Fight Master Shetty – The ‘Original’ Singham
In 1959, director Aspi Irani was shooting an action scene for ‘Quaidi 911‘. It was pitch dark and he wanted the stuntman, recently becoming famous for his dare-devilry, to jump from a bridge on any one of 15 moving trucks, with only the truck’s headlights to calibrate the fall. “It was a dangerous stunt because if I missed and fell down instead, the next truck could easily run over me. I could hear director call for action but could not jump. With my wife in the maternity home, my daughter Chaya was just two days old. I remembered her cherubic little face with her eyes shut and I just could not jump.”
He told the director, who understood the predicament and decided to schedule the stunt for when the toughie felt comfy. Next day the news spread and sarcasm greeted him everywhere with the technicians speaking about his chickening out.
Unable to bear the shame, he went to Irani and offered to complete the stunt. “He got everything ready. I stood on the bridge, prayed and jumped. It was an excellent scene.” Such was the pride that M B Shetty, the fight master took in his profession.
When his non scholastic pursuits took precedence over school, 9-year-old Muddubabu’s desperate father finally put him on a Bombay bound bus hoping he would at least learn a craft for to shield him from adversity. So Muddu arrived in Bombay and started to eke out a living by washing utensils at one of the Tata company canteen but found these mundane jobs loathsome.
While the other Shetty’s, all hailing from the ‘dosa capital’ Udipi were content counting cash at the counters, Muddu hated the anything sedentary. Blessed with an excellent physique, he took up boxing when he caught the eye of K N Mendon, a famous gymnast who decided to train him professionally. Becoming a champion pugilist, Shetty was unbeaten in tournaments for 8 years. Then he entered the industry as a double, learnt horse riding and sword fighting from veteran stunt director Azimbhai. With such varied training in martial arts, Muddubabu was all set to break into films as fight master Shetty.
While toiling as a stuntman for top heroes of the 50’s like Premnath and Pradeep Kumar, this daring and imaginative double was spotted by Pran who was instrumental in convincing director Subodh Mukherjee in giving Shetty his first independent break as a fight director in ‘Munimji’ (1957) *ing Dev Anand and Nalini Jaywant.
He was particularly fond of college and street fight scenes involving hockey sticks, soda water bottles and belts. Shetty had made his on camera début in a lead role in S.M. Sagar’s ‘Tum Salamat Raho’ opposite Persis Khambatta but the film was shelved after six reels.
Shetty was a unique phenomenon in his field. Here was an action choreographer who did stunts himself and also could act when required. The audience, specially the kids were at once, petrified and fascinated by his persona and fondly called him ‘Ganja (Bald) Shetty’. Proud to be the ‘Yul Brynner of Indian films’, the walls of his house in Byculla were pasted with Brynner’s photos.
In fact in the first half of ‘An Evening in Paris’ (1967) when he kidnaps Sharmila Tagore, Shetty was just a young man with a deep forehead. But ‘Night in London’ *ing Mala Sinha and Biswajeet was also being simultaneously shot where Shetty sported a bald pâté. When the shaven headed look started creating continuity issues for Shakti Samanta, he finally told Shetty to retain the Brynner look in ‘An Evening in Paris’ too. Since then, Shetty started shaving his head every alternate day.
His popularity rose sharply in the sixties, where he was practically doing three shifts a day, composing fights by the dozen, committing umpteen acts of violence for the celluloid and then going home to his family for a quiet evening.
Egoistic by nature, Shetty would often talk about ‘Hero ka chhutti kar di’. He would tell the leading men that they would be in films for just six or seven years. “You’ll come and go, but I’m going to be here for 35 years and will compose fights for your sons. Though a fight director of repute, Shetty was practical enough to recognize that in the industry, money talked and all the respect and friendships he enjoyed were only due to the glitter of films. He would often tell his children to study and be on their own rather than come anywhere near the film industry.
Muddubabu had studied Tulu only for a couple of years and didn’t know what the red marks in his kids report cards stood for. He just scribbled his signature where the children told him to and was bitterly aware of the handicap fact that he could not meet other film people at the intellectual level. So in his heyday he would often give lavish parties to the industry people. He thought he could hobnob with them at least at parties. “And the film people enjoyed the parties given at our place and praised Mummy calling her ‘Bhabhiji’. But not a single film personality, except director Brij, bothered to either attend the funeral or come and meet our mother later on”, his daughter Chaya recollected.
His drawing room was packed with jubilee trophies of hit films like ‘Deeewaar’, ‘Trishul’, ‘Daag’, ‘Victoria 203’, ‘Amanush’, ‘Aradhana’, ‘Yaadon Ki Baraat’, Be-lmaan’, ‘Aankhen’, ‘Sharmilee’, ‘Kabhi Kabhie’, ‘Seeta aur Geeta’ and ‘Kaala Patthar’.
Generous to a fault, Shetty never turned anybody away without extending his help. He would teach aspirants fencing in the compound outside his ﬂat. As for alms, he would just hand over the first bank-note that came to hand often saying, “After all, my father didn’t do anything for me. Poor fellow, what is there, let him have some money.” Having seen hard days, he knew what deprivation was.
It was this very soft nature, quite inconsistent with his profession that finally made him drown his guilt feelings in liquor. On the sets of Brij’s ‘Bombay 405 Miles’ (1980), a junior artiste called Mansoor doubling for Shatrughan Sinha died while performing one of the stunts. It was bad timing and the petrol bomb went off before Mansoor had Ieapt clear. Shetty, who was in charge was said to have been under the influence of liquor then. It was bad publicity for Brij’s film. Shetty could never bring himself around to condoning his own negligence. Except for drinking, Shetty had no other vices.
After ‘Jail Yatra’, (1981), Shetty had no film assignments. During his last one and a half years, it was wife Vinodini, a trained Kathak dancer, who looked after the family by working as a dance tutor.
Before he died, he would always talk about the ‘godownwala fight’ from ‘Deewaar’ (1975) and the fisticuffs he shared with Dharmendra in the stables of ‘Kahani Kismat Ki’ (1973) as his most memorable stunt scenes.
Compounded with his drinking were the various leg injuries that this popular stuntman had suffered performing those daring acts. Those broken bones and pulled muscles combined with liquor, made it impossible for Shetty to move about. With his legs failing him, for the record it was a fall at home on 23 Jan 1982 which proved fatal for this ace stuntman but it would be more apt to say ‘he died of a broken heart’.
Today, Shetty’s son Rohit Shetty and his junior, fight director Veeru Devgan’s son Ajay Devgan are a formidable action team. It figures.