Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota stunt director Eric Jacobus on inventing a new language for the Bollywood action flick
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota action director talks about why an action film has a lot to say, and how Mumbai served as a great setting for stunning action pieces.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
The recently released action comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, directed by Vasan Bala, has been hailed worldwide for inventively choreographed action sequences. Firstpost got in touch with its action director, Eric Jacobus, for an exclusive interaction on how he came on board the film, why an action film has a lot to say, and how Mumbai served as a great setting for stunning action pieces.
You are a widely recognised actor, stuntman and martial artist in the US. How did you get on board Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota as the action director?
Vasan Bala contacted me because he had seen my indie action film Rope-A-Dope on YouTube, recommended by Mumbai stuntman Prateek Parmar. In Rope-A-Dope, we, the action team, were responsible for everything from the writing to the camera angles, final edit, and sound design. It was an action film to the bone. Vasan asked me if I could create Rope-A-Dope action in Bollywood. I joked, “I can’t even make Rope-A-Dope action in Hollywood! They don’t like the action team dictating the camera angles or the edit. And the actors have to do their own stunts!” But Vasan was dead-set on making it work for Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota).
Director Vasan Bala has claimed that the film is a tribute to the 1980s action heroes, predominantly Indian film stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and Mithun Chakraborty. Were you familiar with their work before you came on board? How did Bala familiarise you with the styles of these influential Indian action stars?
I knew Bollywood action before stepping foot into India. I also knew how Vasan wanted to innovate within that genre. He referenced these '80s films all the time, and how Bollywood stuntmen had speaking roles and they weren’t just generic bodies being thrown about. He wanted every stuntman to have an acting role. So, similar to how the actors did all their own stunts, the stuntmen had their own acting roles. They show up in later scenes with bandages and can even steal the scene. So the actors and stuntmen are playing by the same rules. The actors aren’t gods, and the stuntmen aren’t dirty. It speaks to a global change, when Tom Cruise is doing stunts and stuntmen like Chad Stahelski are directing movies, a total convergence of the two domains.
Bala has also revealed that global action icons of that era, like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow and Buster Keaton, have also shaped the action of his film. How did you incorporate the styles or signature moves of these stars into the visual narrative?
If we only copy moves or gags then we don’t get at the heart of what makes Jackie Chan and Keaton so great. The standard action hero is built within a house of cards replete with shaky camerawork and choppy editing to create an illusion we can believe, but that house of cards falls very quickly today. The global audience is far too smart because they’re all critics and they all make their own movies. We know when it’s a stunt double wearing a bad wig, we see the green screen or when a wire stunt defies physics. Keaton and Jackie didn’t build a house of cards to hide their tricks, but instead used a very deliberate style of filmmaking that helped us believe everything they were doing, and that’s why those films stand up to this day: They’re trustworthy. So we took this same philosophy: We need be trustworthy and not hide anything. The actors need to train to fight like stuntmen, like real action stars. This way we don’t lie. Then we ask, Now what can they do? How far can we push them? Can we have Gulshan fight 100 men in a single-day’s shoot while hopping around on one leg? We pushed and pushed, and the actors were happy to reciprocate. The gags and techniques revealed themselves and it’s all very unique and specific to Bollywood, so we're not stealing anything directly from Keaton and Jackie, but their influence is all over this film.
How did the central character theme of the protagonist Surya's (Abhimanyu Dassani) inability to feel pain factor into how you designed the action? Did it lead to innovative Deadpool-esque stunt sequences?
This “disability” that Surya has is why I took the job. When you’re given a job directing action for a typical action scene, you're always looking for that variable which drastically affects the action. You could almost call it a 'multiplier' in that every single movement from the hero calls back to that variable. Zatoichi’s multiplier is his blindness, and Surya’s is his ability to walk head-first into a punch. But whereas Deadpool heals over time, Surya is a young man who pushes himself too far, and when he runs himself into the ground, he gives out. That's a major disability. So his choreography involves a lot of mental calculation: how not to get dehydrated, how to check whether his body is injured, how to react appropriately to pain ("Ouch"). It’s no longer a matter of technique; it’s all character. That’s a choreographer’s dream, when choreography keeps popping up everywhere you look.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota also boasts of a leading lady who is anything but a damsel in distress. But she is also not a dominatrix. Through her action sequences, how did you strike the balance between contemporary sensibilities and the template of a B-grade action movie from the 1980s?
As coordinators, we’re always tempted to make feminine women into better, faster, stronger fighters, because that's the easy way. But she’s fighting men much bigger than her, and we had to avoid descending into fantasy. And her co-stars have these insane "multiplier" effects like painlessness and fighting only on one leg. So if she’s not vulnerable, she’s not human, and we lose her. So we play her as smart and more determined than anyone, which was exactly her character. She uses props like her jacket and a glue bucket, anything she can get her hands on in the environment. We paint average guys as real threats because that’s the reality for a woman half their size, no matter their skills. We push her to failure because that’s how she became so smart and capable in the first place.
How did you design action around the various props in the film? Can you talk about the most frequent ones like the water tank and pipe of Surya (the only chink in his armour), Supri's stole and Karate Mani's crutch?
Vasan created the water pack and Mani’s crutch, and we created Supri’s shawl with the sharp metal charms during the pre-visualisation process. These are the multipliers that open up so many action opportunities. We then ask: What happens when they lose these things? Karate Mani is a tactician and a precision kicker with his crutch. We based it off the one-legged man in Born to Fight. But without his crutch, he’s a one-legged raging bull. When Surya has his water pack, he’s cocky because he can go for hours. Without it, he treads on thin ice, or he exhausts himself. Supri’s scarf can be used to wrap and tie up weapons. When it’s cut in half it becomes like brass knuckles, and without it, she grabs the next available object and improvises.
Mani is the only character that is in constant pain because of his one legged stunt scenes. How important was it to also show pain and fallibility in an action film essentially about a man who feels no pain?
If our heroes don’t feel pain, we don’t feel pain. You have to hurt the audience so they know what it means to feel good. Surya’s pain is mental because he takes on such insane odds. We give him extreme highs so he can have extreme lows. Mani’s dedication to Karate created a strong façade that’s saddled with a mix of shame and resentment toward his brother. The pain experienced in a fight goes to another level when it comes from the story.
How did the landscape of Mumbai lend itself to the action? Can you talk about how you used settings like an office floor and an under-construction building compound?
We didn’t know any of the locations until a few days before shooting. We choreographed all the bits and pieces (the words and phrases) in a gym, but the location is what shapes the words and phrases. We did a walk-through a few times to figure out how to integrate all the gags, where to build walls, place desks and tables for stuntmen to fall into. Then we take all that and re-shoot the pre-vis, which is more like a reference-vis, cut out half the choreography that simply won’t fit, integrate all the new environmental factors, block it out with all the performers, and even add some dialogue with Vasan’s help. I then shortlisted everything, taking into account the size of the crew, sunlight, fixed lighting, and makeup continuity. Then we shoot, and it goes smoothly. The fight in the office is a great example. There's a gag that the elevator is taking too long, and all the bad guys decide to take the stairs. Then the elevator comes. We did this because the elevators in that building were called "High Speed Elevators" but they'd take four or five minutes every time. It was a natural fit into the scene. Vasan's agile and can incorporate things like that very easily.
Vasan has maintained that cinema begins from action films and that even a B-grade action flick is laced with social commentary. Do you also echo the idea that action films have a lot to say?
Action films are the artist’s resolution to a cultural crisis, which he solves by directing human bodies. Bodies (and their language) speak to the audience in a way the royal drama can’t. A man’s mouth says, “I'm only a peasant” but his body says, “I am royalty”. The pleasant, ritualistic movement of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix in the year 2000 spoke of a time when violence was predictable and pleasant. Then, only a year later, after the terror attacks of 9/11, the violence became random, and Jason Bourne’s movement in The Bourne Identity has to reflect that. Tony Jaa’s body reflects Thai rage against human trafficking in Ong Bak. Iko’s constantly moving body, violently cutting apart enemies, reflects anger and rage against drug cartels and police corruption in Indonesia in The Raid. When the physical action language and all its filmmaking modes reflect the current crisis, that's called "code-making". Human bodies needed to code-create to reflect that cultural mindset. This way the audience doesn’t have to decode anything because the code underlies the very experience of watching the movie. With Man Who Feels No Pain, we code-made the action with this in mind: This Bollywood film is confidently hitting the savvy, global market. We’re 100% percent confident it can compete with the best out there.
With CGI-dominated huge action sequences taking the foreground globally, what scope do you think hand-to-hand combat or forms like martial arts have in movies around the world?
There will always be a demand for physical bodies to take on the current cultural scene. This is how Kayfabe works in the WWE or Japan Pro Wrestling; a body acts out the audience’s pent up resentments and trauma. He’s their cathartic outlet, the way the warrior dance was. As the news media globalises, people in the US, India, China and everywhere else in the world are beginning to experience the same news stories and live the same trauma, so they demand the same movement from human bodies. Global hits are made by teams who can successfully code-make according to that cultural crisis, and by performers who can successfully embody that code-making.
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