Bollywood stuntwoman smashes the glass ceiling, one dangerous feat at a time

Sanobar Pardiwalla has been the double for some of the biggest names in Indian film, including Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone

Sanobar Pardiwalla in a scene from Bollywood movie Tashan, when she doubled for Kareena Kapoor. Photo: Sanobar Pardiwalla
Powered by automated translation

In Mani Ratnam’s Raavan, one dramatic scene features the heroine jumping off a cliff — she falls through rocks into a river but survives.

While Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is known as the star of the film, few people realise that this dangerous jump was done by stunt actor Sanobar Pardiwalla, 35. The feat won her a nomination for the Taurus World Stunt Awards in Los Angeles, considered by many as the Oscars of stunts.

Pardiwalla, who lives in Mumbai, India, has been doing stunts since she was a young girl. Aged 13 she worked as the stunt double for actress Urmila Matondkar in Bhoot (2003); by the time she was 15, she had jumped off the 16th floor of a building for a movie. In the years since, she has been a stunt double for actresses including Alia Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif.

When Pardiwalla entered Bollywood as a stuntwoman more than 20 years ago, there were few women working in the industry, particularly behind the camera.

“I have never been unduly bothered about being the only woman in this male-dominated field,” she says. “I have focused on my work and taken criticism with a pinch of salt and a lot of positivity.” To date, Pardiwalla has been a part of more than 200 Bollywood films, shows and commercials as a stuntwoman. Her work in films such as Raavan, Dhoom 2 and Bang Bang has earned her nominations at various international stunt awards.

“I was always athletic and a water baby who loved swimming,” she says, explaining that at the age of 12 she was already a black belt in karate and winning national competitions.

Her first stunt role was in an advertisement for diamonds, where she doubled for Rai Bachchan and had to somersault a distance of nine metres, attached to a harness and cable. The commercial was just the start and she had performed stunts in 40 movies before she finished school.

“Word spread that there was a girl who could do ‘cool stuff’ and I started getting more and more projects,” she says.

Pardiwalla's interests are wide ranging. She is a gymnast, swimmer and deep sea diver, and is also certified in paragliding, sky diving and shooting. She has an interest in mixed martial arts, and excels in Muay Thai, boxing, kick boxing, Krav Maga and jiu-jitsu.

“I learnt and perfected how to jump and land correctly, worked on my reflexes, and polished my on-camera techniques — in real life, the way you fall is different to the way it's captured on camera, where everything has to be slower,” Pardiwalla says. “I also completed my education with exercise physiology and nutrition on the side, because one cannot be a stunt artist for ever. I also work as an interior designer, designing homes, as I love decor.”

In India, stunt doubles are part of the Movie Stunt Artists Association and have to have medical and life insurance. Stunts are risky by nature, and Pardiwalla doesn't shy away from danger. She has taken on sea dives without oxygen, battled water and fires, and faced car and bike crashes in various roles.

“Fortunately, I have never been badly injured or hurt while performing stunts. There has been a big transformation over the years in safety measures taken. To an extent, I have been one of the game changers by always insisting on stringent safety standards while performing stunts and turning down assignments if safety standards were shoddy.

“Of course, in spite of everything, things can still go wrong, like the time I was shooting for Raavan and while jumping off a 250-foot mountain the safety cable snapped and the entire mechanism got locked, so I was hanging mid-air at 125 feet near a powerful waterfall for 25 minutes until they set it right. But you have to stay relaxed, calm and centred, with your reflexes sharp,” she says.

Despite the risks she takes for roles, her name is not always mentioned in the credits.

“When there is something so dangerous that no one else can do it, I am called in. I may not get the credit as I am just acting as the actor’s double, but it’s all about passion and loving what you do. I am naturally good at these stunts and doing it over a long period of time has made me perfect my skills. I also constantly cross check all the safety measures taken — the harnesses, the cables — so the margin of error is almost zero. I am just like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, doing my job silently,” she says with a smile.

Away from stunts, the daredevil is also a fitness trainer and completed a course in nutrition from The American College of Sports Medicine. She trains for up to five hours a day to stay physically fit.

“To begin with, my parents were scared and wary of my career, but they now know that I take risks but also pay a lot of attention to safety measures. They also know I am pursuing my career as a fitness trainer and interior designer, so I am not going to do this for ever.”

Award-winning stunt director Sham Kaushal described Pardiwalla as “daring and passionate about her work”.

“She is mentally strong and calm, which is essential in this line of work,” Kaushal says. “She has trained extensively in martial arts and acrobatics and is the best woman stunt artist the industry has.”

Updated: April 14, 2023, 6:23 PM