From bruises to awards: The inspiring story of stunt double turned actress Suma Devi

Suma Devi
Suma Devi. Photo: Manorama

Picture this scene- The hero and heroine are having a boat safari. The heroine suddenly starts dancing. Despite the hero’s warning that it isn’t safe, she continues dancing. Suddenly, she gets dizzy and falls into the water. This is a scene from 'To Noora With Love', starring Mamta Mohandas. Many of us were startled by the heroine's performance in that scene. But hey, there was also another person in that frame- Suma Devi.

Meet Suma Devi, the body double of Malayalam cinema, who bravely performs the stunts of the heroines when they refuse to do them. Although she has been working in Malayalam cinema for the last 12 years, not many people are aware of her. After being a body double for years, she finally showed her face in a film called ‘The Secret of Women’ directed by Prajesh Sen. Her first performance won her national acclaim too.

Ironically, by winning the Best Actress award at the Dada Saheb Phalke International Festival, it didn't take much time for someone who wanted to be an actor to become the best actress. She had to endure a lot in the last 12 years. Suma Devi talks about her adventurous life as a body double and her experience of winning the award.

Thought being a body double would help her enter films
Suma made her debut in Malayalam cinema through 'Marykkundoru Kunjaadu', but had no idea how to get an entry into films. It was her passion for cinema that led her to approach her relative, Mafia Sashi. 'When I went to him, all I wanted was to become an actor. I knew no one would give me roles if I tried the direct approach, and I also knew I didn't have it in me to try that, so I felt being a body double was a better option,' she says. By being a dupe, she could be part of all the cinema sets and get acquainted with a lot of people. 'Those contacts would easily help me get an entry into films,' she thought. It was with the same thought that she walked onto the sets of 'Marykkundoru Kunjaadu' years ago. But she got stuck as a body double for years, and no one from her contact list called her. Then she realized that being a dupe was her life. 'Yes, I am a dupe even now,' she says.

Suma Devi and Mafia Sasi
Suma Devi and Mafia Sasi. Photo: Manorama

Not afraid of daring stunts
All of us get excited when we see daring action pieces in the cinema. We get goosebumps watching our favourite heroes and heroines pulling off such stunts. But no one really thinks about the role of the dupe in that scene. We are the faceless people of cinema. They only require our bodies. During my stint with Mafia Sasi, I have been the dupe of several heroines. At times, I have put in more effort than the heroine in such a scene. But no one acknowledged my efforts.

I have jumped from trees, been part of car accidents, and very often I have been injured as well. There is a scene in ‘Marykkundoru Kunjaadu’ which has Bhavana falling from a cycle during her ride with Biju Menon. I was her dupe, and I recall having bruises on my hand as I had to roll on the ground.

But that first film experience turned out to be nice as I was able to ask Master how to do such stunts without getting hurt. But then despite learning some hacks, you still get bruises. Once I hurt myself while falling from a tree. And while doing underwater scenes in ‘Odiyan,’ it was uncomfortable. But this is my life, and I can’t just give it up.

A dupe requires a lot of courage. Since I was a mischievous child, I somehow developed that courage. It is that confidence that gave me the courage to jump into the water and sit inside a car that’s about to collide.

My latest stint as a dupe was in Dileep’s ‘Bandra.’ In that, there is a scene that has the heroine Tamannaah jumping from the 8th floor of a building. The shot will be taken after making all the necessary precautions. But even then, you feel anxiety while climbing to the top floor. That fear will always be there. But then, being my job, I do it happily.

Only Mamta thanked me
Sometimes a character in a film gets appreciation because of us. But most of the heroines in Malayalam cinema refuse to acknowledge that fact. They don’t even say thanks. I have had many such painful memories in Malayalam cinema. But then I never felt like complaining as this is my life. If I do something without expecting anything in return, probably I will be happy.

So far, only Mamta has shown some kindness to me. During that scene in ‘To Noora With Love,’ while jumping from the boat, my leg got stuck inside the boat. After the scene, Mamta kept asking me if she should take me to the hospital. And she thanked me profusely. That was the day I heard all the things I have always wanted to hear in my profession. It was a proud moment for someone like me who had never heard a word of thanks from anyone. And I have never heard a "thank you" again.

The Secret of Women was my dream
Prajesh Sen's 'The Secret of Women' was the realization of my dream. It is the biggest achievement in my career so far. My entry into the film was through the production controller Jeethu, who provided me with the opportunity. Since I lacked acting experience, I expressed my doubts to Prajesh. However, he was more confident in me than I was. He believed that I was suitable for the character of Sheela in the film, and I could perform it well. So I took on the role, determined not to let them down when they had shown such confidence in me.

The award was a high
It was Prajesh Sen who told me that they had sent the film to the Dadasaheb International Film Festival. I was hopeful that the film’s cinematography would get an award. But I had no such hopes for my performance. He was the one who told me that I had won an award. The full credit for the film goes to him. He was the one who turned me into Sheela. I never thought I would ever win the award. But happiness comes when you least expect it. This award is for my parents, Prajesh and God.

I miss my parents
My mother used to dream of seeing me as an actor even before I started dreaming about it. She wanted it more than me. When I started my job as a body double, she was the one who supported me. And she always used to say that my time would come in the cinema. It was her dream to see me win the best actress award. And I fulfilled that dream. But she was not there to see it. I want to keep doing good roles for my parents.

Being a body double is my life and being an actress is my dream
If I were to receive a call to be both a body double and an actor, I would still be confused as to which one to choose. It has always been my dream to be a heroine. However, my job as a body double has played a significant role in making me who I am today. Even if I were to receive an opportunity to play a heroine, I would still consider playing the role of a body double if it meant more opportunities. Nevertheless, Master has advised me to be careful while taking up assignments as a body double as it might affect my career as an actor if I sustain injuries.

The 'Secret of Women' is the result of my patience. Since I never asked anyone for roles, I have only faced losses. Not even the people who know me have called me to act. Often, Master will introduce me to the director when I take up the job as a body double. When I express my interest in acting, they would say that if I had informed them earlier, they could have kept a role for me. However, they would conveniently forget about me when they announce their next film. I have been overlooked for the last 12 years, but this is the victory of my struggles. Now I will be in front of the camera," says Suma Devi.

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