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Brooms, action, camera

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SLUMDOG STUNT MEN: The Dharavi lads demonstrate an action sequence with Jamwal. They can do 'aerial cartwheels' and 'kick the moon' without using cables

The large, stuffy room in Andheri looks like it has been waiting far too long for a young Amitabh Bachchan to burst through the door. Aluminium trunks, gas cylinders, water tanks, iron rods - everything in this first-floor space looks perfectly poised for the kind of destruction that happened in the climax of '70s Bollywood movies minutes before the arrival of the screen cops. But the two sweaty boys inside the dark room, though newly associated with Bollywood stunts, are not exhibiting any destructive tendencies.

Instead, Sunil Pala and Vimal Sarkar are flapping their thighs on the well-worn mattress, doing a series of aerial back flips and landing perfectly on their feet. It's part of the warm-up routine of both. Pala, a broom seller, and Sarkar, a compounder, then look towards Vidyut Jamwal, the tall, muscular villain of the recently released Force, who not only inducted them into Bollywood with the film but also gave Pala a chance to be action director.

Jamwal whispers little known martial arts moves like 'half-touch', 'aerial cartwheel' and 'kicking the moon' to the youngsters, which they immediately execute with a skill that lesser men would require the support of cables for. "It would have been impossible to attain the level of much-talked about realism in the action scenes of the film without help from my team, " says Jamwal, pointing at the two boys. "They are my family. "

The former model, who has been pursuing kalari payattu in Kerala since he was three, came to Mumbai eight years ago with the dream of being "the biggest action superstar". With this ambitious aim in mind, he went around the city scouting for new talent in order to build a team of dedicated martial artists that he could train with. But the ones he came across were in a hurry to learn a few tricks and impress. This prompted Jamwal to frequent martial arts classes in the suburbs and in the bylanes of Dharavi where he discovered Pala and Sarkar - as also vada pao seller Santosh, liquor shop employee Raju and others who survived on restaurant leftovers as kids. The appetite for 'body-building' of these underprivileged boys, who grew up admiring Jackie Chan's realistic stunts, was huge - they were willing to go through the "whole process" of learning all kinds of martial arts. So, every day for eight years, before their work shift began and after it ended, they would gather to polish their skills in a combination of martial art stunts that mixed elements from kalari payattu, gymnastics, jijitsu, kickboxing and malkhamb.

"There's not a garden or beach we haven't visited in order to practise. But invariably in these spaces, people would start passing comments such as bandar (monkey), which was distracting, " says Pala. From then on, this first-floor room in Andheri has been their haven. Soon, when their "bhaiyya" was offered a role in the movie Force, they now had a platform to showcase their apelike agility and nimble moves. Pala directed the action scenes in the film under the supervision of the director Nishikanth Kamath. "The best part about him was that he left us to our devices, " says Pala, who is still basking in John Abraham's praise for "performing stunts precisely without touching him".

Their biggest compliment, though, came from a newspaper which compared their stunts to a video game. It's clear why when the boys demonstrate each move in two parts - the "normal move" and "our move".

"We began using props like broomsticks and have now graduated to real swords, " says the ardent Jackie Chan fan, Pala, who visualises stunt scenes even while preparing brooms with his family. Pala has hurt himself many times, including once when he tried a Parkour move by jumping from a building terrace and landing on a coconut tree five feet away. "I suffered scratches, but once I decide to do something, I need to fulfil it, " says the dusky boy who dreams of becoming an action director some day.
For Sarkar too, who is smilingly showing off scars on his knee - the remnants of 15 stitches - as if they were trophies, injuries are hardly deterrents. His mother, who is away in West Bengal, has no idea about her son's profession or recent stint in a movie. "She thinks I do karate and would discourage me from doing stunts if she gets to know about my injuries" says Sarkar, who, his friends say, gets the least amount of sleep in the group. He even comes after a night shift.

"It's passion, " explains the young boy with spikes who learnt martial arts from an Assamese man as a kid before joining Jamwal's team. Sarkar, who has gained renewed respect among his colleagues after the movie, says he is eternally grateful for the unconditonal support of his doctor boss.

"He approves my leave and understands my interest in martial arts, " he smiles. In return he teaches his boss some basic stretches. Nothing risky of course - that is reserved for himself. It's all part of the "passion".

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