T Prem Kumar has appeared in quite a few Telugu films but you probably won't recognise him if you saw him. The actor has worked as a body double for Megastar Chiranjeevi, with the back of his head, profile or face in a long shot, appearing in action sequences. But now, Prem Kumar is a teacher at a private school in his village Palakollu in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh.
"Being a body double is not a lucrative profession. The pay is very meagre and most of it used to be spent on just transport. I live away from the city, and whenever I used to get a call from the film team, which I used to eagerly wait for, I would go all the way to Hyderabad from Palakollu. I had to take various means of transport depending on the availability," says Prem Kumar.
Prem Kumar's last film in which he appeared as a body double for Chiranjeevi was the 1994 release Mugguru Monagallu, an action comedy in which Chiranjeevi played triple roles. He says, "I was also a body double in a political movie which was shot ahead of elections, when Chiranjeevi formed the Prajarajyam party. But that movie was never released due to the election code of conduct. And with the party losing, the team didn't see the point in releasing the film."
Since he lived away from Hyderabad, it was difficult for him to sustain in the industry, says Prem Kumar. "It's not a regular job for me to have relocated to Hyderabad. We never used to know when we would get an opportunity." His brother Nagender, who is a body double for Venkatesh, is called Jr Venkatesh in the village. Together, the two of them used to perform film-related shows in village fests and functions. But all that came to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"Though we knew that there were no guarantees, we worked with a lot of passion. We would put on makeup and put ourselves in the actor's shoes. We would try out all their new looks, whether we got an opportunity or not," says Nagender. In fact, he's currently sporting Venkatesh's look from the newly released film Narappa.
Prem Kumar in Chiranjeevi's getup
Nagendra in Venkatesh's getups
The body doubles need to take care of their own makeup, obtain wigs and costumes too. "For each look, it would cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 to 10,000 to maintain it and get a photoshoot done. But we did it in the hope that we would get noticed at some point or the other," says Nagender.
However, the market for body doubles seems to be ebbing, with younger actors opting to do their own action sequences and stunts. "With actors deciding to do their own stunts, the need for body doubles has reduced in Tollywood. Directors are also of the opinion that audiences today are quick to spot the difference between the body double and the hero, and so they're happy if the lead actor does the scenes as long as the risk is manageable," says film writer Suresh Kavirayani.
But apart from risky shots, body doubles are always used on the sets to prepare for the scenes in general. Shots of their shoulders and back are still used, and they're also used in repetitive shots before the lead actor enters the set.
Kiran Raj, Prabhas's body double in Baahubali, said in an interview that he wished to become an actor despite not coming from a film family. After repeated attempts to meet Rajamouli, he became a junior artist in the movie. "In the auditions, we were all told to maintain our bodies, failing which we would be replaced. I was afraid of that happening and so I maintained my fitness perfectly. This was noticed by Prabhas, the director and the other actors. I slowly became a body double for Prabhas in some scenes since we're both of similar weight and height," he said.
Watch interview of Prabhas's body double Kiran Raj by Friday Poster Channel :