Abid Surti is a master of all trades. He has earned accolades within India and abroad as a painter, author, cartoonist, journalist, playwright, director and filmmaker. He has written over 65 books which include short stories, novels, plays, children’s books and travelogues. Several of his books have been translated into various regional languages. He has also been writing for Hindi and Gujarati newspapers and magazines for over 40 years and has won a national award for his short story collection Teesri Aankh in 1993. Abid Surti is the creator of the famous superhero cartoon character Bahadur, and Dabbujee, the weekly comic strip that appears in Dharmyug. Abid Surty was the artist who worked in collaboration with Pramod Pati to make ‘Abid’ (1970). He also acted in Blackmailer (1959).
ABID SURTI IN CONVERSATION WITH SHAI HEREDIA (April 2005)
SHAI: I thought we should start talking about how you got involved with making the film ABID with Pramod Pati.
ABID: Actually Pramod Pati wanted to make a film on Husain, but at that time Husain was so busy soI think he ditched Pati 3 or 4 times. At that time I had my exhibition on at Taj Art Gallery, and accidentally he dropped in and that was the first exhibition I had done on mirror collage. And seeing all the broken pieces of mirror he just got baffled, confused and after a few minutes he approached me and said ‘Abid I want to make a film on you with your work.’
SHAI: Did you know him already?
ABID: No, no, that was the first meeting. It was just accidental. He just dropped in, and that was the first introduction.
SHAI: What was your art practice at that time?
ABID: I am a painter. At that time I had my show. I had experimented in painting my house, which had become very popular. All the newspapers and magazines had covered it. That was an experiment of living within a painting. When you have a painting on the wall or you have a painting displayed somewhere, so you are living with a painting. So I got the idea, why not live within a painting. I was living in a single room at that time, so I started painting the walls and whatever came in the way – like fan, furniture, floor, ceiling, cupboard, even small utensils, chairs, everything became a part of one painting.
SHAI: And this was over a period of how much time?
ABID: It took me about one month, and there was no compulsion, it wasn’t for anybody. I’m talking about the late 60’s when this was done. At that time I had ample free time since I was doing freelancing for TOI. There were some labour problems so there was a strike and my major contribution was to the Times of India. Now that source of income had stopped & I had ample time and ample colours at home. But I didn’t have money to buy canvas. This was the basic thought that now let me make an experiment. So that whole space just became like a canvas. Like if I take a figure sitting on the floor…half of the body is on the wall where somebody is resting there, the legs are on the floor. So like that the figures were merging with the floor, merging with the ceiling and going from wall to ceiling. Like that everything became part of one painting. So Pati had seen that coverage, which he told me later on. Then he saw my exhibition and then he came with the concept that I should recreate the whole thing in the Films Division studio.
SHAI: The time you did the house, did many people come to see it?
ABID: Yes many people came, but it was not a gallery, it was a flat. During the film shoot even Satyajit Ray came to see the shoot. It was shot for 20 days, and was the talk of the town you can say. It had heavy media coverage. So even Satyajit Ray had heard of it, and when he was passing through Bombay, he dropped in just to see what was happening at Films Division. I’m talking about that period…so many of these film industry people, B.R.Chopra and all they used to come and peep in to see what was happening.
SHAI: So he (Pati) approached you when you had made the mirror collage show?
ABID: He saw the mirror collage but he had the house in mind. Pati had seen that coverage in JS magazine, which was covered by Reema Kashyap and it was a center spread plus it was a cover story. The cover page and inside 2 pages plus the coverage with photographs and all, and he was highly impressed. What he had in mind, was for me to recreate the whole thing. So how does one go about this recreation – when you make a documentary you should have an idea, a concept or something like that. Like if there’s a painting you can’t go making a documentary on one painting, so then we had a discussion and he didn’t have anything in mind. He showed me one of his earlier films where he had, for the first time, tried pixellation. But he was not satisfied with that. He wanted to use that technique plus the concept of that painted house. So he told me to visualize. Then he had one concept also that he wanted to make a biographical film on me.. like the biographical film on Husain. But I was against that. I said I’m not interested in that. So he told me to come up with a concept, how should we go about it? How do we include the mirror collage and the house and everything. I came up with a simple thought – artist is born, he creates work and passes away, but the work remains. This was the concept. Now we had a meeting and he gave me all his staff for discussion about the production. For example, now the artist is born, so how do we show that on the screen? You can write it down verbally. We had a healthy discussion, where we discussed script writing where I had the veto power. I was very happy about that. Somebody said that he comes from the sky with the wings. Somebody said let us show the operation, a maternity ward, a child being born.
So finally we came upon the concept of the artist coming from the floor, from the earth, so the door is on the floor. The door opens and the artist comes out and in the end the artist goes back, to the earth. So when this concept came, the whole concept of the room changed. Supposing the door is on the floor then the window is in the ceiling, the fan is somewhere else. So the traditional idea of a room was broken.
SHAI: In the film the dimensions of the room change completely. It becomes a surreal space. And what about all the paintings that you actually did for the film. How did that work? Would you paint something and Pati would shoot you painting that? What was the shooting process?
ABID: The shooting process was a pixellation process, which is an animation process. It was frame by frame
shooting. So the actual shooting went to about 18 days. So if you shoot for 18 days, the total length of footage
was that of a feature film. So that was trimmed and it was used then.
SHAI: And can you talk a little about the sound of the film?
ABID: The sound was done by Vijay Raghav Rao. He was the king of music at that time at Films Division. He was the most creative and gave whoever he worked the perfect sound for their film.
SHAI: What was the response of people once the film was made?
ABID: There was a tremendous response. Even before, when we were making the film And after that it went all over the world to various festivals where it became a landmark film for Pramod Pati. There were 2 films, one was Abid and the other was the one he got the award for in Canada. I don’t know the title it was a one minute film, for the international documentary competition in Canada. So there it won the international award. This was before Abid.
SHAI: And what was it like working with him?
ABID: He was a giant of a worker, very cooperative, very understanding, and very loving. He used to work, I should say about 19-20 hrs a day while we were shooting it. He used to take just 3-4hours to get fresh. He was completely committed. It was real fun working with him. In Films Division there were so many creative directors at that time.
SHAI: So what are your thoughts on that time at Films Division?
ABID: It was the most creative period of the Films Division. So many experiments were done by different filmmakers. And there was no bureaucracy at that time. I mean otherwise this freedom would not have been there.
SHAI: Why do you think that happened? How do you think that came about?
ABID: If one creative person comes at the top, the whole thing changes. So one man came and he changed the whole thing.
SHAI: And this man was Jean Bhownagary who was the Chief Director at that time.
SHAI: But even then there was a lot of criticism about these films when they were made.
ABID: Criticism happens you see. Recently I had gone for a workshop in Ghaziabad. In Ghaziabad recently, a young district collector had taken over. So he called all the creative people in Ghaziabad – the artists and writers – and told them “Look I’m here. I don’t know when I’ll be transferred or thrown out. So whatever you want you can get it done.” So they said we want to build a Bharat Bhavan like art center and art gallery, and want to have art workshops. So he immediately sanctioned everything and immediately he was thrown out. So one man can make a difference…
SHAI: And after ‘Abid’ did you continue to stay involved with films?
ABID: Actually I had in the film industry from much before Abid was made. When my father expired, I had no source of income, even if I wanted to study so I had to work. That was then I got a job in films. I had to support my mother and myself. Shakti Samanta took me as a floor boy, so I was the spot boy. I had to even clean the floors and all. From then itself I had the urge to paint, I had the urge to read, I was reading Sarat Chandra. So slowly I progressed from the fourth assistant to third assistant then second assistant. Then I used to peep into the editing rooms. I used to take part in script discussions. Slowly I learnt all these techniques, and then I left it. Then I got my income from journalism & all these things.
SHAI: So have you made any films yourself?
ABID: I made one feature film but I failed to sell it.
SHAI: You made a feature film? Please tell me more.
ABID: I was very much impressed by Hitchcock. I wanted to make a film in his style, a thriller. So I made a thriller. But the commercial elements and big names were missing in that.
SHAI: Where is that film?
ABID: It is with me. It Is with the Adlabs.
SHAI: What is it called?
ABID: It’s called Maseeha.
SHAI: When did you make it?
ABID: I made it in 1981.
SHAI: Please tell me more…
ABID: It’s based on my novel. Somebody had liked my novel and had some extra money. So he approached me. At that time I was doing a play, I keep on changing what I do you know. When I’m writing a novel I write a novel out, and until it is finished. And then I’ll just leave that and start painting. I’ll get bored with painting, and I’ll switch over to something else. At that time somebody came with the offer of a play. I had never done a play – a stage play. Directing a play writing it. So I wrote a 3 act play for the first time, directed it and it became a super hit play. I had 50 shows in Bombay & mostly in Prithvi Theatre.
SHAI: What was the play called?
ABID: ‘Radhe Radhe, Hum Sab Adhe’. It was a comedy – a hilarious comedy.
SHAI: So what about the feature film?
ABID: So when the play was going on, I got fed up because I had to be dependent on so many people with so many last minutes problems popping up. Like somebody fell sick at the last moment so I had to replace the artists – so many problems like that. Somebody who saw the play and read the novel approached me. Otherwise it is very difficult to get finance for a feature film. Luckily I got somebody. I told him – ‘look this is a gamble, and I don’t know if it will click or release or anything, I cant give any guarantee, still if you want I don’t mind attempting, I don’t mind trying it.’ So he said go ahead, he had some extra money. So at that time it was made in about 15-20 lakhs.
SHAI: So are you happy with it?
ABID: I’m very happy but how to release it?
SHAI: It never got released?
ABID: No. Actually I can’t release it till I make the payment to the lab. I have paid everybody but with the lab it was an understanding that when you sell the film, you pay their bill.
SHAI: I’d like to see it.
ABID: I don’t know… I think I have a CD.
SHAI: It wasn’t shown at film festivals even?
ABID: No, it wasn’t for that. I never had that space in mind. I thought I’ll make a compromising film – a thriller – keeping in mind the audience. I had at the back of my mind that if this subject clicks then I’ll make an experiment which I want to make – A totally different film. I realised that if I make a totally different film it will be impossible to sell it. So I thought I’ll make this subject plus this subject was chosen by the producer who invested the money. So I tried to make the best of that situation.
SHAI: So you weren’t able to explore your experimental idea?
ABID: No it is not an experiment. It’s a different cinema, you can say. Like today whatever commercial film has come like Amol Palekar’s ‘Paheli’ for example. Its not a commercial film. He has compromised, he had music and all, and yet it’s a different film. So from that point of view it’s a different film.
SHAI: So have you made any other films since then?
ABID: I made one short film for the Jindal foundation’s Kalaghoda festival. I made a 10minute film on heritage buildings in the Kalaghoda area.
SHAI: That was made on film or video?
ABID: That was digital.
SHAI: So do you still want to experiment with film?
ABID: I very badly want to. If only somebody would finance me. At that time also I wanted to, but I was helpless. If only at that time somebody else would have read and selected one of my more experimental novels and funded me, rather than choosing one of my more commercial novels.
SHAI: At that time in FD, it was the only time when real experimentation and creativity was being explored.
ABID: Even today you can do it. Why not? But now where is the source? Where can I go and sell it? Today one guy has made a one-hour plus film on me. Now who is going to buy that film?
SHAI: But you never know, you can show it in international film festivals and people might buy it internationally.
ABID: Again the question is how to complete it? The film is in the last stage. It is going to cost more than 1 lakh. Its more than one hour. He has shot about 10-12 hrs footage. So from that footage he is going to make a film for more than one hour. The post production is very expensive. He is waiting for some money to come, plus even if he gets some money it is difficult to sell it. So these guys are handicapped. Today if anybody comes to me with finance, that this is the money, just the bare necessity of making a film, I’m prepared to make a film. There are so many ideas.
SHAI: Who in your opinion are the most important filmmakers in India?
ABID: Ghatak was the greatest. I had seen a couple of bangla films, and they had impressed me a lot. One was Ganga and another one I saw recently by Rituparno Ghosh. He had made a film on the burning of the Christian missionaries. One of the most beautiful films – it’s like a poem. So like him there must be many more, which I may not be in touch. Ghatak was the greatest though. Even Ray accepted him; he said he is far more superior than me. It is his greatness. Like Buddha said, there are so many buddhas, I’m just a public figure.
This interview was conducted as part of the Independent fellowship project ‘Excavating Indian experimental film’ supported by Sarai – Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2005.