They fall from skyscrapers, crash through glass, explode in car blasts and stagger around ablaze. They even drive into flaming pillars, leap from moving trains and fly bikes over trucks, all to create 3 or 4 minutes of nail-biting, edge-of-the seat action. Yet, chances are, these actors would hardly be recognised on or off-screen.
Most times they replace the hero as dupes for stunt scenes. Other times, they are roped in as background fighters to do flash kicks and somersaults. But what is a day like, in the life of these reel and real life heroes? And more importantly, what do these artists feel seconds before each scene that could very well prove fatal?
â€śFree falls are scary. From experience, we already know that we will get injured. What we donâ€™t know is how much we will get hurt. It could be anything from a bone fracture to a nerve cut â€“ but itâ€™s a risk that we knowingly take,â€ť 29-year-old Mahesh, a stuntman who predominantly works in Kollywood, says.
Ligament tears, bone fractures, head injuriesâ€¦Mahesh has seen it all in the 13 years that he has worked in the industry. However, for all their occupational hazards, Mahesh and his colleagues have accepted that recognition and good compensation is hard to come by in this industry. And success, to them, is not getting killed while pursuing that perfect shot.
Lack of support
â€śWe get paid for the number of days we shoot in a set. If we are hurt, we get to go back home and rest. The production house will attend to us and give us first aid in case of bad injuries. We are also taken to the hospital and if they are kind enough, they will pay off our bills for the first day,â€ť he says.
When asked if he gets paid leave for work injuries, he says, â€śNo, then they find a replacement as they have to quickly wrap up the shots. When we are injured, we donâ€™t get paid for one or two months. So our stunt artists' union has an accident fund, where they collect Rs. 100 from all the stunt actors and give us Rs. 10,000. But we donâ€™t get anything from the industry,â€ť he said
For the artists, their union is their saviour.
â€śWe wouldnâ€™t know where to go if not for the union. We have a solid accident fund and after completing 12 years in the industry, the union gives us Rs. 60,000. It provides us a fund which the industry we work in most time never does,â€ť said Mahesh.
Acknowledging their dispensability on the sets of a film, Mahesh adds, â€śThere are several others waiting to grab the opportunity. So unlike the heroes, without whom the show stops, we are let off and another stunt artist does the bit."
Stuntman Mahesh with Superstar Rajinikanth.
Meeting danger head-on
When asked about the levels of danger in doing stunts, Mahesh said that most stunt scenes are extremely risky, but the worst has got to be the fire scenes.
30-year-old Manikandan, also known as Danger Mani, a small time stunt choreographer who has worked in the industry for nearly a decade, agrees.
â€śFor a fire sequence, we wrap the artist in layers of protective cloth soaked in cold water and then douse him in soda. He also has a face mask which covers his head and we rub Burnol cream on his face and hair. After this, a flammable gel is applied and he is lit within the next second. Then we see how long he can go ablaze and once he collapses, the fire is doused right then,â€ť he says.
Mani says that the soda is applied as it gives that "extra" oxygen which that the artist can breathe. â€śHowever, a delay in lighting the artist after applying the flammable gel can result in fatal burns even,â€ť he adds.
Recounting the scariest moment in his career, Mahesh spoke about a careless delay in a shooting a fire sequence which almost took his life.
â€śI was shooting for this Tamil film Nadunisi Naaygal. I was the dupe for the heroine and my colleague and I were lying on the bed with the flammable gel on. However, we were not lit on time and gas from the gel engulfed the entire room. A decorative candle that no one noticed resulted in the whole room going up in flames. A panicked crew ran out of the room and I donâ€™t even remember how I escaped from there. That was my one close encounter with death. I thought I wouldnâ€™t live to narrate this tale. A day later, I went to see my colleague who suffered extreme burns. Even his eyes and lips were scorched,â€ť he recalls.
Mani, who has acted in films in nine Indian languages, says that he is lucky he has received only two stitches in his entire career.
â€śThe risky shots I have done earned me the title 'Danger Mani'. However, not everybody is lucky enough to sustain only minor injuries during shoots. It is very rare. Certain scenes like glass crashing will guarantee you severe cuts. You donâ€™t realise it when you break the glass but as you place your palms and elbows to soften the blow, the shards pierce deep into your flesh, as you cannot cover the exposed parts like hands and face,â€ť Mani notes.
However, Mani confesses that itâ€™s a decade long, peril-ridden journey to become a stunt master from an artist.
â€śYou join as a fighter and little by little you pick up the art. And then you become an assistant director and learn choreography under several stunt directors before you start off on your own. However, chances are you may not even last those seven or ten years,â€ť he says.
Stunt master 'Danger' Mani.
Playing the unseen hero
Hardships aside, even support and adulation from the industry is often scarce. Mahesh says that most attention is showered on them was when they appear as dupes for the hero
â€śThat is when everybody in the crew is attending to you, straightening your collar and fixing your hair and laces. Even the hero wants to check if you look okay,â€ť Mahesh adds, with a chuckle.
Having worked on big projects such as Kodi, Polladhavan, Maari, Velayudham and several other films in all south Indian languages, Mahesh also says that despite the general neglect they face, some of the big stars treat them with a lot of regard.
â€śVijay Sethupathi sir is truly great. He treats us like his friends and has extreme respect for stunt artists. After a risky shot, he comes and hugs me and tells me what a great job I have done,â€ť he shares happily.
According to Mahesh, actors like Suriya give them one or two lakhs after a film.
â€śOnce, I fainted after a stunt scene in Ajith sirâ€™s film. We were shooting in a rural area in Orissa. He immediately booked my flight tickets back to Chennai and asked me to go consult a doctor,â€ť says Mahesh
Unlike in Bollywood, the south Indian film industries have no stunt women and all the stunts are performed by male artist dupes.
â€śI have played the lady dupe for many stars. In fact, I was Priya Maniâ€™s lady dupe for the entire shoot of Yamadonga, a Telugu film,â€ť he says.
The allure for this difficult profession may be hard to understand, yet when these artists speak, one understands why they are here, prepared to risk their lives for cinema.
â€śMy father was also a stuntman. Known as Ranga in the industry, he had to quit early due to injures. But today, when people say that Rangaâ€™s son did a superb shot, I feel like I have done my dad proud. These scars for me are like awards. Each shoot I get is a new prize and Iâ€™m proud to show it off,â€ť concludes Mahesh, his eyes glinting.
Read: Small roles, big dreams: The invisible artistes of the Tamil film industry