“You, enlarged dick of a dhobi’s donkey.” The taxi driver cursed Aslam in pure Bhojpuri as he spat on his fingers and scrubbed hard at the scratch mark on the vile mustard yellow seat. “You, wrinkled balls of a red-assed monkey”. Aslam cursed under his breath in equally pure Bhojpuri, banging the taxi door shut. Of course, Aslam was at fault. His revulsion at the haze machine always ended in him nicking, scratching, banging surfaces with it. The taxi driver won the fight though, submerging him in a cloud of exhaust fumes. As noxious as the smoke the hateful haze machine engulfed him in, on a film set. Smoke that made him invisible, so that no one recognised him without the haze machine in his hand.
He didn’t dare complain to Ammi about his work. She would immediately call him back to Ghazipur. How often she had argued with him that being a stunt man was not a profession he needed to choose, unlike Riyaz Bhai who had had to take care of Aslam and her since a young age. Ammi said Aslam could be an IAS officer, he was so clever, so good at his studies. But Aslam would only laugh at her, and raise the volume on the TV where he was watching yet again a scratchy DVD of one of Riyaz Bhai’s films. He knew each and every clip where Riyaz Bhai appeared on screen, either as the hero’s double, or sometimes as a goon, sometimes wielding a lathi at six villains, or racing a car over dangerous mountain twists, sometimes jumping a motorcycle over a car or leaping from a building onto a roof. Ever since he could remember, all Aslam could dream of was being a stuntman like Riyaz Bhai.
While Ammi prayed five times a day that Aslam would do well in his 12th Boards, Aslam became the best student at Masti Pehelwan’s akhada. He wanted to have as good a body as Riyaz Bhai before he went to Mumbai. Masti Pehelwan had been Riyaz Bhai’s teacher too. Aslam implored him to convince Riyaz Bhai. Riyaz Bhai reluctantly agreed to apply for Aslam’s union card, without which Aslam would not be able to work on a film set in Mumbai. Ammi too, gave in, and began packing clothes, shoes, dry fruits, nuts and sacred talismans for Aslam’s journey to Mumbai. The last few days in Ghazipur, Aslam boasted non-stop to his friends that they would soon see him on screen doing daredevil stunts. He did not sleep for a minute on the train to Mumbai. Even on the narrow bed Saroj Bhabhi had made for him in her tiny pantry, Aslam lay wide awake, excited, impatiently waiting for his first day on a film set.
At the early morning practice sessions on the beach, with Riyaz Bhai’s team, Aslam would try to pack in the most punches, do the most energetic somersaults and dives, ride the horses most daringly, wanting to impress Riyaz Bhai with how fit, how agile, how fearless he was. Riyaz Bhai’s team would whistle and cheer loudly for Aslam. But Riyaz Bhai always seemed to be distracted during Aslam’s stunts, with his phone, or correcting someone else. Aslam would proudly show Saroj Bhabhi his cuts and bruises at breakfast, and pester Riyaz Bhai for tips on doing the stunts better. Riyaz Bhai would be preoccupied in his hurry to leave for work. However, he would smile gently at Aslam before leaving and say, “Don’t worry, you will be working soon.” And Aslam would spend the day alone at home, happy, watching his favourite films, his favourite stunts, again and again.
Aslam had never imagined that when Riyaz Bhai did send him for his first shoot, it would be with a haze machine. How sneakily, Riyaz Bhai had tricked him into this innocuous job of lugging the haze machine around from one set to the other, doing nothing more than letting out harmless puffs of smoke a few times a day. If he sulked even a little about his insignificant work, Riyaz Bhai would remind him sternly, “You have it good.” He was paid as highly as any other stunt person, way way more than a spot boy or even a light boy. And he had a way way more easier job than them. When Ammi said, in her gentle voice, “You should be more grateful”, Aslam knew that Ammi and Riyaz Bhai had conspired for a long time, to keep him away from any real work, any real danger. He had never felt so betrayed.
Aslam stopped speaking to his friends in Ghazipur. He ignored messages from Masti Pehelwan Sir. All because of the damn haze machine, Riyaz Bhai had saddled him with.
On a set, Aslam would watch everyone else rush around, busy, important. The spot boys had no time even to breathe. The light boys scoffed at him sitting around, getting in the way. The assistant directors looked through him. Only occasionally, someone from the camera team would scream for him to switch on the haze machine for a shot. He would walk around for a few minutes exuding smoke and then go back to his corner. At meal times, Aslam ate alone.
Even when Riyaz Bhai’s team was on set, when there were actual stunts being shot, Aslam would sit with the haze machine near his feet, watching the others practice their moves. Somersaults, hanging from cables, flying vehicles over obstacles or setting off explosions, all the things he was yearning to do himself. Riyaz Bhai would evade Aslam’s eyes, busy planning the stunts and the shots. Riyaz Bhai’s team would feel sorry for Aslam, but did not dare ask him even to stand in for a while, afraid of Riyaz Bhai’s wrath.
These were the worst days for Aslam. His heart would ache at being so close to the excitement of shooting the stunts, and being left out himself. He would sit silently with Riyaz Bhai and his team at meal times, still feeling all alone, invisible. After the shoot, he would sneak out without waiting for Riyaz Bhai. After he reached home, he would stand for a while under the building, quiet, until the horn of a scooter or a voice screaming or the bark of a dog, would pull him out of his sadness. He would bang the haze machine against the lift door, and go up to the flat. Saroj Bhabhi would be home from work. He would tease her about her nurse’s uniform, so staid and boring unlike the ones he had seen in the movies, while he helped her make dinner. When Riyaz Bhai came home, he might show Aslam a few pictures of the set draped in smoke, pretending that Aslam’s operating the haze machine was valuable work. Aslam too would pretend that the beautiful, moody shots made him proud.
But at night, when his eyes shut, all he could see was himself leaping through the air, jumping into fire, sliding a car, punching a posse of goons. The next day, yet another taxi driver would rub at a scratch on the seat cover and curse Aslam in pure Bhojpuri, “You, mucky underbelly of a lazy rhino.” And Aslam would curse back in equally pure Bhojpuri, “You, inflamed anus of a mad elephant.” After that, he would take a deep breath and walk into the film set, the haze machine wala. Determined to be a stuntman.