They respond faster to the word “Action!” than their human counterparts. They get paid as much per shift as many television actors today. They are pampered on the sets and if one of them decides he’s simply not in the mood for work, producer, director, and co-stars alike have no choice but to pack up.
But that’s rare, for screen horses are a disciplined lot. They’re trained to work with clockwork precision in films. And the task, so far, has been the prerogative of the Varma clan. Of whom Bhikhu, Tinnu, and Pappu Varma are three of filmdom’s best-known action directors. Their father, Badriprasad Varma, started training horses at one of the oldest stud farms at Goregaon in Mumbai over 50 years ago and six of his seven sons have continued the tradition. Besides Bhikhu, Tinnu, and Pappu, there are Mahendra, Manohar, and Jeetendra, all of them established action directors.
The family runs a fully equipped stable with around 40 horses. They started off with 80, but they’re down to half that number now. Some died of old age, some succumbed to illness, but it is to the Varmas’ credit that not a single horse has died doing an action scene.
That’s because they take immense care in training their horses before they allow them on a set. To begin with they are taught film lingo. The minute one of the Varma steeds hears the word “Ready,” it stands alert; as soon as it hears “Action,” it will start doing its bit; when “Cut” is called out, the horse comes to a quick stop. Moreover, the horses are acclimatized to lights, cameras, firecrackers, gunshots, and the like before they are taken to the sets.
On the sets, the horses get royal treatment. They have attendants at their service round the clock and have to be humored, because horses, like actors, are prone to mood swings. “If a horse is not in the mood to obey you, you just cannot force him to work,” explains Bhikhu Varma, who first started working with horses 35 years ago. He adds, “Each horse is a specialist. Some are trained for jumps, some for falls, some for slides and some to run races. We did try out quite a few risky shots earlier but we’ve now stopped doing pitfall shots (where the horse falls on its knees). If they’re absolutely essential, we can do them with dummies.”
The horses are very attuned to danger themselves, Bhikhu tells us; there is something like horse sense. If the horse senses that he or his rider are in danger, he will not move an inch even if he’s threatened or beaten mercilessly. Says Bhikhu, “Whenever we’re filming a dangerous shot, we always blindfold the horse. For example, in Mard, there was a scene in which Amitabh Bachchan breaks a sheet of glass and jumps into a swimming pool with his tonga. We had to tie a strip of cloth on the horse’s eyes or he wouldn’t have done the scene.”
He adds, “And let me tell you, they can be very protective about their riders too. I remember the time we had to film a chase sequence between Danny Denzongpa and Sunny Deol at Datia in Madhya Pradesh for Yateem. J.P. Dutta told me a train crossed that station at 3 p.m. and he wanted me to can a shot of the horses running alongside. So we were totally prepared before the train arrived. The shot started as soon as the train chugged out of the station and Sunny’s and Danny’s horses ran alongside. When the shot was over, we said ‘Cut.’ Danny’s horse stopped immediately but Sunny’s horse didn’t. For some reason, he was trying to overtake the train. It was a very tense moment for all of us because a kilometer down the line was a narrow bridge with no space on either side of the track. My boys started chasing the horse in a bid to make him stop but to everyone’s amazement, just when he reached the bridge, the horse turned suddenly towards a nearby muddy field. There was a huge sigh of relief.”
Today, alas, horses are not as much in demand as they once were. Says Bhikhu, “Earlier seven out of 10 films used to be stories which featured dakus, thakurs, or zamindars. Or were historicals like Mughal-e-Azam and Sikander. Today, barely one or two out of 20 films call for horses. Ghode ki jagah ab bandook ke ghode ne le lee hai. (The trigger has taken the place of horses today). Modern villains are underworld dons; they don’t need horses.” He laughs, “Even on TV, the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been replaced by the saas-bahu sagas and love stories. These days, you get to see horses only in a baraat scene!”
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