In Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 Bollywood classic Sholay, when Hema Malini’s horse cart-borne Basanti narrowly escaped Gabbar Singh’s goons after a hair-raising chase, another woman’s life was actually in danger. Reshma Pathan, who was Malini’s stunt double in the film, had a dramatic fall during the shoot when the horse cart hit a rock and was flung into the air. A couple of days later, Pathan was back on set and filming risky sequences again.

Pathan has also worked as a body double for Sridevi, Dimple Kapadia and Meenakshi Seshadri in the 1970s and ’80s, but like most others in her profession, her contribution to the industry has remained behind the scenes. An upcoming film hopes to change that. Aditya Sarpotdar’s The Sholay Girl is a biopic of Pathan and will be released on the streaming platform Zee5 on March 8. The film stars Bidita Bag (Babumoshai Bandookbaaz) as Reshma Pathan.

Sarpotdar, whose credits include the Marathi films Classmates (2015), Faster Fene (2017) and Mauli (2019), said the idea behind The Sholay Girl was to celebrate Women’s Day in a different way. When the producers approached him with a clutch of stories about path-breaking women, Pathan’s piqued his interest, he told Scroll.in. “We have never actually seen how the life of stunt people are in the film industry, especially stunt women,” he said. “Also Reshma Pathan’s story was very exciting and had a lot of drama.”

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The Sholay Girl (2019).

The film uses Sholay as the framing device to delve into Pathan’s life. We went back to her childhood and what all went into her selecting her path, selecting this field, which in the ’60s and ’70s was very male-dominated,” Sarpotdar said.

Among Pathan’s best-known precursors in the film industry was Mary Ann Evans, better known as Fearless Nadia. The Australian woman starred in several hits between the 1930s and the ’60s, and performed the most daring of stunts. Pathan, however, wasn’t a star in her films, like Nadia.

“Also she [Pathan] was the first one who officially got a membership in the stunt association [Movie Stunt Artists Association],” Sarpotdar said. “Yes, there were women in the field who also did their part, but she was the first to take it up as a full-time profession and after her, others followed.”

Pathan began working as a stunt double when she was 14 to assist her family financially, she has said in interviews. She had a tough time convincing her parents and relatives about her choice of profession. The Sholay Girl is “about what made her the person she is, the struggle that went behind it, her family, the places she grew up in and how she made a name in the industry”, Sarpotdar said.

The crew frequently met Pathan, who is now 64 and lives in Mumbai, to piece together her journey. She also helped plan the stunts that were performed in the film, some by Bag and some by Almas Khan, her body double. “There was an interesting chemistry happening on set: there’s Bidita, her stunt double, and Reshma, who was trying to work these stunts out,” Sarpotdar said.

Pathan’s inputs, and her collection of photographs from her film sets, helped recreate that period and the iconic Sholay scene. “We had to match the tonga and recreate the whole stunt that happened with fighters and horsemen,” Sarpotdar said, adding that they combined computer graphics with physical sets for the scenes. “We also saw a few documentaries and contacted Ramesh Sippy. It’s not only Sholay. You’ll see a lot many stunts from different films also. So it’s recreating the era of the ’70s, which Reshma Pathan played an active part in.”

Reshma Pathan. Courtesy Aditya Sarpotdar.
Reshma Pathan. Courtesy Aditya Sarpotdar.

The fact that stunt women are still a rarity in the industry – Geeta Tandon, Sanober Pardiwala, Asma Sheikh and Anu Ansari are among a handful – makes Pathan’s journey all the more admirable. There are many lessons to be drawn from Pathan’s life, Sarpotdar said. “It gives everyone a point of view of the right way and right spirit to approach any kind of hardship, not only for women but for men too,” he explained. “So I felt that even if it was in the ’70s, it is quite a timeless tale. And there’s a never-say-die attitude that Reshma still has. Through the film, we hope people understand her more, take note from her journey. She could also highlight a side of the film industry that goes beyond the glamour and the glitz.”

Among Sarpotdar’s upcoming projects is the Voot web series The Sawaikar Case, starring Neil Bhoopalam and Atul Kulkarni. “When making a feature film, a lot of commercials and numbers go into it; on the web, it becomes easier to go with good content purely, keeping commercials also intact but not as the primary factor,” Sarpotdar said about the benefits of digital platforms. “With Reshma [Pathan’s story], we may not have been able to make a feature film. Web is a space where you can explore very out-of-the-box content.”