In an exclusive interview with us, the action director shared thoughts about his career lauded his son Vicky Kaushal for his stellar show in films like Masaan (2015) and Sanju (2018), and more.
Exclusive: Vicky is lucky that a director like Rajkumar Hirani trusted him, says dad Sham Kaushal
Mumbai - 21 Jul 2018 9:00 IST
Updated : 23 Jul 2018 11:33 IST
It is impossible to have a world without conflicts. It is conflict that gives birth to heroes and legends. Who doesn’t love a good fight? And that’s why we love action movies. All heroes, villains don’t become warriors overnight. They, too, need a master. For that reason, we have action directors. And when they can’t pull off the dares themselves, we have stuntmen, the unsung heroes, who step in.
One such unsung hero is senior action director Sham Kaushal in Hindi cinema. Of late, the man has been in the spotlight since his older son Vicky Kaushal has emerged as a promising young talent. But talking about Vicky would be grave injustice to the man who has spent nearly three decades in the action department. The senior Kaushal has remained an unsung hero, but it is time to give the man his due.
Born in a small village (Mirzapur) in Punjab, Kaushal finished his MA in English Literature before he headed to Mumbai for work. He didn’t aspire to join the film industry, but destiny had other plans for him. He started his career as a stuntman and then rose to being an action director. Sham Kaushal has to his credit hits like Dhoom 3 (2013), Krissh 3 (2013), Bajirao Mastani (2015), Dangal (2016), Mom (2017) and Padmaavat (2018), among many others.
We caught up with Sham Kaushal at his plush apartment in Andheri, Mumbai. Dressed casually, he greeted this interviewer warmly. There is a look of contentment on the man’s face. The joy on his face goes beyond professional achievements. “Money and fame are by-products of your goodness and hard work,” he says. Through the next hour, if there is one thing that stood out is his humility. Kaushal senior connects with you at a humane level.
The senior action director spoke about his journey, memorable experiences, how stuntmen are now paid better, and how he is more proud of his sons' good conduct than success.
Normally, we expect English Literature post-graduates to become professors, take up content jobs. What attracted you to make a career as an action director?
You said it right. I wanted to become a lecturer. The year I did Masters of Arts (English Literature), to be a lecturer, you also needed to do an M. Phil (Masters in Philosophy). My college was 25 kilometres from my village. To do M. Phil I needed to go to Chandigarh, where I would have had to stay in a hostel. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the resources to stay in hostels. As far as becoming an action director was concerned, I did not choose the profession. Circumstances led me to it.
I believe you started your career as a salesman, but then how did the switch to the film industry happen?
A distant uncle of mine had helped me get a job as a sales person in a firm at Chembur. My father had taken a loan of Rs3,000 to help me try my luck in Mumbai. So, I’d vowed to not return to Punjab till I didn't repay the loan. I worked in Mumbai for a year-and-a-half. Then I returned to my village to meet my family and repay the debt. After I came back to Mumbai, I resigned from my job. I didn’t want to do a basic job. Initially, I thought I’ll do some business of my own, so I resigned without having any other job. I tried my hand at business, but failed. I turned down job offers, but I didn’t want to go back and manage my father’s shop.
I had some Punjabi guys who lived in the same vicinity. Some of them worked as stuntmen. They told me that till the time my business got stable, why don’t I try to become a stuntman. They said I would manage to make enough to earn my daily bread. Well, that’s how I became a stuntman.
Leaving a job to become an actor is risky but at least, you know that if you click then the financial rewards are good. But it's a big risk to quit your job to become a stuntman. I'm sure stunt artistes were not paid well that time.
When I became a stuntman, my first wage was Rs90 per day, plus I got Rs25 for conveyance. It wasn’t much, but like I said, I didn’t want to do a basic job. I wasn’t going back home and so I decided to slug it out in Bombay.
Early on as a child, I went to a local school in the village. It wasn’t until the sixth standard that I started learning ABCD. In my college, years later, I topped the BA examinations from among 350 students. I never enrolled for any tuitions and yet I managed to do MA (English Literature). So, the one thing I always believed in is hard work. My education perhaps didn’t help much, but it’s this attitude that worked for me.
I believe to be a stuntman there is no qualification required, but only courage. Being a Punjabi, did that daring attitude come naturally to you?
There are two strengths — mental and physical. For me, mental strength counts more. When I became a stuntman, I wasn’t physically strong, but mentally I was tough. The endurance power is derived from mental strength. I didn’t aspire to be a stuntman, but for me, it was important to give your best to each day at work.
Can you talk about the first film that you got?
My first film was Shashi Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman’s Sawaal (1982). We shot for it in 1980 at Raj Kamal Studios. I had to wear an old blue colour police uniform. I was one of the cops in the climax scenes. All my task was to run from one end to the other holding a gun.
Some 5-6 months later, I realised that this is an honest profession. I’ll get paid as per the standard rates. Unlike a basic job, I may not have to wait for 20 years to grow in my career. If I did my job with sincerity and hard work, I knew I could grow in this field. I didn’t have to invest any money in it. I used to be taunted that why was a MA graduate doing stunts. But I didn’t pay much heed to it and just went ahead with my conviction.
Given that we are a nation obsessed with actors, most ordinary citizens would perhaps not even be aware of the nitty-gritty of stunt coordination. Can you help throw light on the role that a stunt coordinator, action director is required to perform?
Well, we need to design action sequences as per the story, and the director’s vision. You have to guide, train the actors and then more importantly, execute it in front of the camera. You also need to keep the safety of everyone in mind. That is the job of an action director. Be it dance director, action directors, cinematographers etc we are just helping hands to the director. We are helping the script. As an action director, it is your job to see how you add to the scene, coordinating with the director. Stunt coordinators and action directors are the same thing.
Can you share some fond memories from your early days in the film industry?
We were shooting for Prem Rog (1982). It was my first outdoor shoot. I had never done horse riding. But that was required in the climax scene. I was dressed as a bandit and was required to ride the horse. It was scary. I had never thought of the Lord so much than while riding the horse. In every shot, some other artiste used to fall off, but I was lucky that I didn’t fall.
Is it fair to say that the rise in your career is synonymous with the rise in action dramas in the 1980s and 1990s?
Yes, there were many action films in the 1980s, but a major change came around towards the end of 1990s. We had a lot of revenge, vendetta films in that period. You have a hero, the villain, who would kidnap the hero’s wife, mother or sister and there’d be a fight in the end. I would reckon more than 60-70% of action films rode on the revenge theme. We had the dacoits from Chambal who were now being shown in films too.
Towards the end of 1990, your story telling started to change. People longed for new stories. Gradually, the line between the hero and the villain started to blur. We still have action in films, but the revenge vendetta films hardly exist.
Usually, one would associate stunts with an action film, but looking at your filmography, you've been a stunt coordinator in films like Devdas (2002), Black (2005), Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (007). Is there much scope for a stunts coordinator in such films?
It’s not important that in every film, you’ll get work for 25 days. I’m fine working for even two days. If you have a good relationship with the directors, then you’d be open to working for them for even a couple of days. You talked about Black, well, I have worked in every [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali directorial since Khamoshi: The Musical (1996). He started having action only since Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013). You can’t be thinking about the day, but you have to respect your relations too. The days are not important, but the task before you is what can you add to that small action sequence.
You've worked with Sanjay Dutt in a few films. What was that experience like?
I have worked with Sanjay Dutt from the time he came back from his drug rehabilitation. I think the first film he shot was Jaan Ki Baazi (1985). I have worked with Dutt, been his duplicate in many films. We were about the same age. I’ve had a good relationship with him from that time. Today, we have actors who step into their vanity vans soon after a shot is given. Earlier, there were no vanity vans and all of us sat on the sets. So, we used to have friendly chats then. Dutt is a very easy-going guy. He behaved like a brother with everyone.
Now, I don’t know whether we've seen a father and daughter have a physical battle in any Hindi film before, but was it tough to see Aamir Khan battle Fatima Sana Shaikh in Dangal (2016)...
There is an essence to every scene we shoot. What is it that we want to send across through such a scene? With a Dangal, it is important that you be honest to the script. Now with that particular scene, more than action, it was important for Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan) to bring out his inner frustrations.
Khan plays the coach to his daughters. If he loses to his daughter then why would he lose? The reason needs to come across in the scene. As Babita (Sanya Malhotra) later tells Geeta (Shaikh) that papa lost because he is ageing, and has put on weight. Tactically, he was still good, but he’s now old and overweight. Now we have to keep these things in mind before we choreograph such sequences.
We were lucky to have a national level [wrestling] coach in the form of Kripa Shankar Ji. Credit to him for the way he trained the girls. Credit goes to director Nitesh Tiwari, Fatima Sana Shaikh, and Aamir Khan who gained a lot of weight for that scene alone. It’s because of his efforts that it strikes a chord with the audience. They can see and feel that the man is looking old, overweight and breathless.
Now I believe you've also been in front of the camera. I read about you fighting Shah Rukh Khan in Asoka (2001). Can you talk about that?
Santosh Sivan is a dear friend and he is the director of this film. He is like a younger brother. The previous night, he told me about some actor who will cross swords with Shah Rukh Khan. We were shooting in Film City. The moment I reached the set, he told me 'get your make-up done'. I couldn’t refuse him. It was just a very small scene, where we fight with swords.
After being a stuntman for years, you became an action director. That must have been a matter of great pride for you.
A stuntman needs to spend around 7-8 years before he can get that elusive opportunity to be an action director. We don’t have any institutes that train you to be a stuntman. You learn on the job. I got my opportunity in 1990, first with a Malayalam film. I believe in destiny. I was shooting in Filmistan studio, dressed like a bandit. Suddenly, 3-4 guys came to meet me. They told me that their action director has fallen ill and they are supposed to shoot action scenes from tomorrow. The film was Indrajaalam (1990) starring Mohanlal. They wanted someone like me but they also wanted one who could speak English. We held discussions at 7am the next day and I was happy to be part of the film. They had one condition that there won’t be any assistant action director and I’ll have to get going from that day. I said yes in a couple of minutes.
In our industry, once you work as an action director then you can no longer be working as a stuntman. You have to turn in your stuntman membership, and I paid the fees to be an action director. I did that in the day and took my second-hand motorcycle and headed to Mukesh Mills for the shoot in the night. Santosh Sivan was the cameraman. 24 hours ago, I was shooting as an assistant, but I never imagined that 24 hours later, I’ll be shooting as an action director. Two months later, I met Nana Patekar at his residence and after 15 minutes, he told me that I would be the action director for his film Prahaar: The Final Attack (1991). Then I got to do Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s TV show Chanakya.
Having spent over 25 years in the industry, do you think stunt artistes are getting their due in the industry especially if we compare it to Hollywood?
Why talk about just stuntmen? You have to speak for every department. But we can’t compare with Hollywood that operates on high budgets. I’m quite happy with the wages today. Each nation has its own economy, its own expenses. Today, the minimum wages for a stuntman for eight hours is Rs5,000-5,500. I feel that is pretty good.
In terms of security, have the conditions improved for stuntmen?
Yes, the safety measures are all in place. You have doctors, ambulances on sets. If anyone is hurt, they are taken care of by the best doctors, in the best hospitals. Till he doesn’t heal, 15 days wages are sent to his family.
I read that both Vicky and Sunny had no celluloid ambitions. Vicky wanted to be an engineer while Sunny was studying chartered accountancy. They both left academics to pursue acting. Can you say that this aspect runs in the genes?
No, I wouldn’t say genes, but I believe everyone comes with their own destiny. I never told my children to get great marks, but all I want them to be is good human beings.
I didn’t have money and initially, I enrolled the kids into a municipal school till class five. Thereafter, the boys did well and got themselves admission in better schools and eventually they joined Mithibai College. Vicky got admission to Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology. We never spoke about films at home. During his final year in engineering, Vicky got selected through campus placements. He got an offer from Patni Computers. He then said, ‘I don’t want to do a job. Now that my education is over, I want to get into films.’ Now be it a bureaucrat, politics or army, the father’s profession does inspire his children too. I couldn’t have said no to them for the same film industry puts food on my table.
I told Vicky clearly 'don’t join this profession for I’m a part of it. I will not be able to help you out. No one will give you work because of me. You will have to fight your own battle'. Vicky learnt acting, did theatre, then assisted Anurag Kashyap. He auditioned for 4-5 years before he got Masaan (2015) and Zubaan (2016). The latter was shot first, but Masaan was released earlier.
Similarly, after his B.Com exams were over, Sunny said he did not want to do a job. He wanted to do further studies, but then eventually get into films. I remember then a few directors wanted to meet me. I asked Sunny to get ready. I told him to work as an apprentice in their film. He started off as an assistant director.
To say that you're proud of Vicky's achievements so far would be an understatement. More than the success, what is it that you cherish about Vicky the most?
I’m more proud of the fact that Vicky is a very good human being. You’ll improve in your craft with experiences, but humanity comes first. You may lag behind with a few points as an actor, but if you score more as a good human being, then I’m happy. Money and fame are by-products of your goodness and hardwork.
I saw Masaan recently, and I was totally floored by Vicky’s performance. I couldn’t believe how a young man could give such a mature and near perfect performance like this. Most actors would refrain from playing a Dalit character that, too, from a Dom community. Leave aside the father, but what impression did this performance leave on you?
Well, it touched me but when my wife and I first saw it at the editing table, we thought it was a fine film. No matter how hard I try, I cannot separate the father from the audience in me. I felt confused in my judgement. But once it was released and got rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, that is when I felt that Vicky had truly done an amazing job. Even today, I tell people don’t go by my judgement.
It’s not just one man’s effort but it’s destiny. Vicky got a great script, a fine director in Neeraj Ghaywan. It was a team effort.
Sanju (2018) has become a big hit. It’s not often that in biopic that a parallel lead’s character has a bigger impact than that of the protagonist. Kamlesh Kapasi, better known as Kamli has become popular with the audiences. Your thoughts.
Credit the writer here too. A Sanjay Dutt story may not pique the same interest, but telling the story of a father-son relationship, and relationship between friends, has struck a chord with the people. The director, writers chose to tell Dutt’s story through these relationships. Vicky is lucky that a director like Rajkummar Hirani trusted him, and gave him the opportunity to play such an important role. I think Vicky was able to carry this character well. I really enjoyed his performance.
Vicky has a way of preparing. Before he shot Masaan, he went and stayed in the ghats (crematorium) for a couple of weeks. He lived among people [Dom community] who light the pyres. He observed their mannerisms, body language. Similarly, for Sanju, he went to Surat in Gujarat, stayed in lodges, mingled with the local Gujaratis and secretly even filmed some.
[Sanju writer] Abhijat Joshi is also a Gujarati. Vicky had a good tutor too. You have to be careful that such characters don’t become caricatures. Here’s a Punjabi playing a Gujarati character so well. Vicky was honest to his character.
I read that you always look for occasions to open the [alcohol] bottle. So, can I assume that you’ve opened many bottles in celebration of Vicky’s success?
I am a Punjabi, so I wait to uncork the bottles. Vicky is shooting in Serbia, I keep telling him to come fast, I have many bottles to uncork. I pray that God give us joyous moments, so that I can celebrate. When we moved to this house, my first reaction was, ‘the hall can accommodate many people, let’s party.' Mind you both Vicky and Sunny don’t drink. In fact, my father, too, never drank. I joke with them that I need to complete theirs and grandfather's quota. I drink in moderate capacity though. The sons have named the bar as dad's bar.