[This is a post regarding Local Kung Fu, a feature length HD martial arts comedy made on a budget of about Rs 95,000. For an introduction to the film and its origins, please click here.]
It’s a little surprising and ironic that while looking for fighters for our film, we were definitely interested in people who could fight well, but more interested in people who could get bashed up well. I, for one, am particularly skilled in the second area. I’ve trained for two years, but have never been in a single fight in the 15 years since I trained. I might get bashed up in a real fight; one never knows.
Why did we need people who could get beaten up convincingly? Well, in a martial arts film, obviously the hero and the main villain are going to do most of the bashing, so pretty much all the other people are going to be receiving the bashing, and hence they’d better be pretty good at it.
So it came down to a really simple test we used to see if someone could take a hit convincingly. I believe the official term is ‘selling a punch’. The test was one punch to the stomach and a hook punch to the face. Fake punches, of course. If a chap could convincingly take these two strikes on camera, then he was good enough for anything else. A simple doodh ka doodh pani ka pani test.
Similarly, a surprisingly simple test of an actor is just asking them to walk from one end of a room to another. Any awkwardness or self-consciousness shows up instantly.
Martial artists are many, but the ratio of those who can get skillfully beaten up on camera is rather low. It’s a funny thing, but I find it really weird how so many people can’t even get slapped convincingly. To a few people, it just comes naturally, but most need a little bit of guidance and some practice, and a few are there jinka kuchh nahi ho sakta. Some will move their head the wrong way, some will move in a way that has no physical relation to the way they’ve been hit, some will move a little and then become frozen statues etc etc. Bibhash, who plays our lead villain’s classical-singing sidekick Tansen, is perfect at bashing people up, but till a couple of years ago, used to be hilarious when getting bashed. No matter where he got hit, he would hold his chest in pain. Punch to face – “Aa!” and hands on chest. Chop to neck – “Aa!” and hands on chest, as if every blow triggered severe acidity. Over the course of all the short films and fights we’ve done, he’s come a long way now, and is responsible for my favourite knockout in Local Kung Fu.
One of the unfair advantages I’ve had while making the film is that my maternal uncle #1 is a Wing Chun Kung Fu teacher. Over approximately 17 years, a large body of alumni has accumulated, and with two exceptions, we found all our 17 fighters from among Uncle’s past and present students.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to shoot fights with someone you trust. This was confirmed even by Jackie Chan on his very helpful documentary, My Stunts, from which we gathered quite a bit of inspiration and tips. “When it’s my own guy,” says Jackie Chan while demonstrating a fight against a guy with a log, “I’m not scared. I’m confident. But when I don’t know the other guy, then I’m scared, because I might get hit.”
If someone is careless in a fight, anything can happen – from a fat lip to a concussion. A couple of years ago I was shooting a small 15 second fight. One of the 3 chaps I was fighting was a well-meaning but overenthusiastic kid. Before I said action, he kicked out, not even hard, but his foot connected with my fingers. It didn’t hurt much and nothing broke, but I felt the pain later. It took almost a year and a few sessions of light physiotherapy for the fingers to completely heal. Lesson learned.
This is why I feel that personality is as important as fighting or acting skills. I’d hate to work with uncooperative or complaining people.
At the same time, we were searching for a heroine as well. If we could find one who knew martial arts, sone pe suhaaga. If not, well, we’d just tweak the story that way. Dhruba Das, a friend of a friend, and now one of the people who generously got bashed up in the film, took us to a practice session of the Assam Wushu team in search of a heroine. Unfortunately, the girl he had in mind was still in high school, and I certainly didn’t want to look like a cradle-snatcher in the film, so we dropped the idea.
But we were blown away by the skills of some of the athletes. One of them was a national level gold medalist. They could execute beautiful arials, 540s, back flips etc which would all have been truly, truly wonderful to use in our film, but…
Two problems. We didn’t know them personally. They’re obviously disciplined folk and could probably have brought a lot to the table, but the bigger problem was our chaotic shooting schedule, if it could at all be called that. This being a non-professional affair, we obviously couldn’t tell anyone to be here at so-and-so time no matter what. For instance, my cousin Johnny used to come over from his hostel on weekends, during which we’d shoot his scenes. Then Ronnie would have his drums class at 2 PM and Bonny his Physics or some tuition from 8 AM to 10 AM, so we’d co-ordinate all of this and shoot whichever scene was possible with whichever actors were around. Because of this, we would never have been able to pin down a specific date for the Wushu team to shoot their fight on. We couldn’t say for sure that we’d be able to finish their part on that day either – it might rain or someone might get sick or whatever. One can fool around with friends’ and family’s timings, but it’d look silly with people who didn’t know what we were up to. For example, the start and end of the climactic fight scene were shot in December, and the fight itself in May.
Which reminds me of a hilarious little issue. Hilarious for others, painful for me mostly. We’d started shooting in October, intending to finish within 3 months so that we could do the fights while it was still winter, before it started getting hot. Unfortunately, due to various reasons which are beside the point, time whizzed by and before one could say What ho, March was upon us. Now remember, we had started shooting in winter, when it was cold and we were all wearing sweaters and jackets. But now, when it was actually time to start kicking and jumping and sweating, it was hot! March-April-May – hot! 35 degrees with godawful humidity. But we had started shooting the scenes wearing jackets in winter, so we had to shoot wearing…jackets and sweaters in 35-degree heat! Come to think of it, in most cases, I was the only one who had to wear a jacket.
– Kenny Deori Basumatary