Originally published in India Today
AXN’s Fear Factor, or even its desi version, is yet to feature this clan of technicians, who seldom receive the adulation they deserve. Perhaps that is because the show, for one, will not have those close shots of unmistakable fear etched on to the faces of their participants.
Or maybe, for the breed of technicians we are talking about, the challenges on the show pale in comparison to the acrobatics they perform everyday. For a stunt director, fear is just a plaything.
One of the first things that is striking about stunt directors is the unique appellations before their names. “Most of us have those prefixes to differentiate ourselves and project our individuality,” they say.
And so you have a Kanal Kannan (Kanal means fire), Rambo Rajkumar, Stun Siva and Fefsi Vijayan (he is the president of Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI)).
With years of experience behind them, all of them began as fighters and assisted stunt directors, before donning the mantle themselves. For Rambo Rajkumar, life certainly has come a full circle.
In the original Polladhavan, Rajkumar was the hero’s dupe for the stunt sequences. In a recent film of the same name, he was the stunt director.
“When I came into the industry, during the ’80s, gymnastics were prevalent, characterised with a lot of somersaults. This is why, I believe, a lot more dupes were used, because you had to be a trained gymnast to perform those stunts,” he says.
But as a stunt director, Rajkumar dramatically changed the course of action in Tamil cinema.
“Rasavin Manasile was the turning point for me. That’s when I introduced raw energy on screen, where a single, powerful punch was enough to debilitate an opponent, as against acrobatics. Which is why, my style is often described as rough,” he says.
Over 450 films later, with the distinction of having exclusively worked for Mithun Chakravarthy in 55 of his films, Rajkumar surprisingly believes that a film should not have more than three fight sequences, and, therefore, he specialises in quick, sharp fights.
His student, Kanal Kannan, on the other hand, came into the industry with absolutely no idea of what it entails to become a fighter, leave alone a stunt director.
“As a gymnast, I was just fascinated by the stunts I saw on screen, and thought I could become a stuntman too. It was only after I started work did I realise how difficult a job it is,” says Kannan, who is not a professionally trained martial arts expert, but one who has learnt it through experience.
He got his first break with the film, Cheran Pandian, and after films like Muthu, Avai Shanmugi, Mudhalvan, and Gajjini, Kannan is one of the most sought after stunt directors today. “My speciality is that I can make even a non-star look like a hero.
Most times, directors ask for flamboyant action sequences, but the actor is not always experienced. So we have to constantly innovate and work with all these factors in mind. The fight should also become a story on its own,” he says. Something Fefsi Vijayan agrees with. As a 17-year-old, when Vijayan entered the film industry, he had the best training ground one could ask for—his father, Swaminathan, the man who revolutionised stunt direction in the industry.
“My father was the one who set up the Stunt Artistes’ Union and taught them the art of becoming a stunt director,” says Vijayan, who became one at the age of 22.
Over 450 films later, Vijayan is emphatic about the importance of the story and the placement of the action sequence.
“The action has to be realistic, and the problems have to be real, set against a natural backdrop. I have never accepted films that don’t fit this norm, unless the script requires it,” he says, and adds, “In a Hollywood film for instance, an entire fight sequence will be around six to seven punches, around 60 feet of film. But here, we use anything between 300 feet to 1,000 feet of film for one fight sequence. We have to sustain the interest of the audience for that entire duration.”
With films like Baba, Pokiri, and the recent Telugu film, Bujjigadu, Vijayan also enjoys the rare privilege of the highest success ratio. “Out of my 452 films, 396 of them have been successes,” he says with pride.
Realism for heroism is the mantra of Stun Siva too, who has highlighted the aspect in the films he has worked for—Sethu, Nanda, to name a few. Trained in the Vietnamese martial art form, Viet Vo Dao, he assisted Kanal Kannan and Rambo Rajkumar, before becoming a stunt master in 1998.
To achieve a realistic look for an action sequence, a lot of planning is required. “Once you decide the concept, you need to discuss it with the director, producer and the cameraman, finalise the camera movements, collate the equipment required and be able to convey it to the artiste,” Siva says.
“We certainly need time before the film actually goes into production to plan and design the action, and the time to rehearse with the artiste to minimise risks,” adds Rajkumar.
With the huge leap in technology today, stunt directors are making the most of the software that is available to them. “I use a lot of computer graphics in my films. Of course, you need to know how to use them without making their use obvious.
In the film Gajjini, the climax fight has the hero fighting a villain and his twin, when there is no twin in real life. That was a challenging sequence,” says Kannan.
“We can experiment a lot more, and with 2D and 3D animation, accomplish a lot more too,” adds Siva. Vijayan however believes that without a strong foundation of the basics, graphics don’t help. “You need to know when and where to use graphics,” he says.
As for the risk factor involved, Rajkumar sums it up to perfection: “Risk is part of any profession; it is just relatively higher here. In fact, if one of us falls down, we don’t worry about getting hurt, but instead ask if the fall looked good,” he says, laughing. We don’t know about the fall, but the stunts sure are looking good!
Stun Siva: “The first fight sequence at the tea shop in the film Pithamagan was extremely challenging, as we used only original props, with no graphics or effects, to retain that natural flavour. In fact, all my seven fighters and the actor sustained minor injuries.”
Rambo Rajkumar: “In the film Polladhavan, for the climax sequence, we used 300 lights to produce the harsh, glare effect we wanted. It was a huge challenge because for the first time, we used 500 frames for a fight sequence, and we had to match that lighting effect in every frame.”
Kanal Kannan: “For Gajjini, we staged the climax fight between the actor and a villain, who was playing a dual role, while in reality, there was no twin. It was a huge challenge to synchronise and time the punches, to make it look realistic in the end.”
Fefsi Vijayan: “As a fighter, I once took up the assignment of jumping from a helicopter from a height of 300 ft. There was a 40x40 net below. It was a tremendous risk that I took, as I had to time my jump perfectly, concentrate on the air flow and calculate the area for a safe landing.”