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Since 1st March, 1999
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Oscar or not, a salute to the stuntmen
- How safe is Bollywood'

Mumbai, June 26: They lost the fight for Hollywood’s ultimate accolade ' an Oscar ' but National Geographic Channel is shortly going to air a one-hour documentary on these actors whose presence, though crucial, barely registers on the screen.

They are the stuntmen, anonymous bodies that catch fire and jump out of windows, fall freely from the 15th floor or get blown up in bomb blasts.

The documentary, produced by UTV, is about Habib Haji, an ace stuntman. His father, who was also renowned in the same profession, lost his life while performing a stunt.

While the documentary salutes the spirit that keeps Haji going, it also raises a question: how safe are Bollywood’s sets for stunts'

It seems they are far below the standard.

“There is no ambulance or doctor on the sets, which foreign production teams insist on,” says Rashid Mehta, president, Movie Stunt Artistes Association. “If there is an accident, arrangements have to be made after that, which may be too late given the risk involved. But abroad, there is always an ambulance and a doctor available on the sets.”

There is danger in the equipment used, too.

Till recently, when a stunt artiste had to jump from a height, he would land on a net, or boxes, or mattresses. Or in case of a fire scene, he would have to wear an asbestos hood on his head with a piece of glass in the front to see and a suit made of asbestos, too.

“The suit would have to be taped very tightly to the skin so as not to let air in, as that would catch fire,” says Mehta. “The stuntman could hardly breathe. The stunt director would also hardly be able to breathe, because he would be so tense.”

But with Bollywood going abroad for shoots so often, the props have become less hazardous. “We are increasingly using foreign gadgets for safety, like air packets to break a fall or fire retardant gel for fire scenes,” says Mehta.

His association is the only stunt artiste’s body in Mumbai and has 409 stuntmen and 69 stunt directors as members. No producer can engage a stunt artiste without the association’s permission.

“Things are marginally better in Bollywood, but in the south there are no safety measures at all,” says an industry person.

The insurance for stuntmen does not cover the entire risk factor, either. “It covers the performance, but not the rehearsals. Many stuntmen get injured during the practice,” he adds.

“Foreign production teams visiting here even have a safety officer. When there is a stunt to be performed, the stunt director has to convince the officer that it will be safe. Only then it is okayed,” says Mehta.

Recently, Antonia Bernath, a British actress who had featured in Subhas Ghai’s Kisna, had also talked about the lack of safety on Indian sets.

Director Ashok Pandit, who has often spoken up on industry issues, says producers usually try to accommodate the association’s demands on safety. But he, too, agrees that safety is not high on any producer’s priority. “It is nothing compared to Hollywood standards,” he says.

In case of an accident, which could put the stuntman permanently out of job or make him sit out for months on end, the producer has to be cajoled into paying for the treatment.

Small accidents are part of a stuntman’s life. Haji, a “car specialist” and the inspiration behind the documentary, says he has also been lucky, having suffered only a minor accident.

“I am covered from top to bottom with fractures,” says Moses, a former stuntman and now a stunt director.

Mehta, however, points out that there has been no death while performing stunts since 2003, a lot due to the new equipment being used.

But if the peril is less now, honour is still far away, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that awards Hollywood’s Oscars, denying a petition by stuntmen to establish a new category for them.

Getting payment on time from producers is also a problem. “A stuntman is paid Rs 1,390 for an eight-hour shift. Heroes’ duplicates get Rs 2,502 for the same number of hours,” Mehta says.

He adds that three well-known producers, two of them with two bilingual projects, have deferred payment to the association over months.

“One owes the association Rs 35 lakh, the other Rs 18-20 lakh,” he says. “We are telling them to give us the money, but they have conditions. But we don’t want to go to court over these issues, as in that case the case drags on.”

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