Leaping from buildings, riding a bike at breakneck speed, fighting off goons and deep sea diving is all in a day’s work for Geeta Tandon. And while working, sometimes she becomes Kareena Kapoor, other times Katrina Kaif and often Deepika Padukone. Arguably the best known stuntwoman in Indian cinema, Geeta has pulled off stunts for Bollywood heroines in blockbuster hits such as Chennai Express, Singham and Udta Punjab, among many others.
The gutsy woman tells us about her work and the most difficult stunt she has performed until now.
What was the first stunt you pulled off?
I was married off at 15 and suffered in an abusive marriage. Finally I mustered the courage to move out with my children. To earn a living I started dancing in groups that perform at weddings and birthdays.
That’s when someone suggested I could work as a stuntwoman. I contacted spotboys, lightmen and casting directors asking for work. In 2008 I was offered work in a TV soap they were shooting in a fort on the outskirts of Mumbai and I was asked to do a scene where I was hanging from the edge of the fort wall. I pulled it off well enough. I did not look back since.
Did you take any special training for the job?
I learned everything on the job. Initially I had no clue about safety measures. But then I realised everything has a technique and I learned that gradually. I have been lucky to have worked with the best stunt directors from India and Hollywood. I keep training with my colleagues to learn the nuances of our art.
What is the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood stunt directors?
Hollywood stunt directors stress on safety measures and rehearsals too. When they direct, we rehearse for around 10 days before a shot is taken. In the case of Indian directors I would not say less importance is given to safety but because we already have a comfort level working together, a couple of days are good enough for rehearsals.
Did you face any adverse situations while doing stunts?
There have been many. A year into the job I had to do a sequence where I had to fall on my back and break a railing. I was Zeenat Aman’s body double in the film. I wasn’t well aware then about techniques and safety measures and had a bad fall fracturing my spine. I was in hospital for 10 days and bed-ridden for three months. Everyone told me to give up my career as a stuntwoman. But I was not ready. I used to be in extreme pain but still went on and didn’t look back. A few months later I had to do a stunt of falling from the fifth floor into a glass box on a bike. I broke my tail bone while doing the stunt. I was back in the hospital and back in bed for a few months. I again pulled myself out of the bed and went back to the sets. Once, while shooting for an ad in Ladakh, I had to be set on fire. The wind was blowing very hard and it quickly spread the fire that came up to my face. But I quickly started rolling on the frozen ground and hence averted severe burns.
What are the most difficult stunts that you do?
I think being on fire is the most difficult stunt. When you are put on fire you do feel a certain level of panic which you have to deal with. Also, I think free fall from a high building is a very difficult stunt.
Do you have any fears?
Initially I had a fear of water. But I have conquered it. I have done every kind of water stunt be it under water, swimming or racing on jet-skis.
Which stunt gives you an adrenaline rush?
All stunts do actually. But I love car chasing sequences; it gives me a different kind of high.
How do you stay fit?
I exercise regularly. The kind of fitness I need cannot be achieved by going to the gym. I do cross fit, and practice kicking and punching. I do cart wheel and endurance exercises.
Are you covered by accident insurance?
Earlier, it was hard to get an insurance coverage. And in case of an accident the producer of the film used to take care of the medical bills and we got 15 days of salary. But Akshay Kumar took the initiative and got all the people doing stunts in Bollywood insured.
How do you look at your future?
Bollywood always had stuntwomen but no one ever came to the limelight. With me things changed. People appreciate my work and I am covered by the media, I get modelling assignments and my story has inspired many. Now women come to me every day and they say they want to be like me. This gives me a lot of satisfaction. In future I would love to start a school for gymnastics. I also want to start a resource centre for women where those who have the ambition but not the means to achieve their dreams, can come and get every kind of help.