A Rajendran is one of Tamil cinema’s most unforgettable faces. His strong features and bald pate make him stand out in the movies in which he is cast, but there’s a story behind his hairlessness. It has to do with the lack of concern for the safety of stunt artists on film shoots.

Rajendran was a stuntman before he became an actor. His father, Arunachalam, was a body double for MGR and Sivaji Ganesan in films like Nadodi Mannan and Uthamaputhiran, and two of his brothers are also stunt directors. Rajendran didn’t always look the way he does, he said in a previously published interview. He was shooting for a Malayalam movie in Kalpetta several years ago. “They were filming a scene from a bridge – actor Vijayaraghavan was to hit me and I had to fall into the water,” Rajendran said in the interview. “After falling, I realised the pond was extremely dirty. A local resident told me that it wasn’t a pond but a puddle of factory effluents. I lost all my body hair after coming into contact with the chemicals. I used to make small appearances in movies then, but after the incident, I had to cover my heard with a scarf and go to work. Fortunately for me, director Bala noticed me for my different look and cast me in Pithamagan and also gave me a negative role in Naan Kadavul.

A Rajendran.
A Rajendran.

Stunts, fights and car crashes are inextricable elements of action films and mass entertainers, but the safety of the men and women involved in making these moments possible is not always taken into consideration. On November 7, 2016, a stunt gone wrong claimed the lives of Kannada actors Raghava Uday and Anil Kumar. The duo drowned in the Thippanagondahalli reservoir after jumping from a helicopter while executing action sequences for the film Maastigudi.

Fight sequences are often taken for granted, as is the well-being of the people performing them. “Stunt sequences are extremely important in all big hero projects,” said Kalaippuli S Thanu, the producer of the blockbusters Theri and Kabali. “But it’s not just for the stunts, any action bit – like even if an actor is climbing a mountain – you will need a stuntman to assist him.”

S Vijayan with the actor Nayanthara.
S Vijayan with the actor Nayanthara.

Several leading stunt artists started out young – many are second-generation professionals – and grew steadily in the job, one bone-rattling knock at a time. Leading action director S Vijayan started performing stunts at the age of 17. He has directed action scenes for numerous big-name actors, including Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Babu, Pawan Kalyan, Ram Charan Tej and Salman Khan in Wanted and Dabangg, but he learnt the hard way. Vijayan was in college, and followed in the footsteps of his father, Swaminathan, who used to be what is called a “fight master” for MGR films. Safety rules were practically non-existent, and stunt performers were expected to suffer injuries towards the end of creating realistic screen moments. “I started at the age of 17 and became a stunt director by the time I turned 22,” said Vijayan, who is working on Sunny Deol’s Bhaiyyaji Superhitt and Anees Bazmi’s Aankhen 2. “Within the next two years, I suffered more than 15 fractures on the body as there was no concept of safety at that point of time.” The life of a stunt performer has always been fraught with danger, Vijayan said. “Earlier they had no concept of safety – they would make a bed of hay and ask us to jump on to it. Or, they would buy us a platform ticket and ask us to jump from the train into the water.”

Play
Stunt director Silva on the sets of ‘Thailava’.

There are greater precautions now on movie shoots, and yet, it impossible to guess what is in store. Workplace injuries are frequent, since stunt performers are prized for their ability to make the action look as realistic as possible, even if it means putting their bodies and even lives on the line.

“I love fights that look real, like in Accham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada, which I did recently,” said leading stunt director Stunt Silva. He worked his way up after assisting renowned action choreographer Peter Hein in films such as Run and Thirumalai. He has also appeared as Vikram’s body double in Anniyan.

“In Accham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada, an accident shot is followed immediately by a song sequence,” Silva said. “I felt it was a fabulous thought. When a director comes up with an idea like that, I love the challenge of executing it perfectly for him.”

This passion can come at a price if filmmakers are not careful. “We do not go home without a scratch at the very least,” Silva said. “Working with cars or trains, water and fire are all difficult because they are always beyond our control. I brainstorm with my team members before shoots on how to take enough precautions while executing a difficult stunt. If you’re doing a water stunt, you assess the depth and the pace of current, but by the time you prepare and leap in, the readings would have changed. I’ve suffered burn injuries too because at times, the direction of the wind changes while taking the shot and the fire starts burning you.”

The 500-odd stunt performers working in South Indian films are members of the South India Cine and TV Stunt Directors and Stunt Artistes’ Union. The organisation is often the only recourse during an injury or an emergency. “Many stunt men do not find brides because of our profession,” Vijayan joked. “Insurance and health care providers come forward and offer us a policy, but they discontinue it later and we end up paying huge premiums to insure ourselves.”

Stunt artists inform the union whenever they are travelling on outdoor shoots, and also use them as a mediator in the case of delayed payments. “Say I’m going to Mumbai for a shoot, I keep the union informed, because if something happens to me, they take care of everything,” Silva said. “They insure us and even help us get timely payments.”

Silva with Dhanush.
Silva with Dhanush.

The union has completed 60 years, and is being featured in Cinema Veeran, the first in a three-part documentary series titled Unsung Heroes, directed by Aishwarya R Dhanush and produced by her husband Dhanush’s company banner Wunderbar Films (the other two episodes are on junior artistes and background dancers). “These stunt men are so passionate despite all the risks that come with their profession,” Dhanush told Scroll.in. “No matter how many lives have been lost or how many people have broken their limbs, the family still sends them back to the same profession. The boys in the family find it a prestigious thing to hold the stunt union card.”

Stunt artists have to follow the directions of action choreographers, and it is the responsibility of filmmakers to ensure that they are amply protected, added Dhanush, who is lobbying with the Central government to include stunt choreography as a category at the National Film Awards. “Here people are very careless about life, and safety measures are absolutely mandatory,” she said. “The stuntmen will do anything their stunt directors ask for, so it’s in the hands of the producer, filmmakers and the stunt maker to ensure that these men are safe. They have these ropes and mats that they use even today. They need to invest a little more on safety gears, while the risky bits could be done through visual effects.”

Shooting conditions have vastly improved on sets, and producers are careful to provide safety equipment such as harnesses. The increased use of computer-generated imagery might make stunts look artificial and unconvincing, but they do protect action crews from unnecessary harm. “Now, we have the luxury of leaving some of the more dangerous stunts to CGI,” Vijayan said.

Local stunt directors might bristle at the preference shown towards foreign crews, but the vastly better work ethic among non-Indian artists has rubbed off on Indian producers. “I’m working in Shankar’s Rajinikanth-starrer 2.0 and they have a foreign action choreographer [Kenny Bates] on board,” Silva said. “It’s a great learning experience. They work with minimal manpower. Also they use a lot of equipment and never compromise on safety.”

Play
S Vijayan’s work in ‘Dabangg’.