Chennai’s movie stuntmen now have a union. they command a growing degree of power in the tamil film industry- and they know it.
In the 2006 Tamil blockbuster, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, veteran actor Kamal Hassan plays a top cop. In a chase scene building up to the film’s climax, Hassan tears through the streets of Chennai in a police jeep, hot on the trail of a serial killer on a motorbike. Outside an abandoned train station, the villain crashes his bike, and Hassan accelerates, hits a jump, and his vehicle soars over the killer’s head, landing a few yards ahead. Hassan leaps out of his jeep to engage his enemy in hand-to-hand combat, and delivers the villain a violent thrashing with all the bravado and machismo expected of a Tamil film star.
The film invariably ends well for Hassan’s character, although it was a different story behind the scenes. The day the jeep stunt was filmed, Hassan wasn’t on the set. The high-speed sequence was performed by a stuntman named Loganathan, recognised throughout the industry for his daring stunts. Known as “Jumper” within the stuntmen community, Loganathan could drift, skid and jump cars and tractors. He’d even overturned buses.
“For the scene he [Loganathan] had to accelerate the vehicle and springboard off a railway platform,” recalls Krishnakumar, his son, who was on set at the time his father performed the stunt. “He then rose eighty feet before landing. It seemed fine.”
After a stunt, Loganathan would usually undo his safety straps and step out of the vehicle, but when he didn’t, his crewmembers realised something had gone wrong. When they got to him, Loganathan was in pain and unable to move properly.
They rushed him to the hospital in a car that was nearby on the set, and after being attended to, doctors said the landing had damaged his spinal cord. Loganathan spent four months in Chennai’s Apollo Hospital and a further two months bedridden at his family home in Velachery, a narrow-laned suburb in the south of the city. After months of being immobile he developed an infection, which caused further medical complications. On September 11, 2006, Loganathan passed away.
A former rickshaw driver, Loganathan had a natural dexterity when it came to manoeuvring vehicles. In his family, daring and unusual skills extended to his elder brother, Balaram, who was an established “fighter”, known for tackling tigers, lions and cheetahs on the big screen. Loganathan performed his first stunt at 30, his last at 51.
Loganathan always wanted to become a stunt master, and after he died, his son Krishnakumar resolved to rise through the stuntmen ranks, having learnt how to perform stunts with vehicles from his father. Today, he is coming up to ten years spent in the profession, after dropping out of high school at 17 and starting to accompany his father on film shoots. “I wanted to do what he did. It just seemed more interesting than studying,” says Krishnakumar.
In the past decade, Krishnakumar, 28, has appeared as a fighter in about 20 films, and as a “rider” – a motorbike stuntman – in about eight. He’s still hoping for his big break.
“My father would have never been able to own a house of 1 200 square feet as a [rickshaw] driver,” he says. “Stunts gave us a better life and I believe there is an opportunity to make it better.”
In the family’s Velachery living room, a small shrine dedicated to Loganathan occupies an upper corner, his stern-looking portrait staring out. Photographs of him with actors such as the Tamil superstar Rajnikanth and the Telugu hero Mohan Babu fill in other nooks and ledges.
Succeeding in this business means starting as a lowly stuntman, or “fighter”, graduating to stunts involving vehicles, and eventually becoming the “stunt master” or action director. Most stuntmen come from poor and illiterate backgrounds and start out as fighters playing nameless villains or dupes, donning the makeup, wigs and clothing of the lead actors for long-range shots.
Krishnakumar acknowledges that he has a long way to go. His stunt work is still irregular, and he feels that his specialisation with vehicles limits the calls he receives from stunt masters. Although he’s worked as a fighter, when he started out he did some basic training but never in South Indian martial arts, which are largely considered an unquestionable advantage in this profession. If he had, he feels he’d have a better chance at working as an assistant to a stunt director and eventually move into the senior position himself.