I ran away from my husband and became a stuntwoman

Geeta Tandon Image copyright Geeta Tandon

One of Bollywood's leading stuntwomen is used to taking risks and leaping into the unknown - and it all began when, still a teenager, she ran away from a violent husband with two children and nowhere to go.

"He always used to say to me, 'If you leave me, you'll just end up doing sex work and dancing in strip clubs,'" Geeta Tandon remembers.

"I made up my mind I would never do that."

But struggling to survive as a single parent in Mumbai, she said yes to everything else, which is why when one day a woman asked "You seem like a bit of a tomboy, can you do stunts?" she answered with an enthusiastic "Yes!"

At the time, Tandon had never performed a stunt in her life, but she wasn't going to turn down the chance of a paying job.

Before long she found herself on the set of an Indian serial called Shakira to perform a stunt that involved launching herself off the edge of a building with absolutely no training.

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Media captionWatch Geeta Tandon on set

Attaching her to some wire cables, the crew reassured her she wouldn't be harmed, but she wasn't so sure.

"I was really, really scared," she says.

Her heart was pounding in her chest, but she could not let on how nervous she was - the stakes were too high.

"I desperately needed the work. The opportunity was so important for me," she says.

Instead, she concentrated on following the crew's instructions to the letter.

She leapt off the building - and to everyone's delight, and Tandon's relief, she pulled it off perfectly.

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Image copyright Geeta Tandon
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It was actually the first thing that had gone right for Tandon for many years.

Her mother had died when she was nine, and her father was left raising four daughters alone in a poor area of the city. They often went hungry.

There was no money to pay for schooling, so Tandon would sneak out of the house to play cricket and other games with the boys in the neighbourhood.

She really was a tomboy, she says, and a better cricketer than boys a year or two older than her.

"My sister used to get upset and say, 'Be like a girl, stop wearing boys clothes - dress like a woman!' But I never used to listen to her."

But it was her father who was most deeply troubled by her adventurous spirit.

"He could see I was very different," she says.

He was also worried that a boy would take advantage of her, so when she was 15 he arranged a match with a man from a wealthier family. Within two days she was married.

Image copyright Geeta Tandon

Initially, she was thrilled, welcoming the prospect of a better life and the promise of a stable family unit - but she hadn't counted on having to consummate the marriage immediately.

"I was young, I wasn't ready for him to touch me," she says.

But he went ahead anyway, marking the beginning of a long period of hideous abuse.

"He beat me every day," she says. "He beat me so hard I suffered from vertigo."

She attempted suicide twice by drinking poison, but failed. She hoped that bearing children would give her respite from the abuse, but it was unrelenting. "Every day of my marriage was a punishment," she says.

When she went to the police, they turned her away.

When she went to stay with her sister, her husband followed her and burned her brother-in-law's rickshaw. The guilt of bringing trouble to their door drove her to return to her husband's family.

Finally one day she decided that if she wanted to live, she had to escape, and fled with her children to a temple, but she knew it could only be a temporary solution.

"I didn't want to be a beggar," she says. "I knew I had to find work elsewhere, so I left."

Image copyright Geeta Tandon

It's tough being a single parent in Mumbai, Tandon says. "People in my culture are very suspicious of single women. If you tell them you are unmarried, nobody will give you a room."

She moved from district to district desperately chasing scraps of work. One week she'd be making 250 rotis [flatbreads] a day, the next giving body massages to elderly women.

One day she met a finely dressed group of women who seemed to have plenty of work. "I asked them if they could help find me a job. They told me they worked in a massage parlour."

Confident in her massaging abilities, Tandon naively turned up for work as a masseuse. "I didn't know much about the world then, I had no idea what a massage parlour was, or that the women there were sex workers," she says.

As soon as she found out she was horrified. "The women laughed at me. They said: 'You have two children to feed and you're not educated, what other work will you be able to do?'"

Their words echoed her husband's vicious verbal abuse.

"I wanted to do something with integrity. I wanted to be able to look in the mirror and not feel guilty about anything I did."

Image copyright Geeta Tandon

Eventually, Tandon's uncle put her touch with a group of Bhangra dancers.

What she lacked in natural skill for the art, she made up for in gumption. Dancing her way on to Bollywood film sets with gusto, she says, "I was a bad dancer, but the others in the group were very kind and they covered for me all the time."

It was there that she got her big break as a stuntwoman, but although her reputation soon spread throughout Bollywood, it was not plain sailing.

"On my second shoot I was on set performing a stunt with fire and the wind blew the flames in my face. I had severe burns all over my lips, face and eyebrows and I was on medication for two months," she says.

On another occasion she fell from a building and fractured her spine.

"I was rushed to hospital in and bedridden for two months." In those days, with bills to pay, Tandon really couldn't afford to be injured.

"The doctor told me to rest, but I had to go back to work because I needed money for the rent and my children's education," she says.

Image copyright Geeta Tandon

Six years, and hundreds of highly technical stunts later, Tandon now has more than enough work to get by. She's one of Bollywood's most skilled and daring stunt performers and one of the very few action women willing to take part in a high-speed car chase. It's precisely her ability to play as hard and fast as the boys that makes her so great at her job.

She doesn't mind that some people don't regard it as a suitable job for a woman.

"When I was married at 15, then society didn't help or support me," she says, "so why should I care what society thinks of me?

Attitudes to women in India are still in dire need of change, she says. One thing that disturbs her is that countless women, having heard her story, have written to say that they too are trapped in abusive marriages.

"They can't leave because of the way they will be treated by Indian society," Tandon says. "Women deserve more respect."

Translation by: Kinjal Pandya-Wagh

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