“It’s Part of the Job”: The Absence of Safety Precautions for Stunt Artists in Indian Cinema

Raghav Uday and Anil Kumar, two stunt artists from Karnataka, drowned while filming a stunt for a Kannada film, Maastigudi. Both of them were not given life jackets, and the only rescue boat on set failed to start on time. PTI
18 December, 2016

On 7 November 2016, Raghav Uday and Anil Kumar, two stunt artists from Karnataka, drowned while filming a stunt for a Kannada film, Maastigudi, directed by Nagashekar. The stunt involved Uday and Kumar, and Duniya Vijay, an actor, jumping from a helicopter, around 50 feet above the water lever, into the Tippagondanahalli lake, located 35 kilometres west of Bengaluru, in Karnataka. Uday and Kumar were asked to stay bare-chested to maintain continuity from the previous scene of the film. Vijay was the only one who survived, because he was reportedly the only one wearing a life-jacket.

What has emerged is a case of negligence on the part of Nagashekar; Sundar Gowda, the producer; and Ravi Varma, the action director and a veteran in the industry, who has worked in several Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi films. Minutes before attempting the stunt, the stunt artists gave an interview to Public TV, a Kannada news channel, saying that they weren’t good swimmers. Kumar said in the interview that he had little experience with swimming and had, until then, only swum in a well where he would reach the edge after two or three strokes. Uday also said in the interview that there had been no specific preparation for the scene, and that he had a fear of heights. Nagashekar and Varma reportedlydid not provide any safety ropes for the stunt artists to grab on to while in the water; there were no divers present either. A diesel-powered rescue boat, the only one on set, was too far away and failed to start on time. A Press Trust of India report stated that the spot they jumped into was dangerous as there was around 30–40 feet of silt below 15–20 feet of water, which reportedly had abandoned fishing nets as well.

Gowda was arrested on 8 November. On 10 November, Varma and Nagashekhar, who had both absconded fearing arrest, surrendered at Magadi Road police station in Bengaluru.The police initiated a criminal case against the three of them under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, for the offence of culpable homicide, and under Section 188, for the failure to comply with conditions laid down by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). According to a report in The Hindu, the production unit had obtained permission to shoot on the banks and garden of the lake, and the stunt was performed illegally without prior permission. All three were sent to Ramanagar jail. Varma and Nagashekar were released on bail granted by the Karnataka High Court on 15 December, while Gowda remains in jail.

Stunt artists working in the state, referred to colloquially in the film industry as “fight-masters” and “fighters”—used to refer to action directors and stunt artists respectively—are represented by the All Karnataka Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artists Association, a 150-member-strong union. “Fighters get injured all the time; it’s part of the job,” said Vinod Varadharaj, the president of the association. He has worked as a stunt artist for 12 years. For the past four years, he has been an action director. “I know of at least five or six people whose careers have ended after a stunt has gone wrong,” he added. Varadharaj said that the union imposed a fine of Rs 30 lakh on Varma, who is its member, and awarded a compensation of Rs 3 lakh to Uday’s family, which included individual contributions of Rs 1,000 from each member. (The union did not award any compensation in favour of Kumar’s family, as Kumar was not a member.)

Although the Maastigudi tragedy is of an uncommon nature in the stunt industry, the risks of the profession are constant, especially in the southern film industries, where film budgets tend to be lower than in Bollywood. However, filmmakers and audiences seek the same thrill as action sequences in higher-budget Hollywood or Bollywood films. As a result, action directors cut corners on safety precautions, effectively putting the lives of stunt artists at risk—although the safety of stunt artists in Bollywood, too, is far from guaranteed. ML Subhash, an action director who said he had worked in 400 movies, since 1986, in the Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil film industries, said that he had seen this first-hand for years.

He recalled a stunt he did a few years ago, though he was unable to recall the exact year. “I was called to do a motorcycle jump, which pays very well—Rs 15,000 for one jump,” he said, adding that the going rate for non-specialised stunts, such as fighting scenes, in the Kannada film industry is currently Rs 3,200 for two days of work. “I asked for 300 empty cardboard boxes to help break my fall.” Instead, he said, he was given only 100 boxes and told to go ahead with the stunt. The unspoken implication wasthat someone else would agree to itif he didn’t. Unhappily, Subhash said, he went ahead with the stunt, overshot his landing spot by a few feet—which would have been covered by the additional 200 boxes he had requested, he said—and fractured a leg. “I spent two months recovering and lost a lot of work because of this,” he said.

According to Aejaz Gulab, the general secretary of the Movie Stunt Artists’ Association (MSAA), the stunt industry in India employs 1500–2000 people across the country. The MSAA, which was formed in 1959, is an association which represents 540 stunt artists and 108 action directors working in the Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Bhojpuri film industries, he said. Aside from the All Karnataka Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artists Association and the MSAA, there are three other associations representing stunt artists and action directors of regional film industries: the Chennai-based South India Cine Stunt Directors and Stunt Artists Union, the Hyderabad-based Andhra Pradesh Stunt Masters Union, and the Kolkata-based Movie Stuntmen Association of Eastern Zone.

These associations help safeguard the interests of stunt artists working in the movies. Aside from setting wage rates and coordinating work and payments, they lobby to ensure that stunt artists who are injured during their work receive adequate and timely compensation from producers. There is no specific legal framework regulating the stunt industry in India. The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 prescribes the compensation to be paid by an employer to an employee who gets injured during the course of work of employment. In case of death of an employee, it directs the employer to take various factors, such as age and cumulative salary till age of retirement, into account for calculating the amount of compensation. However, according to Gulab, most producers are unwilling to accept the compensation prescribed by the act. He said that the MSAA had pushed for this in the past, but producers had generally refused, saying that compensation amounts were “too high."

He recalled an incident from 2004, when a stunt artist named Joseph Rego sustained severe burns during a stunt, in which his body was on fire, and died on set. Gulab said that the producer, Jay Mehta, refused to pay compensation as prescribed by the act, and instead agreed to pay only Rs 4 lakh as compensation to Rego’s family. "We still felt that the amount was too little, so the members of the association chipped in and contributed Rs 2 lakh, plus another Rs 50,000 in a fixed deposit for his children," he added. Gulab said that producers generally agreed to simpler terms set by associations, which require producers to bear all medical expenses and pay for 15 shifts a month in case a stunt artist is unable to work due to an injury.

Not all stunt artists choose to be permanent members of these associations. Many of them earn livelihoods through other means—some have regular day jobs, others are trying to make it as actors. Shalini Soni, a 27-year-old stunt artist who came to Mumbai from Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh, nine years ago, juggles stunt work with acting assignments in films, television serials, and advertisements. Soni said that paying the annual fee to be a full-time member of the MSAA did not make sense for her as she did other work as well. Even so, she said, all payments for her stunt assignments were routed through the association. She said her assignments could vary from two shoots per day to one per week, and payments could range between Rs 3,500–4,000 for an eight-hour shift.

According to Soni, safety standards are generally higher in the Hindi film industry, especially if it’s a big-budget film. “The master”—the action director—“doesn’t allow the shot to begin if basic requirements aren’t met,” she said. “Sometimes, solutions have to be thought of. Like, I was on this shoot where I was a body double for an actress, so I was wearing a short dress. Now, I had to fall to the ground from a car, but because of the dress, I couldn’t wear knee pads, so they put a few gaddas”—mattresses—“on the landing spot.”

Nikkhil Advani, a Bollywood director and producer who owns a production company named Emmay Entertainment, has worked with international action directors and stunt artists in films such as Chandni Chowk To China, D-Day, and Hero. Advani said that there is a marked difference in their work ethic. “In the West, they do 50 weeks of preparation for 50 days of shoot,” he said. “They’d rigorously go through sequences, ask for additional detailing and storyboarding, if required. It’s the opposite in India.”

There is a marked difference between international practice and Indian practice with respect to the personal insurance for stunt artists as well. For instance, in countries such as Australia, United Kingdom, and Thailand, an insurance company would insure the entire crew and mandate the presence of a safety inspector. In India, while insurance companies tend to insure the sets and primary equipment in big-budget films, stunt artists are often deemed ineligible. Danny Voddugaliya, an action director who has spent 25 years in the Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tulu film industries, has never managed to get insurance for stunt artists. Insurance companies “say you are deliberately taking up risky work and therefore we can’t insure you,” he said.

Gulab said that he approached various insurance companies—including Life Insurance Corporation, Bajaj-Allianz, ICICI-Lombard, and New India Assurance—five times over the past decade, but to no avail. “I’ve tried to explain to them that a stuntman is safer than the common man,” he said. “For example, a layman crossing the road is at greater risk of getting hit by an out-of-control car than a stuntman, who is trained to dive safely out of the way.”

The insurance industry, on the other hand, feels that the onus is on film producers to develop a “safety culture” before this can happen, according to Sanjay Datta, the chief underwriter at ICICI-Lombard. Dutta said that, at this point, it is not possible to insure high-risk activities undertaken by stunt artists, such as those involving fire or jumping from heights. “If you look at the airline industry, that culture of safety has been imbibed,” he said. “Sure, there can be rare, black-swan events, such as what happened with Malaysian Airlines, but at least the assurance is there that routine stuff, like the engine being oiled properly or doors functioning well, are de rigueur. Film shoots need to reach this level.”

The safety of stunt artists is also dependant on the attitudes of producers who may want exhilarating stunts in their films, but also want to work within the constraints of their budget. According to Gulab, another contributing factor is the corporatisation of the film industry, which took place roughly a decade ago when the likes of Disney, Sony, and Fox merged with Indian studios. This corporatisation, he said, introduced a culture of red-tapism that complicated matters further.

“Earlier, when producers were individuals, they saw the entire unit as one big family,” he said. “They recognised everyone’s contribution to the success of the film. Today, studios work on emails and approvals. Earlier, producers would go out of their way to accommodate everyone. Now, they say we can’t do anything till we get approvals, which forces action directors to work with what they have.”

Advani, however, said that as Indian studios adapt to a style of working of their counterparts in Hollywood, the situation is likely to change for the better. “It’s important to work with a great, dependable crew [whom] you can work with again and again,” he said. “And it’s important to treat them well, like family.”

This practice paid off during the shoot of his recent film Katti Batti, which released in 2015. A young actor had to be rushed to a hospital after glass pane shattered on his hand and he suffered multiple cuts. “This wasn’t a heavy duty action sequence and was never supposed to go that far,” Advani said. “But because the same crew had worked with me on D-Day and Hero, they had automatically stationed an ambulance outside the studio, simply because the script said there would be some sort of action and an action director would be present on set.”

“This,” he added, “is the kind of work ethic that everybody needs to follow.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Movie Stunt Artists' Association was formed in 2003. It was formed in 1959. The Caravan regrets the error.