I had never answered back my father but that day, I did…I asked him, how long will we go to sleep hungry? Finally, he gave in,” she remembers.
Daily tryst with danger
At just 14, Reshma walked into an unknown world where every day came with a new challenge, a new danger. “I would get bruised, I would bleed but I never felt any fear..not even once. Extreme circumstances make you fearless,” says Reshma whose story of struggle has finally been shared with the world in Aditya Sarpotdar’s film, The Sholay Girl, recently released on ZEE5.
For years, Reshma worked in the industry as a body double, doing dangerous stunts in anonymity. She was the only woman in the industry doing stunts but her work remained unacknowledged. An exciting point in her career was when she got selected as a body double for Hema Malini in Sholay. In December 1973, Reshma got a call at night, asking her to come to Juhu the next morning for a test. “Azim bhai called at my PP number at a grocery store near my home (‘paas pados number’, a common feature in those days). He asked me to come to Juhu the next morning and show how well I could ride the tonga. I smiled to myself as I was an expert in that,” she says.
Reshma loved riding tongas by the beach and the practice came handy. “Maine hawa mein tonga bhagaya. After going a little far, I turned swiftly and brought the tonga to a halt where Azim bhai was standing. Gerry Crampton, the stunt coordinator for Sholay was stunned and he started clapping,” she remembers. Reshma was immediately rushed to GP Sippy’s office where her measurements were taken and she was briefed about the work. The shooting began in the rocky terrains of Ramanagara near Bengaluru, Karnataka.
The scene in which Basanti is chased by Gabbar Singh’s men was to be shot. “The chase began close to a pond. Fake wheels were fitted to the tonga. The first wheel was supposed to break but the tonga had to keep running. When the second wheel breaks, the tonga had to come to a halt. While the first wheel one broke as planned, the second didn’t as someone fitted an original wheel by mistake. All of a sudden, the tonga hit a rock and it was tossed in the air. Within a few seconds, I was flung in the air and the tonga came and fell on me. They got a great shot as the fall looked very authentic. I had more than 16 stitches on my legs but the satisfaction that it was a great shot made the pain bearable,” she says.
Sholay brought her some attention in her circle, as people would sometimes identity her as the girl who was the body double for Hema Malini. Yet, Reshma felt largely ignored by the industry. “I did big films such as Sholay (1975), Jyoti (1981), Betaab (1983) and many more. I fought bulls, walked into fire, shot with real tigers, fell from the roof top and yet got no recognition. It did pain me sometimes. I kept hearing that people were getting awards..the fight director, his assistants, everyone would get awards, but not me. I never got anything except my payment. Kisi ne ek tinka bhi nahin diya kabhi,” she says.
Standing her own ground among bullies and harassers
When Reshma started working as a stunt double, there wasn’t a single woman doing the job in the industry. Making a place for herself in a world full of bullies and offenders was a stunt in itself. Dominating, intimidating men targeted and ridiculed her, making her life tough. “Men used to dress up as women to act as stunt doubles. It would be tough to match their body language and build. But after I started working, directors realised that women were far more suitable for the work and I started getting a lot of work. This made the men very jealous and they started troubling me,” recalls Reshma. “They would taunt me badly and say all sorts of things. ‘Your face will be destroyed. Who will marry you? You are a woman, who will look after you once you become crippled for life? Go and get married, don’t waste your life, they would tell me’. They tried their best to make me quit but I didn’t budge,” she says.
The artist also had a tough time warding off lecherous, groping men who believed they could take liberties with her. “There were just so many of them. They thought that I was an easy prey as I was trying to eke out a living on my own. I always put them in their place. Sexual harassment of women in the industry is nothing new. It’s just that women used to stay silent, now they have the courage to talk about it. It used to remain a secret. Majority of women accepted everything silently,” she says.
When equality was a far cry
Reshma fought her way to become the first female stunt artist to get membership of the Movie Stunt Artists Association. After several meetings and years of waiting, she finally got her stunt artist card in 1974. “It was a big day…I felt that my hard work finally paid off. It brought an end to gender-based discrimination and payment woes,” she says. “It was a huge struggle. No one wanted women to enter the association as ‘stunt women’. They expected women to work as junior artists and yet do dangerous stunts. A large number of fight masters put up strong objections and said that women should not be allowed to become members of the association.”
Reshma realised that things had to change when she was offered just ₹ 90 per day to do dangerous stunts in Sultan Ahmed’s Ganga ki Saugand (1978). “A stunt double got paid ₹ 175 per day back then. They very cleverly wanted to hire me as a ‘junior artist’ and pay ₹ 90 per day but I was supposed to do the work of a ‘stunt double’. I had stayed quiet for long and it was enough. I pledged not to get exploited anymore. I put my foot down and said that I wouldn’t do stunts unless I got paid what I deserved. I was threatened that my junior artist card would be taken away but I told them I was not going to change my mind. They relented and hired me on fair terms,” she recalls.
Retirement is out of question for the gritty woman who did her last stunt in Golmaal Again (2017) and also played a small role. “I can never retire. Nothing gives me joy like my work, I will take up whatever work will come my way,” she says.
Her message to every woman who has a dream: “Do not ever get bogged down by those trying to make your life tough. There will always be haters if you do anything different. They will keep telling you that you will never make it. Make that your strength and prove them wrong.”
‘Meena Kumari was a warm person, very kind and affectionate’
Reshma, who has worked with a number of famous actors, says that yesteryear artists were a far cry from today’s crop of actors. “Pehle ki heroinon mein khulus aur mohabbat thaa… they didn’t consider themselves heroines. They were artists and they always treated everyone equally,” she says. Reshma has very fond memories of Meena Kumari. She worked as her body double in Mere Apne (1971). “It was a single shot. It was a fighting scene between Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha. Meena ji had to come in between to stop them. She gets pushed, bangs her head into a wall and falls,” Reshma remembers. After Reshma did the scene for her as her double, Meena Kumari walked up to her. “She was a warm person, very kind and affectionate. She asked me, “Tum itna risky kaam karti ho, khoobsurat ho, why don’t you something like acting. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say I was there to somehow earn rozi roti. I wasn’t smart enough to take up something like that,” she says.