On November 7, 2016 two stuntmen working on the sets of Kannada actor Duniya Vijay starrer Masthigudi were given an improbable task. For one of the shots, the two stuntmen were told to jump into the Thippagondanahalli Reservoir from a height of 60 feet. Just before the camera rolled, one of them is believed to have said that he can’t swim. But then, when you are a stuntmen, you abide by an unwritten role - You never say ‘no’. And then, they jumped….
The lives of stuntmen in film industry are anything but glamorous. One wrong move could result in multiple injuries & bone fractures, but most of them do it because they can’t imagine themselves doing any other job. Performing stunts has been their longtime dream. So, every time they are asked to something ‘risky’, the stuntmen get into action, despite knowing that they can sustain serious injuries and sometimes, even face death. And yet, they persist.
All this and more form the basis of Aishwarya Dhanush’s moving tribute to the unsung heroes of filmmaking, who make heroes look like demigods. Cinema Veeran, the documentary on the stuntmen of Tamil cinema, sheds light on the evolution of action in Tamil cinema and also, how scores of men put their lives at stake to pull off improbably stunts.
Tracing the journey of stuntmen and their role in shaping Tamil cinema, Aishwarya Dhanush meets ’Film news’ Anandan, film historian, who tells her about Gemini’s magnum opus Chandralekha (1948). The action, we are told, in Chandralekha was so epic that it required hundreds of stuntmen pull off sword fights and war sequences, and it was undoubtedly one of the earliest films that established stuntmen as an indelible part of filmmaking. Then, there were other films like Adimai Penn (1969) which involved fight sequences between MGR and a real lion, long before the advent of world-class CGI in Tamil cinema.
In another particular instance, action choreographer Vijayan recalls how he had to jump from a horse only to be told that the horse had suffered a cardiac arrest while he was still riding on it. It could have been disastrous for Vijayan too had he clung on to the horse, but he escaped unhurt. Another popular action choreographer Ponnambalam reveals that he’s nicknamed ‘Spare Parts’ Ponnambalam because there isn’t a part of his body which hasn’t been injured or fractured.
While the risks that stunt artists and fighters take lays the foundation of the documentary, Aishwarya Dhanush humanises the faces behind innumerable stunt sequences, and also brings alive the pain that the stuntmen and their families feel whenever there’s risk involved. Take for instance, Peter Hein. He’s one of the most popular action choreographer in the country today. But back in 1999, he almost lost his life on the sets of Shankar’s Mudhalvan for which he had to set himself on fire and run naked in the wee hours. His associates weren’t properly trained to bring him out of danger in the nick of time, and in the end, Peter Hein suffered severe injuries. In another incident, Peter Hein himself recalls how a stunt scene in Shankar’s Anniyan went terribly wrong. Despite all this, they didn’t call off the shoot.
Incidents like these might be the stuff of legends in the industry now, but, like the documentary shows, it takes a major toll on the families of the stunt artists. There are numerous examples of how the wives of stuntmen offer a silent prayer hoping that their husband return safely in one-piece. They never talk about their pain or injuries, because if they do then their families won’t allow to go back to the job which brings them so much joy and meaning to life. “I want to do die in front of the camera. Any other death feels like an anti-climax to my life,” says another fighter.
Cinema Veeran leaves you choked with emotion and it also makes a strong case for providing better facilities to stuntmen, who fiddle with danger on a daily basis. “If I work 150 days in a year, I’m either on medication or in hospital for the remaining 150 days,” says Ponnambalam. No matter how many lives have been lost, the stunt artists are yet to enjoy the benefits of better safety equipment and insurance, which provides cover to them and their families, like how it’s done in Hollywood.
The documentary also answers the question which keeps running through the mind of the viewer throughout the narration - When these brave stunt artists and fighters know the risk involved, why do they still do it? Well, it’s their passion and nothing else matters in that moment.
Working on a meagre salary and a high risk environment, the least we can do, Aishwarya Dhanush drives home the point, is to recognise the efforts of these unsung heroes. Shortly after the documentary was made, the Government of India decided to include ‘Best Stunt Direction’ award in the National Film Awards, 63 years after the awards were instituted. Peter Hein won the first award for his work in Puli Murugan.
Today, stunt men are better off compared to their counterparts back in the 80s and 90s. Yet, there’s always a chance of things going horribly wrong. The two stuntmen who dived into Thippagondanahalli Reservoir on November 7, 2016 lost their lives after a motorboat, which was meant to rescue them, failed to start on time. They drowned to death. Their names were Anil Kumar and Raghava Uday.
Cinema Veeran is a must watch and all the more so, if you like movies. It'll leave you with tears. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The 51-minutes documentary is available for streaming on Hotstar.
Published Date: Jun 25, 2017 11:00 am | Updated Date: Jun 25, 2017 11:13 am