A waist-high railing spiralled continuously, slowly enclosing a thin girl on a platform. Dressed in the heroine’s costume with a heavy headpiece, the 14-year-old assessed the situation. She had to jump off that railing as it closed in on her. If she didn’t make it, she could fall head first or bang into the railing. It was no child’s play. Everyone on the film set (Ek Khiladi Bawan Pattey, 1972) looked unsure and nervous.
But Reshma Pathan had to put food on the family’s table, and, without thinking too much, she made a go for it. “The next thing I knew, people on the set were applauding. I had been able to pull off a stunt that a seasoned stuntman had been wary about. The memory of that applause remains a source of courage for me,” says the 64-year-old.
In a bare room in Mumbai’s Reay Road chawl, Pathan is buzzing around as she speaks, her gait defying her age. She shuttles between the make-up kit on the bed and the mirror on the wall. Occasionally pausing, she tilts her head and looks at her reflection in the evening light. On the lone table in the house sits the trophy for “Extraordinary Achievement” she recently won at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards given by Broadcast Film Critics Association for being “India’s first stuntwoman”. It is the first award, Pathan says, acknowledging her years of hard work. “Sholay (1975), Karz (1980), The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), I have been working for 50 years. You may remember me from the climax in Golmaal Again (2017) where I play the old woman who gets knocked down by the villain and gets up to start chasing him,” chuckles Pathan, adding, “This energy runs through my veins.”
The eldest of five siblings, Pathan was “just like a boy” when she was growing up. “When she was born, our father thought the nurse from Kerala had told him that he had had a son. He continued to refer to her as a boy even after he found out the mistake. My earliest memories of her include watching her scale barriers, climb atop handcarts and take on troublesome boys,” says Pathan’s sister Zainab, 58.
Her father was almost always unwell, his attempts to make money by selling smuggling goods had failed. With very few means, the family was forced to live on the footpaths of Pydhonie in south Mumbai. The streets became little Reshma’s playground. The family soon looked towards her as a “protective brother”, who could fend for them.
Stunt director S Azim, a family acquaintance, often saw her play dangerous pranks and somersault around the neighbourhood. He took a chance, and gave her a break in 1968 with Ek Khiladi Bawan Pattey, making her the first stuntwoman in the Hindi film industry. “There were no women doubles performing stunts at the time. Films were not considered a respectable profession. Girls were discouraged from taking risks that could injure or end up scarring them, damaging their marriage prospects. So, until then, men dressed as women to shoot the action sequences for the female actors too,” says Pathan.
Her entry gave others hope, too, and started a trend in the industry. Pathan recounts that within six months of her being hired, “Kamlesh, Anwari Aapa, Nutan Lavlekar, among others” joined as stuntwomen as well. “But it didn’t affect my work because I had a wider skill set — I could swim, ride a horse or a tonga, jump from heights or hang from a rope mid-air,” she says. Earning Rs 175 per shift, Pathan was not only earning enough but was also, soon, able to put a roof above the family’s head in 1972, after the film released.
She has since been living in the same room in the chawl, which she considers to be her lucky charm. “Two of my three sons are doctors and all of them are well-settled. But they live in high-rises, an idea I just cannot get used to. So I choose to live here with my sister,” Pathan says.
The journey, Pathan admits, hasn’t been easy. “I was eating into the share of stuntmen, who were earning by doing the heroine’s action sequences. It was a male-dominated industry where the concept of a stuntwoman did not exist,” she says. She needed a union membership card to work but was given a junior artiste’s card. Filmmakers would often try to make her work as a stuntwoman but pay Rs 35 (the rate for a junior artiste).
At one such outdoor shoot (as Rekha’s body double) in Ganga Ki Saugand (1978), Pathan refused to shoot until her mentor S Azim intervened and got her a fair deal. “But that made me realise I have to fight for my right and get the union to admit women stunt artistes,” she says. It took her several months of negotiations before she could convince the union to accept women members in 1978. Pathan has also been the body double for Rakhee (Kasme Vaade, 1978), Dimple Kapadia (Zakhmi Aurat, 1988), Bindu, Parveen Babi, and Zeenat Aman.
After that, financially, it was smooth sailing. Though her job was dangerous, stunt artistes worked without safety measures at the time, she was willing to take that risk. Once, she fell 40 ft down a gorge while trying to save a stuntman who had missed a step. “There was nothing we could use to pull him up, so I lent him my hand. He emerged from the incident unscathed but I fell all the way down and broke my ankle,” she says.
Sholay was the film that changed the working conditions in the industry, she says. Director Ramesh Sippy brought on board the acclaimed Hollywood stunt master Gerry Crampton, who introduced the Hindi industry to safety cables and other stunt equipment. Yet, Sholay would be the film where Pathan would get her first grave injury. “I was Hema Malini’s double, riding the tonga in the sequence where the goons were after her. Due to a technical issue, when the tonga hit a boulder, it toppled and landed on top of me.” With her legs badly injured, she was rushed to the nearest hospital. She, however, returned to work within days to complete the shoot. “She shot with those injuries because she wanted to make enough money for my upcoming wedding,” says Zainab.
In the years that followed, Pathan got her siblings educated and married. “I did fall in love with a colleague and marry him in 1986 but never disclosed this fact to my family until my youngest sibling’s wedding four years later. We continued to live apart, spending time together on outdoor shoots,” she says.
After years of prioritising others, Pathan has now learnt to focus on herself. She has spruced up her dwelling — there is an air conditioner and marble flooring. “After 50 years in the film industry, it is impossible to break away from it. I do ad shoots, small bits and parts that come my way. I am hoping the award will bring me to the attention of filmmakers. I wouldn’t mind being the next Nirupa Roy of Hindi cinema, or even an evil mother-in-law with karate chops, if you like,” she says