The office of the Stuntman’s Association of India works out of a nondescript room in a nondescript building in Andheri, Mumbai. On a Saturday evening, the long corridor along which offices of all kinds operate though the week, is dark and deserted. All you hear as you step into its lift are echoes of uproarious male voices.
As you enter the office, you are drowned in the cacophony. During the weekend, stuntmen, old and young, play carom at this office.
It’s not difficult to spot Rafique Qureshi in the room. Today, he stands out among the crowd, under warm bulbs that hang from the ceiling above the carom tables. He is wearing a navy blue suit, teamed with a grey tie and white shirt made of shiny silk. He is dressed for the interview.
“Why talk to me for independence day?” he asks, “I have no memories of the day.”
As the conversation unfolds, he says he does think about his year of birth, although he believes that freedom of any kind has no relevance in a stuntman’s life. Qureshi, like thousands of others, is a faceless toiler in Mumbai’s film economy. Junior artistes (also known as extras), and stuntmen make up 12% of the workforce in the film industry, according to the Junior Artistes Association. There are 485 registered stuntmen in Mumbai. They are a workforce that fuels the film world without being seen or heard, but who have learnt to assert their rights the hard way. “For a long time, even till the 1990s, we were risking our lives making stars look dashing and heroic without insurance for our lives and compensation for injuries. Things have changed a lot now,” Qureshi says. He started with Rs300 and now earns Rs1,280 as daily wage—a paltry amount, considering the risks involved.
Qureshi was born in Lucknow to a family of garment traders who struggled to make ends meet as the freedom struggle veered towards the end. After Partition, the family moved to Kolkata and took many years to settle into a comfortable business.
“As a young boy, I remember hearing about Nehru and Jinnah, but nothing really made sense to me. I just remember that something big had happened to the world outside school and home,” he says.
He grew up watching Hindi film actors of the time—Madhubala, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand—and nurtured the dream to be a film star. When he was 24, Qureshi boarded the train to Mumbai. “I would turn up outside producers’ offices and beg for roles. Eventually, in the same year, I got my first job as an extra in Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah. I’m one of the many in the mehfils where Meena Kumari is dancing, and I’m going ‘wah wah wah’,” Qureshi says.
After nearly seven years as a junior artiste, he became a stuntman, because they were paid better and there weren’t many who wanted this job. Until now, Qureshi has worked in 350 feature films, including blockbusters such as Shakti (1982), Shaan (1980), Coolie (1983), Ram Balram (1980) and Major Saab (1998). “I saw Bachchan saab succumb to his injury on the sets of Coolie. I was going to fight with him next,” he says, “and it was a sad day, because the stars inspired us to do what we do. When you see stars fall, you realize that all humans are equal.”
On the sets of Ravi Chopra’ Dehleez (1986), starring Jackie Shroff, Qureshi was injured. Shroff accidentally kicked his nose during a fight sequence, after which he had splinters of bone inside his nose. “I used to think of getting my nose fixed, but not any more. With age, I have started playing duplicates to actors,” he says.
In his next film, Kaafila, which released this week, Qureshi has shared screen space with Sunny Deol. But more than new releases, his hopes are for the community that he belongs to—the day their lives will be insured on paper.