Mumbai’s filmi daredevils with a cross-border history
Abdul Wahid Yaar Mohammed Baluch has no recollection of his first film. But memory gaps and recent back surgery are the only frailties of the 96-year-old.
Wahid Lala, as he’s called, is the most famous resident of Gaondevi Dongri, a hillock in suburban Mumbai that 1,067 Balochi people call home. He is, after all, the first Baloch stunt driver in the Hindi film industry.
“Here’s what I remember: I started in 1951, worked in seven Bimal Roy and nine Jugal Kishore productions, was Pran’s body double, and loved smashing cars more than Rohit Shetty does,” he grins. “My most dangerous stunt was in Chakkar Pe Chakkar  — a two-minute chase ending with my car flipping over 10 times.”
Wahid is the son of stone quarry labourers whose forefathers migrated from present-day Pakistan and were employed by the British, because of their hardiness, to help build Bombay’s suburban rail network.
Wahid was the first in his family to make a career off daredevilry. But he wasn’t the last.
Three generations of his family — including sons Abid, 55, and Arif, 50, grandsons Raees, 31, and Saeed, 29, and Arif’s son-in-law Zeeshan — are all stunt drivers, with about 300 films between them, spanning the Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Telugu and Kannada film industries.
It’s a trajectory common to a large number of the 300-odd Muslim Baloch families in Mumbai. But generations of working in the film industry have done little to improve standards of living.
Most Baloch still live in slums scattered across the suburbs and outer fringes of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.
The Baluch family, for instance, is now 25 members strong and still lives in the 11-room warren atop the family’s Wahid Lala Garage in the suburb of Andheri where Wahid grew up.
No one in the family has studied beyond Class 10. Those men that aren’t doing stunts work as drivers or manual labourers.
Like most other Muslim Baloch families, though, they go the extra mile to preserve their traditions.
Wahid Lala’s great-granddaughters chase one another dressed in their handwoven pashks, a two-piece traditional costume that looks like an elaborate kurta-pajama.
The beat of the darbuka or goblet-shaped drum can be heard as Balochi folk songs play through the house.
“Everyone in the house has to speak Balochi. My grandfather won’t have it any other way,” laughs Raees. “Our extended family in Karachi does the same.”
The ties between the two sides of the family stay strong too. Wahid Lala has visited Karachi eight times since Partition, and looks crestfallen when he talks about the visa restrictions that have kept his Baloch relatives in Pakistan from visiting Mumbai.
“Considering my age and the way things are now, I guess 2009 would count as my last visit,” he says.
NOMADS THAT BUILT A CITY
As with Wahid, community activist Rehman Baluch’s family moved to then-Bombay in the late-1800s to work as sangtarash or dagadfodus (the Hindi and Marathi terms, respectively, for stone quarry workers).
At 16, Rehman worked in a quarry before switching to car dealerships, compressor machine rentals, quarry project management, and finally becoming a corporator from Virar between 2000 and 2005.
Today, the 65-year-old runs an NGO he set up in 2014, Baloch Makrani Sangtarash, which works to promote education in the community.
But from 1980 to ’82, he also dabbled in stunts, working on films such as Qurbani, Kali Ghata, Barsaat Ki Ek Raat, and Kranti, serving as a stunt duplicate for Amitabh Bachchan and Jeevan.
“Stunt work didn’t pay well unless you were a fight master [action director]. But anything was better than spending life in a quarry,” he says.
Growing up, his was one of 90 families in Baluch Nagar, Virar — the northern tip of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Today just 10 Baloch families, including his, remain in the area.
“This is due to the largely nomadic nature of the Baloch, who move wherever they find work and whose opportunities are still limited to manual labour. Over 80% of Mumbai’s 1,500-odd Baloch are unskilled labourers because very few are literate,” he says.
The community’s plight worsened with the advent of stone-breaking machines.
“There was a time when only Muslim Baloch and Bhagnaris [Hindu Baloch] worked in Mumbai’s quarries,” says Vikalp Kumar, a former researcher at Delhi University’s Cluster Innovation Centre, whose thesis ‘Balochi Language in India’ was presented at the 2014 Karachi Conference. “The community is small, but its contribution to Mumbai isn’t. It was their manual splitting and chiseling of boulders into crushed rocks and gravel that gave the city its roads, railways and buildings. Mumbai’s topography changed because of the Baloch.”
Given the challenges, anyone who becomes more than a quarry labourer or driver is an achiever, says Rehman. “Like action director Makrani Master.”
The Makranis hail from south Balochistan’s Makran province and first began to trickle into the then Saurashtra region in the 18th century, as mercenaries hired by the Nawabs of Gujarat.
Most Makranis are still concentrated in Vapi, Gujarat, just across the border with Maharashtra.
Their most famous member was Fateh Mohammed Makrani, a ‘fight master’ from the 1970s to 1990.
He worked in 224 films (Hindi, Gujarati and Bengali), his most famous performance being in Jugnu (1973), where he jumped from a galloping horse onto a running train.
He also doubled for Dharmendra, Vinod Khanna, Jitendra and Shashi Kapoor, swung from chandeliers, and jumped off cliffs and buildings with just a net and cardboard boxes to cushion the impact.
Action director Tinu Verma (Mela, Maa Tujhhe Salaam) calls Makrani Master a ‘diler [courageous] stuntman like no other’.
“Makrani was the toughest, fittest man I knew. He brought Baloch power and energy to the fore at a time when stuntmen didn’t do much,” he adds.
The tale of how Makrani got his start is the stuff of Bollywood legend. Having running away from his Ahmedabad home as a teen, the famished young Makrani stumbled into a film set in Bombay drawn by the tables of food.
“The scene they were shooting that day was one where the hero had to break a glass window. The hero’s double was absent and the stunt master was in a fix,” recalls action director Abbas Ali Moghul. “Makrani volunteered to do the scene in return for a vada pav. The word ‘danger’ never existed in his dictionary.”
Makrani Master’s son, Gauz Mohammed ‘Gosu’ Makrani, has been a stuntman for 25 years, and is an expert horse rider. He was taught by his father to ride horses backwards, perform back rolls in full gallop, and hold on to falling steeds (a must for period films!).
“During training, he’d whack me with a wooden plank if I held the saddle for support,” laughs the 43-year-old. “He was fierce in his own right, a Makrani through and through.”
Gosu has performed horse-riding stunts in films such as Khuda Gawah, Mohra, Baazigar, Bajirao Mastani and, most recently, Mirzya.
Unlike Wahid’s family, however, the Makranis have lost touch with their Baloch roots. “Well, we’ve spoken Gujarati at home all my life,” Gosu says, adding, after a pause. “I don’t keep track of what’s happening in Balochistan. Mera sirf stunt se kaam hai [I’m only concerned with stunts]. If I can become half the fight master my father was, I’d consider myself an achiever.”