Vivek Smells Good:
A Stunt-Double's Experiences On The Set of KISNA

© 2005

Editor's note: Kaya, a journalist and BollyWHAT? forum member, worked as an extra on several Hindi films and commercials during 2004, getting up-close views of actors at work including Shahrukh, Aamir, Rani Mukherjee, Karisma Kapoor, and Akshay Kumar. Below is a compilation of posts she made after being drafted into playing the stunt-double for Antonia Bernath on the sets of Subhash Ghai's Kisna, including her first-hand account of Vivek's infamous accident.

      For the first time since my work on the set of 'The Rising,' I piled into an SUV before dawn for a ride into the countryside, sleepy cinematographers for company. We arrived at a lonely plain with a view of the Western Ghats (hills) in the background. The scene was familiar -- trailers, growing heat, dust, horses, tiny plastic cups of chai.

    My job: be the stand-in for the lead British actress if needed during an action sequence. I had similar height, similar hair. They handed me a dress, stockings and too-big shoes. Then the hairdresser took me into a trailer and for the next hour transformed my hair into cute little ringlets (kind of like Aishwarya Rai's hair in 'Kyon Ho Gaya Na').

    It was only then that I realized the talented Mr. Oberoi was indeed on set. The hairdresser, keeping an eye out the window as she curled, had already pointed out director Subhash Ghai walking past in a bush hat and khakis. Now she said, suddenly, 'Vivek.'

    'What?' I stood up and took the curling iron with me. 'Where?'

    'Gaya,' she answered in Hindi shrugging. 'He's gone.' Off to the set. I had missed him. She seemed amused by my response and would say 'Vivek' a couple more times just to see what I'd do.

    I soon realized that the trailer, with toilet and lighted mirror and sofa and AC and TV that got no channels, was essentially mine. Mine! No man would come in while I was there, so I curled up by the tinted window with a book and kept the peripheral vision sharp for Vivek walking by.

   Soon enough, the lead actress walked by on her way to the set, and a few minutes later a dark, long-haired man in a turban walked by in the shade of an assistant's umbrella. I hopped up and soon followed.

   Vivek was standing by the day's main prop, a two-horse carriage. The actress was already in position. A half-dozen people attended to Vivek, retying his headband and adjusting a black wrap around his shoulders. Subhash Ghai stood there as well. Vivek looked rustic in black and maroon homespun cloth -- a pair of brown canvas shoes didn't look very period (1940s), but ah well. Vivek looked serious, speaking to everyone in Hindi. He didn't have a 'star' attitude, but he wasn't Mr. Cheery either.

   Soon he climbed into place on the carriage, but someone finally realized that paid duplicates were on set, and quickly I and a man named Yako were in the carriage and holding on as it rolled across the plain with horsemen in pursuit.

   Easy enough. We did the rehearsals, they did the takes.

   After one rehearsal, Vivek said something and Yako climbed down. Vivek was climbing up next to me. I hesitated. Vivek said nothing to me. Instead he told the British actress standing nearby that he was going to do a rehearsal and would she like to join him?

   The actress and I glanced at each other. I remember my look being a mild mixture of 'Don't you dare' and 'Please?'

   I should mention at this point that Vivek Oberoi has never held any particular attraction for me. If it had been Shah Rukh or Aamir, I would have been hissing at the girl like a cornered cat. But since I felt an Obligation to the Forum, I did hope to get the chance to observe the man up close.

   First and most lingering impression: Ladies, Vivek Oberoi smells nice. Midday in long sleeves and makeup and you might expect otherwise. But he smelled freshly laundered and cologned. He settled in right beside me on the carriage seat -- but didn't say a word to me. No 'Hi' or anything. 'Oh no, Rani Mukherjee all over again,' I thought.

   He brought the reins down on the horses' backs and we were off, bouncing over the dust. 'Aram se, aram se,' he kept saying to the horses, trying to keep them from bolting. We neared the cameras and he yelled to someone in Hindi whether we should be turning or what. 'Go under the crane,' I said. 'Go straight.' So he did.

   We finally wheeled and headed back. At the same time both of us pointed out a potentially dangerous hole beside the dirt road. As we neared the end, I said, 'I hope you're having fun.'

   He kind of snorted. 'God, this is the first time I've done this,' he said. So maybe he was a bit nervous, then. I'm glad I hadn't talked to him during the ride.

   Time for the take. As I turned to climb down, I swear he said, 'I'll see you later, ----.' I wondered how in the world he knew my name.

   The carriage takes finally ended abruptly when one of the horses veered sharply off the track, pulling everything into a large shallow hole. The carriage tilted, and Vivek leapt off and helped the actress off before the carriage could tip over. Obviously they were shaken, but both were OK. And that was it for that scene, at least for the day.

   So a while after they disappeared into their trailers, I decided to pay the actress a visit. I knocked on her door. Nothing. I turned and looked around and the guys sitting outside Vivek's door (the other half of the trailer) motioned for me to open the door. So I did.

   And looked right into the face of Vivek, who was sitting and paying a visit himself. 'Oh!' I said and started to back out. 'It's OK, ----,' he said. He really did know my name, interesting. So I carefully entered and closed the door behind me and I slowly panned across the rest of the room -- the actress' assistant, the actress ... and Subhash Ghai himself.

   Oops. 'OH!' I said, looking even more stupid. 'I didn't realize you were having a meeting.' I hesitated for about five lifetimes before Subhash Ghai said politely, 'I think someone is calling you.'

   I was so relieved. 'Oh? Yes, of course.' I bumbled at the doorlatch for another few lifetimes before getting the heck out. Very nice.

   But it all ended well. A relaxing late afternoon, a pretty sunset, a coolish breeze rising. As I asked a wardrobe girl whether I could change, some guy walked into my field of vision and kind of waved. I looked at him blankly and then realized it was Vivek in street clothes and without hair extensions. I blinked and waved and started laughing to the wardrobe girl -- 'He looks so different.'

   And he was walking over.

   So I and Vivek Oberoi, ladies, had a conversation like the two normal everyday people we are. Small talk, details on the carriage tipping, details on a horse that had just collapsed and injured its rider. We actually chatted for a couple of minutes and he seemed very nice, very relaxed. I was happy -- so this is how you're supposed to talk to a Star. No need for compliments, blushing, overheating. Just be natural. Why couldn't I have done this with Shah Rukh or Aamir? A few reasons:

   * Come on. They're Shah Rukh and Aamir.
   * They never approached me one-on-one.
   * The 'Kisna' set was relatively small, with only Vivek and the British actress the main actors present.

Day 3

   Hot hot hot. The sun sucks everything out of you, which must be why the past two days barely come to mind. A lot of waiting in my trailer, huddled under the air-con, and feeling dehydrated all the time -- even being happy for tiny cups of hot chai. Staring out the tinted windows and watching the eyes of curious locals skim unknowingly skim across mine as they search for stars behind the dark glass.

   I'm no star. But in my trailer I get to feel like one.

   Yesterday, I remember, was busy. Lots of carriage riding, my head artfully turned so my hair covered my face. No problems at all, until the end of the day when they wanted a shot of the girl and the guy riding a horse together.

   I had been asked a few times if I could ride. "Yyyyes," I'd say carefully. "I have before." I think so.

   Rule to remember: Always, always say "yes" with confidence.

   Along the chain of walkie-talkies a flicker of hesitation must have passed, because as the sun started to set and the scene was prepared I discovered a surprising on-set rival.

   My very own duplicate. A slight young Indian man -- man -- by the name of Rajkumal, with hairy legs and long blonde wig and heavy pancake makeup on his face and arms. I was quietly outraged. But he certainly could ride a horse. He could saddle it, too.

   So while Rajkumal got to sit behind Vivek's double and bounce across the grass, I was hustled into the trailer to change into a white off-the-shoulder dress to film a bit of a song sequence.

   I joined Vivek's double, now dressed in white, on the carriage. The sun was about to sink behind the hills. My only hurried instruction was to stand up. I figured that the shot would be us silhouetted against the sunset, so I made sure my dress and shawl and hair were free to stream behind me romantically. I stuck my padded bust out as best as I could and tried to strike a pose as we started off, gripping the arm of the carriage seat with my free hand.

   And that was that for the day. A one-hour drive to the hotel. Food. Shower. Crash.

   Today was much quieter as the silent but deadly Rajkumal elbowed in on my gig. In the whole day I shot two things -- a carriage ride and a short trip with Vivek's double on a horse. The rest of the morning and into the afternoon, Rajkumal drove the carriage while Vivek's double did battle with a bandit on the carriage roof.

   "Well, that's OK," I told myself. "It's a tricky sequence, and I've never driven a carriage before. Those horses can be hard to handle."

   So I settled into a torpor in the trailer. For a few minutes the nice man who played the traitor in "Lagaan" dropped by for a visit. Otherwise, silence. I watched people's comings and goings. Vivek came out of his trailer, waddling strangely. I followed. Turns out his pants were stuffed with padding because he had to slide along the ground while holding on to the carriage.

   A while later, he was helped back to his trailer, with a not very happy look on his face. Apparently he bumped against a rock in the ground.

   Then suddenly -- because after hours of inertia on a set things happen suddenly -- I was grabbed and tossed into a car for a change of location. We drove to a nearby stream, where the horseback bandits would chase the main actors across a shallow stretch of water.

   I was ready and standing by the horse, sure that since I had ridden that morning I could do this. I was simply waiting for a stool so I could climb on. But then ... Rajkumal came running.

   I had come to hate our little encounters. Nothing against him, of course, but the idea of the two of us in matching dresses and blond hair swapping shoes while everyone watched just became a bit embarrassing. The "Lagaan" guy cheerfully said, "His value is going up, yes?" I could have kicked him.

   So I stood helplessly, shooting dirty looks at the action director, while Rajkumal got to splash through the water. I asked the action director's assistant why I couldn't go instead. "He's lighter than you," he said, perhaps grasping for an excuse. OK, true -- but Vivek's double must be close to 200 pounds!

   In a snit, I retreated to a nearby car and started reading. Then I realized that Vivek and the main actress had arrived and were by the water's edge.

   They would have to ride across for a tight shot. The girl looked a bit scared. First, Vivek would do a rehearsal. Here was my chance! I elbowed closer, ready to be called. I couldn't wait to report this to Vivek lovers -- riding a horse together, my arms around his waist ...

   But then. Then. The voice of the action director: "Rajkumal kaha hai?"

   "No!" I said, mostly to myself. But Rajkumal was already running over. Vivek took one look at him and said something funny to him in Hindi. Rajkumal was tossed on the back of the horse, grabbed Vivek around the waist and away they went.

   Vivek lovers, perhaps I could have tried harder. But I was sun-stunned as it was, and questioning a seasoned director seemed like a bad call.

   And perhaps it was just as well, because just as the horse emerged from the water Vivek and Rajkumal started tilting to one side and slid off onto the grass. They were OK, but I don't think I would have enjoyed it. One of the stirrups had slid down.

   This did not help comfort the main actress. She looked nervous as she was lifted into place on the horse. She looked at me. "You've already done this, yes?" she asked.

   I wish I could have said yes -- maybe that would have changed things. But darn that Rajkumal. I had to shake my head. "I *could* do it," I offered a bit weakly.

   Vivek kept talking to her, trying to reassure her. I waited. But she decided she'd go through with it. Ah well ...

   And so I sulked a bit and pretty much ended my day.

Day 4

   My three days of shooting turned into four ... and it was by far the most dramatic.

   We had switched locations and were in a small forest. The main actors were sitting with Subhash Ghai under a big umbrella by the TV monitors.

   The scenes were a chase through the forest -- the actress being held on a horse by one of the bandits and Vivek chasing the bandits alone in the carriage.

   I was sitting near the stars, reading. At one point Vivek walked by and greeted me, glanced at the book and said, 'Midnight's Children. Salman Rushdie' and walked off. What a typical book to be caught reading!

   As they waited for the cameras to get ready, Vivek talked on his cellphone with Indra Kumar and passed on messages from Subhash Ghai, who eventually took the phone and chatted with the 'Masti' director and complimented him on the film.

   A few minutes later, Vivek got a call. The way he sweetly said 'Hi' and got up and wandered off, his umbrella man in tow, said it all. When he finally returned and then left to get in place for the scene, Subhash Ghai said something to him in Hindi about getting his mind back to the film. The director and I smiled at each other as Vivek walked off.

   A rehearsal, or maybe it was the first take. In any case, the actress flashed by on the bandit's horse, and then the bandits, and then Vivek on the carriage, urging the horses on.

   But the next time fell apart.

   The girl, the bandits ... then, as Vivek approached, a loud crack was heard as if one of the carriage wheels had hit a large root or rock.

   As if in slow-motion, within 50 feet or so of where we were sitting, the carriage started to flip to its right, towards us, with Vivek trying to throw himself clear. He hit the ground and started to groan and probably curse loudly in Hindi. He immediately was surrounded as people came running.

   The people around me said, 'S---.'

   Vivek was surrounded by dozens of people and calls for water and ice. The ambulance that had been parked down the road arrived and he was put in the back and taken to a nearby hospital, people said. But surely he would soon be in a Bombay hospital for a decent examination.

   People later said it was his right knee, along with the expected bumps and scratches. (He told the Mid-Day newspaper that he had dislocated his knee but put it together himself.)

   Meanwhile, as Vivek was still in the ambulance, Subhash Ghai and some of the others watched the film to see what had gone wrong. One camera showed the left side of the carriage banging into a tree trunk. A lantern perched on the left side of the carriage was knocked off, and the left front wheel looked bent.

   Subhash Ghai went to the hospital with Vivek. Then, after a meeting and a report on Vivek's condition, the filming continued.

   So, oddly enough, back to business. I managed to grab my last two scenes from the 'triplicate,' Ramkumal. One required me and Vivek's double to lie on a blanket in a depression in the ground, covered in leaves, as the bandits rode by looking for us. The camera zoomed in on us and we were urged to breathe heavily so the audience would see the leaves move slightly. We got terribly sweaty, and my hairdresser (who really only speaks Hindi, which is good) asked me teasingly in Hindi, 'Did you sleep well?'

   The second and final shot was a simple horseback ride through the forest. And that, my friends, was that ...




This filmi ramble was
written by Kaya.

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