Peter Hein: The dangerous life of the man who plays body-double for all top Tamil, Telugu stars
He has been the body-double for all the top stars in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, including Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Mohan Babu and Venkatesh. and even some of the heroines. Peter Hein jokes, “I was even the body double for Meena in Muthu, in the scene where Rajini rescues her on the horse-cart.”
In a candid chat, Peter Hein talks about his National Award, his early struggles and big successes.
Back in the 90s, Hein has been the body-double for other heroines too --- Roja, Rambha, Vijayashanti and Ashwini. But it was his stunt for Mudhalvan, the 1999 political thriller starring Arjun, that gave him a penchant for danger and made him the most sought-after stunt master in the Tamil film industry, and now post-Baahubali, the country.
“I was editing the stunt scenes in Mudhalvan and wasn’t completely satisfied with the result. When you pour petrol on the body and set it on fire, the back had to burn completely — only it didn’t. CG would take about 2.5 months and we didn’t have enough time. I decided to reshoot it as a body double for Arjun,” Peter says. “I asked for a fire-retardant gel, but it wasn’t available. So I got naked, taped my back and set myself on fire. I told an assistant to spray petrol just as I jumped, so that it’ll appear like I was going up in flames, but he didn’t do it right. I did another take and my whole back was burnt. But I was happy to be alive,” he says.
It was with Mudhalvan that he forged a long working relationship with director Shankar, going on to work with him in Anniyan, Sivaji and Endhiran.
If you remember any spectacular action sequences from the recent past in south Indian cinema, you most probably have 41-year-old Hein to thank for it. He is the mastermind behind the Rajinikanth vs Rajinikanth fight in Endhiran and even the furious battle between Bhallaladeva and Baahubali in Baahubali — The Conclusion. Hein is truly the one choreographer that the big noises in south India trust when it comes to action scenes. Last year, Peter was part of another successful film, the Mohanlal starrer Puli Murugan, which was just another feather on his cap — he won the National Award for the Best Stunt Choreographer, for the first time since the category was added.
What makes the south’s top directors — Rajamouli, Mani Ratnam, Shankar, AR Murugadoss — seek him out for their films? “I am very aware that I have to do everything from the audience’s point of view,” says Hein. He adds that he needs keep in mind the different expectations for different heroes.
His skills in karate, kung fu and the Vietnamese martial art Viet Va Dao have come in handy. He has a reputation as a trustworthy ally in scenes involving mountain climbing or water stunts, like in the movie Raavanan, where he had to choreograph some high-risk falls, rappelling and plunges. Actors too, trust Hein when he pushes them to do their own stunts, as he ensures their safety on the sets. Filmmakers’ preference for Hein also stems from the latter’s comfort level while working with Indian and international technicians and his familiarity with the techniques and scenario in bigger film industries.
Hein’s entry into the business was at the age of 17 spurred by his father Perumal, who was a popular stuntman in Tamil films. “He was working on a Vijayakanth film called Kaaviya Thalaivan , and they needed a villain. The scene takes place in Malaysia. My mom is Vietnamese, so my facial features worked for the shoot. They liked my speed and enthusiasm, and I was already trained in martial arts,” Hein recounts his first brush with the big screen.
A year later, he enrolled himself in the stunt union. “My first film as a stuntman was with Judo Ramu who was the stunt master for Amaravathi, which was actor Ajith’s debut as well. The first scene we shot was of us creating a mess in a theatre and Ajith beating and chasing us all away. The shoot was in Ooty and I worked on the movie for a week,” he says.
Peter then worked with stunt master Jaguar Thangam for a while before joining the noted Kanal Kannan as an assistant. “He worked with me for about seven years and assisted me in Rajinikanth’s Muthu, Kamal Haasan’s Avvai Shanmughi, Chiranjeevi’s Hitler and many other films. He would take up half my work and would insist on doing all the riskiest shots, and to perfection,” Kanal Kannan says. “There was a cart race in Muthu that many refused to do because it was an open vehicle and not safe enough. He took it up and was the body double for many people in the scenes,” recalls Kannan. Including the heroine Meena, as Hein remembers with a laugh. Muthu went on to become the movie that made Rajinikanth a rage in Japan.
Before joining films, Hein spent most of his teenage years doing odd jobs — he has been a ward boy in a Royapettah hospital, worked at a mechanic shop in Mylapore, as a sales representative and even waited tables at Hotel Dynasty.
When he was 12, he began taking lessons in martial arts from his father, who had picked up the skills from his frequent travels to his wife’s country. Hein also often stepped in as a teacher at his father’s martial arts school. Hein is no stranger to the idea that ‘hard work pays’, starting with when he dropped out of school in class 4 to take care of his sick grandmother. “In 1986-87, there was a water shortage in Vadapalani. So I started pumping water for a tea shop nearby for 25 paise for a pot, which was then raised to 50 paise. I then started waking up at 5 am to pump water to fill up his tank. It was a long walk from Hotel Ambica Empire to Vadapalani market, but I was young and enthusiastic. I would give all my earnings to my grandma,” Hein recalls.
What of his family? Peter Hein’s grandfather, who hailed from interior Madurai, flew to Vietnam in search of a job, where he met his Vietnamese wife. His dad followed suit. “I was born in Karaikal, but my parents took me to Vietnam when I was a toddler. I came back when I was three and since then have grown up in Chennai. I went to Loyola Matriculation School in Kodambakkam and had very few friends because I dropped out early,” Hein says. His childhood was dotted by constant struggles. “My mother used to work in Eve’s parlour in Egmore for Rs 300 per month. My father fell sick after an injury and couldn’t work for months. My two sisters, my father and my grandmother, paralysed from the waist down, all depended on my mom’s earnings,” he says. “My mother also did some tailoring work,” Hein remembers.
By 2001, Peter had made a name for himself. “My first film as an action choreographer was the Upendra-starrer Raa [Telugu] in 2001. But I had to return my advance as I had to finish projects that Kanal Kannan had committed to earlier, which he entrusted me with,” he says. As a stunt choreographer, Peter took up three projects simultaneously in 2001— Gautham Menon’s debut, Minnale; Krishna Vamsi’s Telugu film Murari and the Chiranjeevi starrer Anji. But it was Lingusamy’s 2002 action hit starring Madhavan, Run, that made the industry sit up and take notice. “Not everyone liked it,” Peter confesses.
“The DOP of Run, Jeeva, argued that I didn’t know how to choreograph a fight scene. It was a fight scene where Madhavan had to run way from the thugs and just when you think he’s making an escape, unexpectedly stops at the subway exit and pulls down the shutter and turns back to face them. I was told to edit the stunts, but the producer AM Rathnam and Lingusamy were happy. Jeeva himself later called me to work on the Hindi version,” Hein laughs. This fight scene is considered ‘epic’ and made Run standout as an entertainer, besides cementing Madhavan’s position as an action hero.
Performing stunts naturally took a toll on Hein — he had broken his bones over 27 times. But no single break or burn in his career compares to the agony of having 19 broken bones after an accident on the sets of Rajamouli’s Magadheera starring Ram Charan. “I had broken my arms, shoulders and some bones in the chest area. But my mind was still working. So when the director came to see me the next day, I told him, I would be back on sets in 10 days. He wouldn’t listen, but I went back after 8 days,” he adds nonchalantly.
Hein has also dabbled in Bollywood for films like James, Heroes, Yamla Pagla Deewana-2, Tashan, Race-2 and Ghajini. “They call me at a very short notice, but I’m very busy with movies down south. I got so many offers in Hindi, that I couldn’t keep up my commitments,” he says. Hein recently signed on for Kaabil, which he couldn’t complete because Hrithik was injured and shoot was postponed and he was working on his own film.
Hein is big on technology and the need for action choreographers to stay abreast of changes in technology, for them to use it more effectively. “Most of the big movies — Anniyan, Robot or Baahubali — rely a lot on computer graphics. The stunt master has to have a sense of how it works and needs to know what can be done with ropes, with graphics and where to use green or blue matts. He really knows how to work with technology to enhance a fight scene and blend the real and virtual sequences seamlessly,” K.Karthik, the first assistant to director Shankar, who is currently working on 2.0, says.
Besides struggles in his personal life, Hein faced a lot of challenges during the shoot of the Baahubali films. “Here was a movie where even the extras had to be trained, so each day initially, we were auditioning hundreds of people until we got over a 1,000 people to shoot the battle sequences with. If you look hard, you’ll find there is action even in the background in the war scenes,” Peter points out.
What high-risk adventure is next on the cards? Mahesh Babu’s upcoming film directed by AR Murugadoss Spyder will have some of his breathtaking stunts. Hein has also committed to two other big budget period projects — Sangamithra directed by Sundar C and the Kangana Ranaut-starrer Manikarnika— The Queen of Jhansi directed by Krish Jagarlamudi, besides Mohanlal’s Villain and Odiyan. From stuntman, Hein is also turning director with his Vietnamese-Chinese film Samhoi that will be dubbed and released in Indian languages too.
“We have very limited choices when it comes to stuntmen who really understand director’s vision, the mood and improve upon the ideas. Hein is very involved. To be frank, there are no big names available in India,” as Karthik pointed out. And it’s this image of him that Hein constantly needs to live up to, and does too.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)
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