Bollywood has always been about big. Big money, bigger productions, the biggest stars. In an industry obsessed with bluster, with overpriced stars and their PR machines on manic overdrive, we tend to forget that the machinery of magic that we know of as the film industry is equally run by the ‘little people’ - ushers who double up as ticket vendors at single theatres, reporters who practically invented the Page 3 format without even realizing it, gym instructors who sculpt superstars battling mid-life crises, rickshaw drivers who invented dhinchaak, the sound that has come to define Bollywood music. Also Starring is our tribute to the foot soldiers of pop culture who stitch together the dazzling quilt we call Bollywood.

The man who made Salman fly

Mahendra Verma showing stunts for 'Ready'

Stunt director Mahendra Verma talks about the intricacies of being a body double and how he choreographs dare devil stunts

While discussing an action scene in ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karoge’, the producer of the film, Sajid Nadiadwala made it clear that he wanted stunts a la ‘Matrix Reloaded’. The process involved 39 cameras shooting Salman from different directions and another motion control camera capturing him fighting six Akshays. The scene was performed and the film went on to be a hit. It started a new revolution in action choreography and the man responsible for it was Mahendra Verma.

From jumping from a helicopter to diving into the ocean, Verma is a master of them all and given his expertise in orchestrating action sequences for films, one can't help but wonder whether or not he was one of those daredevils who took singular pleasure in jumping off the roof or swinging by a tree when he was younger. “I grew up watching Bruce Lee’s films. After coming back from the show, we would try doing the stunts at home. I have watched ‘Enter The Dragon’ 25 times,” he says with pride.
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With 'Arjun Rampal during Asambhav shootVerma’s father used to supply horses for film shoots and also performed stunts as a body double to many big stars. Verma’s father would occasionally take them to the sets, though he was against the idea of his children doing stunts in films.  “Earlier, most of the shooting used to happen in Filmalaya and we used to live very close to the studio. During the 60s, action was very simple and mostly involved horse riding and throwing punches. But still, the fights would be real and my father used to get injured as safety measures were negligible. He was against the idea of us joining the same profession.” Verma’s father forced him to do a course in air-condition refrigeration but that didn’t dampen his spirits. He kept his training on and travelled to Shivaji Park to learn swimming. “We would go and practice swimming and then go to Samarth Vyamshala for body building. Seeing my dedication, my father finally gave in.

Mahendra’s first job was as a body double in the film ‘Mr. Natwarlal’ and then he went on to do several roles as a body double for stars. In the 70s and 80s, Verma worked as a body double for most actors like Pran, Rishi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan and Amjad Khan. But how do you modify your body according to the actor’s? Verma says, “Amjad Khan was quite huge so I was made to wear sponge pads and then the costume over it. So if he is supposed to jump from a running horse to the train, the body double has to be agile enough to do it. On the sets, the hairdresser and the make-up artist would painstakingly match the hairstyles and since everyone had long hair, it wasn’t difficult.”

Verma then recalls his days as a body double. Before taking over the reins of action direction, a stuntman has to work under a master or the action director for 10-12 years to learn the tricks of the trade. “Playing duplicate got us good money and special stunts would get us even more moolah. If you have to just break a glass table, which is a normal stunt but if you have to fall from the first floor and break the glass table, then it is special stunt and we would demand more money for it. In Dacoit films, if you fall down with the horse, then that would be special stunt,” he informs.

Verma recalls one of his dare-devil stunts from Anil Kapoor-Sunny Deol-starrer ‘Joshilay’.  He went to Ladakh as a body double for Sunny Deol.  “We braved extreme weather for three and half months and doing stunts in the uneven rocky terrain was very difficult. Many stuntmen were injured and while performing one of the stunts, my horse fell on my right foot and I suffered a hairline fracture. I was out of action completely. Then a complicated stunt came up and there was no one to do it. We were really pressed for time so I volunteered.  I asked for 5 kgs of raw ice and wrapped it around my foot in a plastic bag for one hour and was having tea non-stop. When the shot was ready, I ran and did the stunt. By then my foot was numb.” But now, with the advent of cable and harness, doing stunts in not that difficult and more actors willingly perform their own stunts. “Most actors now perform their stunts on their own and with the advent of VFX, performing daredevil stunts is not rocket science,” adds Verma.

In 1990, he became the stunt director with ‘Naagmani’ and went on to choreograph stunts for several super-hit films. Verma then goes on to explain how a stunt is choreographed. The writer writes the sequence but the choreography is decided by the action director and director. “The action director decides the setup and camera angles. Earlier it was done impromptu on the sets as not much emphasis was given to action. Now, a proper recce is done before the shooting and setting up the shot takes around 6 hours. We mentally choreograph the sequence,” he informs.

Before a shot, Verma and his crew maps and designs the sequence and then thoroughly test each movement before proceeding ahead. “Basically, you don't want to repeat things, so you've always got to come up with new ideas, test them, see if they're physically possible, then see where you can put the artist in. So if the hero and the villain have to fight and break the glass wall while fighting, cartons and cardboard boxes will be kept on the other side.  Angles will always be wide angles. Earlier, for such sequences, the glass would be cracked so that it is easy to break it. Now we use toughened glass which hurts a lot less.”

Though technology and advance camera work has brought a revolution in Bollywood action, Verma feels that the charm is lost. “Now, shooting has become much easier and as an action director, I don’t like using cable shots much as they don’t seem real. Seeing four people flying with one punch can be visually appealing but nothing beats the applause you would hear when Dharmendra would land a mean punch on Shetty’s face. That charm is lost,” he concludes.

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