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

18 December 2016
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
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

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.

Suprateek Chatterjee Suprateek Chatterjee is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai who writes on film, music, and popular culture. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Huffington Post India.

Keywords: Bollywood South Indian cinema Indian cinema stunt
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