No animals are hurt in making of this movie, very good. But what about human beings?

No animals are hurt in making of this movie, very good. But what about human beings?

S. Prabhakar

`No animals were harmed during the making of this movie’.  You will find this mandatory disclaimer before the start of the movie, but it is not mandated upon the producers of Indian movies to disclose that `no human beings are hurt during the shooting of the movie’.

Is it that the life and limb of a human being are cheaper than an animal or is it because there is no one to take the cause of the human being as is done in the case of animals, especially pet animals?   The reality is that many stuntmen and women get grievously hurt and many lose their limbs and a few their lives while attempting daredevil stunts as doubles for our heroes and heroines.

The history of stunts in Indian movies

Like dance sequences, stunts are an indispensable and integral part of Indian movies in all languages.   A few stunts are essential ingredients, whatever may be the genre of the movie, social drama, folklore, mythological, romantic flick, or action movie.   There must be villains in every movie and to enhance the image of the hero to a larger-than-life proportion, they have to be got thrashed by the heroes.

Stunt scenes found a place in Indian movies as early as the 1930s.

They used to be a very soft exchange of blows by hands, then slowly graduated to sticks (danda) first and then to sword fights.  Stuntmen started taking a bit of risk when they used to jump from a height of one floor and chases on horseback and jump from them.

The Hunterwali Nadia

In those days most of the stunts which were not very risky were done by the actors themselves and very few stuntmen/doubles were there.   But the landscape of stunts in Indian cinema was changed unexpectedly by an actress and not any macho hero. When we think of stunts being performed by the actors themselves, the first name that comes to our mind is that of fearless Nadia.   Mary Ann Evans (popularly known by her screen name Naida or fearless Nadia), was an Australian born to a Scottish father and Greek Mother.   She stormed and lit the Indian silver screen with never seen before action scenes even by heroes in Wadia Movietone’s ‘Hunterwali’.  All the stunts, especially on trains and horse carriages and with animals, were breathtaking and established her as the first and the most popular stunt actress in India.   Nadia has become a cult icon and featured in many action movies including India’s first Sequel movie Hunterwali ki Beti.

The advent of stunt doubles

Being an athlete and circus artist Nadia could continue to perform daredevil stunts film after film and raise the bar to such an extent that even the heroes of that time viz Ashok Kumar, Sehghal, Sharabh Modi and many male actors followed by Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor could not dare to attempt.    With this background, a new breed of artists has appeared in Indian cinema – the stunt doubles and full-time stunt choreographers/action directors.   They started doing bit risky shots for heroes like swinging with the help of ropes, jumping from buildings, high-speed horse and chariot chases and car and motorcycle chases.

Around the mid-1950s young heroes with well-built bodies, like MGR and NTR best suited for action movies started debuting in South Indian movies.   These heroes specially NTR was a huge hit in folklore (janapadam) movies and acted in dozens of such movies and many actors like Kanta Rao and Ramakrishna have mushroomed who were the poor cousins of NTR.

Come 1960s from having few action scenes in social dramas, and historical or mythological movies,  out and out action-oriented movies started coming and for the first time, we had heroes who were  termed action heroes.  In Hindi, Dara Singh started acting in many low-budget action movies with a heavy dose of wrestling-based action scenes and used to bring many of the wrestling partners to have long wrestling bouts in the movies. It was followed by the most handsome hunk in the form of Dharmender who started the trend of action heroes in Hindi movies in the real sense and survived for the longest period.   In Telugu with an industry hit first spy thriller Gudachari 116, Krishna (father of Mahesh Babu) has established himself as the most bankable action star in the Telugu industry.   He was given titles of Andhra James Bond, Andhra Cowboy and he used to have a minimum of one release per month for years together and most of them used to be action movies.

Celebrated Stunts/Action directors

With more and more action movies being produced in all languages, many stunt directors with dedicated stuntmen and women in their teams have acquired star status and are in demand.   In Telugu Sambayya, Raghavallu, and in Hindi Azim Bhai, M B Shetty (father of director Rohit Shetty) were the most sought-after action director in 1960s and 1970s.   Shetty was followed by other star action directors like Ravi Khanna and his assistant Veeru Devgan (father of actor Ajay Devgan).

By this time the stunt/action department have become more organized.    More and more stunt artists have settled into the profession, well-trained themselves to execute some thrilling and risky stunts.   Around this time jumping from running vehicles, trains, and horses, breaking through glass doors, and escaping from infernos have become the popular stunts.  Top stars have their designated and identified doubles matching their height and other physical features who used to do their stunts exclusively.

The Bruce Lee influence

The worldwide box office success of Bruce Lee’s `Enter the Dragon’ and its unprecedented reach and success all over India, has changed the action scenario in movies all over the world including India. Slow motions, martial arts (what has been referred to as judo, Kungfu and karate), and flouting well-toned bodies have become the order of the day.   Every film industry has its own share of copycats of Bruce Lee like Mithun, Chinrajeevi, Rajni, Arjun Sirja etc. In Hindi Yusuf Khan (Zibisco of Amar Akbar Anthony) Manik Irani and Bob Christo (an Australian Engineer) who were well built and smarter than our heroes have become very popular stuntmen/actors who used to get beaten by heroes’ film after film.

Post 2000, South Indian movies especially Telugu and Tamil movies have pipped the Hindi movies as far as mounting lavish action sequences.   We had directors like Rajamouli, V V Vinayak, Puri Jaganath, Shankar and Atlee who pumped huge amounts to mount never seen before scale action sequences.   They engaged foreign stunt directors like Peter Hein, Keecha Kampakdee and Nick Powell to a very good effect.    The Cable technology and graphics have taken the action scenes to the next level.  Neither our stars are trained to do risky action scenes themselves nor producers can afford with of hundreds of crores riding on them to risk their life and limb, as a result it is left to stuntmen to take all risks to enhance the action scenes. At a wave of the hand by our ageing heroes stunt guys keep flying around hitting glass windows, and concrete walls and falling from great heights.

Stuntmen put their life and limb at risk daily

Though over the years, the stunts performed by the stuntmen have become riskier and riskier the safety measures, safety equipment, and required training to make stunts performed safer and less risky are almost non-existent.   Whether it is motorcycle jumps, car jumps, huge explosions, or inferno scenes, the Indian stuntmen go through their routine heavily depending on their tremendous grit, daredevil attitude and loads of luck.  Unfortunately, our insensitive producers and heroes for whom the stuntmen take such huge risks are least bothered by how grievously they get hurt.  If unfortunately, stuntmen get hurt they will be out of the job temporarily or permanently with no help coming from any corner.    The poorly funded film federations hardly extend any financial help on a permanent basis to these poor stuntmen who lose limbs or the family of the stuntmen who lost their lives. After great efforts now few Insurance companies offer insurance coverage to the stuntmen and one really does not know how many producers take insurance coverage for the stuntmen working in their movies.   Government should make it mandatory for the producers to take insurance policies for all the stuntmen who will work in their movies before shooting any stunt scenes.

Some of the major accidents involving  stuntmen

  • 54-year-old stuntman Suresh died on the sets of the Tamil movie ‘Viduthalai’. Suresh and a few others were tied to a rope harness held by a crane and as the scene began, the rope snapped. Suresh fell from nearly 20ft high and died.
  • Stuntman Vivek, aged 35, died on the sets of the upcoming Kannada film ‘Love You Racchu’ after he got electrocuted. 
  • 2 stuntmen lost their lives when they jumped from helicopter 100 feet above the lake while shooting the climax scene of Kannada movie `Masti Gudi’, who drowned and died. No safety measures were taken while filming such a risky scene and not even a motorboat was available
  • In the worst disaster on a film sets, 62 people lost their lives and the hero TV serial The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Sanjay Khan received serious burn injuries requiring 72 surgeries and 13 months hospitalisation. This has resulted due to the temperature of 49 degrees Celsius (120 °F) and a volatile combination of loose wiring, no exhaust, no ventilation, and walls constructed without fireproof material turned into an uncontrollable blaze. 
  • During the shooting of the Hindi movie Bombay 405 Miles, Shatrughan Sinha’s stunt double Mansoor died in an accident when he missed the Que and did not jump from the gas petrol station. After the incident, Stunt Director Shetty, blamed himself for not giving the Que at the right time under the influence of alcohol.  He began to drink more heavily due to depression and died.

Protection of right of Animals

Thanks to PETA and many other animal lovers NGOs some laws are put in place for the protection of rights of animals being used in movies.  There were times when animals were treated inhumanly for glorifying the image of our paper tiger heroes and heroines.   The mouths of tigers and snakes were stitched, galloping horses were hit by sticks or concealed ropes are put to block their way and make the horses fall grievously hurting them in the process.   These scenes were commonly seen in many movies including Sholay.  While doing these articles were carried shamelessly by filmy magazines bluffing how the leading actors did daredevil stunts, themselves without stunt doubles. Our image conscious heroes never gave credit where it is due – to the stuntmen. Due to the activism of animal lovers, these days original animals are seldom used and producers are safely falling back on CAG technology the way Rajamouli did in Bhahubali 1 and 2.

No one to safeguard the interest of poor stuntmen

It is a pity that like in the case of animals, no one came forward to protect the interests of stuntmen.   Howsoever risky the stunt scenes may be the humans are used with the least safety equipment and preparations.   There is no law in place obligating minimum safety standards before stunts are performed, no agency monitors the compliances and lastly, when a disaster happens neither the actors, stunt director nor the producers are held responsible and punished. It is at the discretion and mercy of the producers if they financially support the stuntmen. Even if they do, it’s a one-time help and no pension is granted to the family of the stuntmen who lose their limb incapacitating their earning for life or even they lose life orphaning their family.  It is strange that when 58 people died in Uphaar theatre tragedy while screening the movie Border, the owner of the theatre Ansal Brothers were jailed and heavy penalties running into crores were levied, but when 62 people died in the sets of TV serial The Sword of Tipu Sultan, no arrests, and no penalties and meagre ex-gratia of Rs. 5000 paid to the family of the person who died in the accident.

The less  said the better about the ungrateful heroes and heroines who do precious little for the welfare of the stuntmen without whom they and their macho image do not have legs to stand on.

It is high time that the I&B Ministry/Government wakes up and puts in place norms for the highest safety standards while shooting stunt scenes, and welfare measures for the stuntmen and their family members. After all human lives are as precious as animal lives, if not more. I want to see a day soon when I read a disclaimer before the start of a movie `No animals or human beings are hurt during the making of the movie.’



Southonomix Bureau

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