Bollywood's stunt-women, don't mess with 'em!

Updated: 25 March, 2020 08:27 IST | Sonia Lulla | Mumbai

Bollywood's stunt-women describe the lengths they go to, to be physically adept for the job, even though action films fronted by women are limited

Sanober Pardiwalla and Geeta Tandon
Sanober Pardiwalla and Geeta Tandon

Sanober Pardiwalla

The anxiety owing to her work-related hazards that consumes us after browsing through Sanober Pardiwalla's list of stunt-work in Bollywood is rendered rather redundant when she takes us through the practices she has mastered, over the years. "I had a black belt in karate at the age of 12, and went on to learn other [forms of] martial arts, including muay thai and jiu jitsu. Six years ago, I also took up the Shaolin temple training in China, which even American [soldiers] fear trying," says the stunt-woman, who, apart from working in Hollywood films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and A Hundred Foot Journey (2014), has doubled for actors including Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Deepika Padukone, and Sonakshi Sinha. "The [training] completely rips you apart. We lived two kilometres uphill from the training centre. [Partakers] have to walk down to the camp. To learn kung fu, one must forget everything that has been previously learnt.

Training is conducted in two parts — three hours in the morning, and two hours in the evening. It is [brutal]. If you survive it, making the two-kilometres return uphill with the [equipment] is tough. And food is only available up there. What is available is boiled rice and cabbage. You need to eat that every day for a month. So, it teaches you mental endurance and enables the body to adapt." Her achievements don't end there. An affinity for underwater stunts encouraged Pardiwalla to became an advanced deep-sea diver too, she tells us, prompting us to enquire if the challenges that Bollywood's action directors pose, rattle her at all. "The stunts that we perform seem 10 notches lower than what I'm used to practicing," she admits.

Sanober Pardiwalla with Hrithik Roshan
Sanober Pardiwalla with Hrithik Roshan

Pardiwalla is currently working on a spate of films, including Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji starrer, Bunty Aur Babli 2, Ranbir Kapoor's Shamshera, and Atrangi Re, featuring Sara Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar. When she isn't fulfilling her Bollywood commitments, she doubles up as a fitness trainer for actors in the industry, and also guides them through the tricks of pulling off stunts. Juggling multiple jobs evidently implies she doesn't know when she'll be afforded the time to train herself. "On the days that I shoot, I ensure I train before calling it a day, even if the shoot runs for 16 hours. I take to smart workouts, like high-intensity training for 20 to 30 minutes. There's a lot of flexibility and cardiovascular work involved. I may alternate between gymnastics, strength training, and cardiovascular work." On a particularly demanding day that leaves her with no time to exercise, Pardiwalla may simply hoist her backpack over her head, and lunge-climb six flights of stairs to reach home. "But, in a week, I fit in at least five sessions."

Building a body capable of pulling off the kind of stunts that she does, while retaining the lithe frame that can enable her to "pass-off" as the actor she steps in for, is a tough feat. "Many actresses are lean. But they may not be fit. I must constantly strive to keep from bulking up, but still be strong and lean, so that I can match a body profile. The diet plays a major role in enabling me to do this. While carbohydrates have acquired a bad name in our industry, on a particularly demanding day, as much as 60 per cent of my diet includes carbohydrates. During a 16-hour schedule, if my shot is slotted for the 16th hour, I can't be tired and then under-perform. So, carbs are important. However, I have good carbs only, and balance it with lean protein. It also depends on how physically demanding each day is. If I'm not required to pull off stunts, I may stick to a meal plan that's high on vegetables only."

Geeta Tandon

Geeta Tandon

Among the most celebrated stunt-women in Bollywood, Geeta Tandon wasn't afforded the privilege of learning an array of physical fitness forms, given that it was need, more than desire, that drew her to the industry. Every bit the fighter she is seen to be in cinema, Tandon is famed as the woman who fought her way out of an abusive relationship to make her life. The chances to hone her skills as a stunt-woman are then given to her in the form of training sessions on film sets itself. And Tandon doesn't take such opportunities lightly. "That's what helps us in our profession. [They are specifically important] because India doesn't have such training centres available at affordable rates," she says.

A month-long stint as participant of a stunt-reality show — that eventually never saw the light of day — formed the crux of her training. "That was eight years ago. We were training under Shifuji [Shaurya Bhardwaj]. Participants were made to wake up at 6.30 am and do squats and Suryanamaskars. Following breakfast and a short break, we would be called for bike-riding training, which involved racing, elevating and riding uphill. In the evening, at 4 pm, we'd have under-water training. This is where I learnt a lot of beneficial stunts, including how to manage cars at high speeds," says Tandon, who has worked in films like Raazi (2018), Saaho (2019), and Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018).

When she isn't shadowing female actors while the latter are being trained for an action film, Tandon continues to enhance her skills on her own accord. If she isn't filming, she will spend three hours each evening practicing kicks, punches and handstands. "I may run for 30 minutes, but pulling off 500 kicks is tougher. Kicks also tremendously enhance lower-body strength. If a few friends are also available, we gather at the beach to try stunts. It's easier to avoid injuries on the sand."

Geeta Tandon has worked in Rohit Shetty’s films like Bol Bachchan and Singham
Geeta Tandon has worked in Rohit Shetty's films like Bol Bachchan and Singham

Maintaining her diet is another aspect that Tandon must be mindful of. "Body badh jayegi to match kaise karenge actors ke saath (How will we double for an actor if we put on weight?)." Her protein consumption makes for a big part of this discussion. "I depend on original protein sources, like eggs and nuts. When we enter rehearsals, we're exhausted by the end of it. So, we need to be well nourished to pull-off this lifestyle."

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First Published: 25 March, 2020 08:10 IST

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