Having endured a difficult childhood and abusive marriage, the female body double now puts her survival skills to use in India’s film industry, crashing through glass and jumping off rooftops. ‘There’s gain in pain,’ she says
Geeta Tandon sits on the floor of her modest one-room home in a working-class suburb in north Mumbai. Morning light streams in through a large window, creating shadows on the bare pink walls. Geeta rubs her calf vigorously. Still sore, she is massaging an injury she endured while riding a horse without a saddle or boots.
Bollywood’s foremost female stunt artist and body double isn’t afraid of getting hurt. She is used to it. Her suffering started well before she embarked on her career, and her body is testament to that. From stitch marks on her hairline to bruises on her feet, scar after scar tells a story. But the 34-year-old wears her wounds like a badge of honour. “There is gain in pain,” she says. The aroma of noodles and sweet, steaming masala chai fills her home. She’s tired after filming a horse-riding sequence the previous night for a Hindi television serial, a period drama. Geeta has never learned to ride a horse nor taken a martial-arts course. Yet she wields a sword, brandishes a revolver, drives cars through hoops of fire, chases bad guys on bikes, crashes through glass, jumps off rooftops – and rides horses. Every skill she has acquired, she learned on the job.
While stunt artists usually remain invisible, lost behind the larger-than-life personae of the stars they fill in for, Geeta is one of the few women to make a name for herself through her work in commercial films.
Stunt work is an unusual choice for an Indian woman. Of the 581 stunt artists registered with the Movie Stunt Artist Association in Mumbai, only 12, including Geeta, are women, says Aejaz Gulab, the group’s general secretary.
Geeta, who came from a broken and poverty-stricken family, was 15 when her father arranged her wedding to a man 10 years her senior. He owned a trucking business that brought in good money – enough to put food on the table at every meal, which was more than her father could provide. Geeta agreed. “I thought I would get a house, a mother, relatives, food on time, a television, that I would get to watch serials.”
Her dreams were shattered on the very first night. She was a teenager whose ideas of relationships and sex were based on conservative Hindi television serials and a few Bollywood films. In her mind, a wedding-night ritual involved drinking a glass of milk and going to sleep. “These people made such a fuss over the wedding night. I told them, ‘I don’t want to do it’,” she says. Her in-laws retaliated by beating her. They could not fathom why the teen bride would not want to consummate her marriage.
A pattern emerged – a day spent cooking and cleaning would give way to a night of violence and forced sex. Her husband would come home inebriated and smash a plate on the wall. He would pull her hair, punch and kick her. Once he hurled a gas cylinder at Geeta. Nobody intervened, not the neighbours, not the relatives. “If he beat me in front of them, they would just continue to watch television.”
By Mallika Kapur and Gayatri Rangachari Shah