How actor-body double Sumadevi landed her first award for best actor at the Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival for her role in G Prajesh Sen’s The Secret of Women is the stuff of movies. “Getting a break in cinema is a struggle, it is easier if you have godfathers or someone to prop you up,” says the soft-spoken actor, one of Malayalam cinema’s few female body doubles or ‘dupes’, as body doubles are colloquially referred to. It has been a month since she got the award but the feeling is still sinking in, she confesses.
For 12 years she waited on film sets, ‘becoming’ a body double to justify her presence there. The character or the length of the role did not matter, all she wanted was one role that would get her on the silver screen. She has been patient, but apprehensive. “I have seen directors chide actors when they don’t get the take right or they mess up. That intimidated me, and prevented me from asking for a chance,” says Suma. Another deterrent was, what she perceives as, her lack of ‘training’ in acting.
Movies were her mother’s dream for her. Sumadevi’s mother would joke about her quicksilver temper. “She would say ‘seeing how your mood changes every second, you would make a great actor’. And that stayed with me.” Her late mother would have been thrilled at the award, Sumadevi adds.
Being a body double was never her plan, it was just a means to her dream. “Sasi Master [stunt director Mafia Sasi] is a family friend. I asked him if he could help me. He told me there is not much he could do either. He joins a project mid-way, so he is not in a position to ask for a role for me. He said ‘you tag along [to the sets], but what would you do there?’. That is how I became a body double!” Usually body doubles or stunt doubles for female actors were brought from Chennai. Although she has no other formal training in the martial arts, she has learnt Kalaripayattu.
Her first film was Marykkundoru Kunjaadu (2010); she was a double for Bhavana and another actor. Twelve years seems like a long time to chase a dream.
Did she ever want to quit? “I have never felt that. I just want to be part of films. I have wanted to act since I was a kid. I want to be part of films.” Among the actors she has been body double for are Mamata Mohandas, Archana Kavi, Mythili, Kamalini Mukherjee, Keerthy Suresh and Honey Rose. She has also worked with Peter Hein.
During the filming of Mamata’s film To Noora, With Love, she met with an accident while filming a boat scene. “Mamata ma’am was very concerned, and even offered to take me to the hospital. She felt bad that I got hurt for her sake.” Injuries are a part of the deal; she does not take them too seriously. “An accident can happen anywhere… you could be walking and you trip and fall. Getting injured on the set during filming happens often, usually these are minor and nothing some rest can’t cure,” says Sumadevi who is in her thirties.
She has dealt with her share of body shaming too. “I was told that I could not get the job [as a body double] because I am ‘black skinned’ [dark complexioned]. Even acting roles. There is no way I am going to spend money to ‘lighten’ or ‘whiten’ my skin in order to get a role. That is one of the things I will never do.”
Waiting on sets had its bonuses: she landed her first role in a short film in 2018, following this she started getting roles in shorts, music albums and smaller ones in films. “Not that it gave me the confidence to tell people that I had acted in a short film. The fear just wouldn’t leave me. Most actors have some background in acting or have the support [to get work as actors], I have neither. Neither did I have anybody to guide me,” she says. As a result the introductions to directors did not help, as “I am not good with either networking or follow-up calls.” She landed minor roles in Kaaval, The Priest, Puliyattam and Padmuvyuhathile Abhimanyu.
One of the production controllers on a film she worked on suggested her name to Prajesh who was looking for an actor. “When we met, he narrated the story and my character. I was apprehensive, but Prajeshettan was confident. He told me he would help and he did. I play a woman who lives alone on an island; Niranjana Anoop is the other actor. The film is about an incident in their lives.”
Sumadevi has been cutting down on her stunt body double assignments. The last film she filmed was Bandra starring Tamannah Bhatia. “I had to jump from the eighth floor of the building. That made me nervous, especially when I had to do a couple of retakes. I hurt myself while I did it. For the first time I felt scared, but I am not the kind to complain or refuse, so I jumped. Even the double who came from Mumbai refused, that is when I came into the picture.” For the first time in all these years she felt fear, which made her reassess.
“I may not do this [work as a stunt double] as much as I was doing earlier. If Master asks me to work on a project, I will go. I cannot refuse him but otherwise I don’t think I will pursue it much longer,” Suma says.
The award and attendant adulation aside, Sumadevi says life is the same. “No film offers yet!”