India Ink: Interview With Aabid Surti – Creator Of Bahadur

Mayank Khurana interviews Aabid Surti – Creator of Bahadur, the first Indian pulp hero for Bleeding Cool.

What inspired you to create comics?

Walt Disney! When I was a kid, around 8 years old (1943) when the Second World War was heading towards its climax, a mini train used to start from the docs of  Mumbai to transport white soldiers who had arrived by ship. These soldiers used to throw chocolates, magazines and other things out of the window. We – a group of underprivileged kids, used to run beside that train to pick up those discarded items. Once they threw a comic and all of us thronged towards it like a pack of wolves. I could however only manage to get one page of the comic book which featured Mickey Mouse. I fell in love with that one page and started practicing drawing. Soon enough I figured out the mathematics of the art such as proportions etc, and here I am today!

What was your first gig as a comic writer?

It was with a Guajarati (an Indian language spoken in the state of Gujarat) children’s magazine titled Ramakadu (toy) in 1952/53. It consisted of a comic feature of 4 pages in color with three prominent characters – a boy, a girl and a monkey, titled “Rang Lakhudi”.

How did the stint with Indrajaal happen?

In a round about way. At that time, the nation had just got independent and people still retained a sense of Patriotism. For a long time in India the only comics that were available were those that featured foreign characters – Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon etc.

One of the Times group editors Mr Dharmvir Bharati was looking for a Indian comic strip for his weekly “Dharmyug”. Quite a few cartoonist were tried but nothing worked. Now interestingly at that time I was doing two page comic Dr. Chichu ke Chamatkar for Parag- a children magazine, featuring a fat scientist and two kids, a girl and a girl.. Dr. Bharati (Times Group) saw that and gave me a call, asking for some indigenous content.

Now, I was doing a weekly comic script in Guajarati called “Batuk Bhai” for Chetmachander, a periodical. The response to that strip was however lukewarm, in fact a lot of mails came asking for it to be stopped. I said to myself, lets try this somewhere else; I re-titled “Batuk Bhai” to “Dhabbuji” and translated those ideas in Hindi. It became an instant hit in that language. Now why it flopped in Guajarati, but was a phenomenal success in Hindi, I can never figure out till date.

Buoyed by its success, Indrajaal Comics, which was also run by Times group approached me to create an indigenous character for comics, and the rest is history.

History indeed. You went on to create the highly popular “Bahadur” who is arguably the first Indian Super Hero. What was the inspiration behind that creation?

Well as I said, we wanted something indigenous that resonated with the masses. I looked around and realized that the biggest problem at the time was – Bandits. Chambal (an area in North India) was especially notorious for its Bandits. I thought a character based on such a place can work. I then researched on the Bandit phenomenon by reading articles, newspaper reports and books.

Their modus operandi was unbelievable. They used to come to villages as if they were going to a day’s picnic, make their demands and if the demands were not met committed heinous acts of pillaging, murder and rape.

I figured the chief reason for that was lack of communication. Every 100 or so villages would have one police station catering to them at that time, and by the time someone from the village reached the police station informing them about the bandits, bandits would have had already gone! What could the police also do in such a situation?

Then I thought, the only way out was not to solely rely on the government to protect you. I then envisioned a character who would inspire the village folks to assemble a local force from within the village to have a proper defence in case of bandit attacks. That Character was Bahadur (The Brave One).

My character Bahadur was the son of a liquidated bandit, whose mother had brainwashed him into believing that his father was a noble soul who had helped poor girls to marry, gave money in thousands to charity, supported homeless and destitute, built so many temples etc.. Bahadur was brought up for the sole purpose of taking revenge on the police officer Vishal who had killed his father. It so happened, that when they eventually met, the police officer was successful in opening Bahadur’s eyes to the reality of his parentage. The officer then offered him a chance to redeem himself and his parents by helping create local force to defend his village.

What was the secret of the massive success of Bahadur?

I think it was simply because people were hungry for native content. The issue we tackled was topical and resonated with the masses. Soon enough, Bahadur was overselling comics like Phantom and Mandrake.

While reading Bahadur, I am surprised to find it very progressive. I understand Bela  and Bahadur were depicted to be in a live in relationship, which is still a taboo in India. Kudos for that. Were you not afraid people would object to such a portrayal?

Believe it or not, not a single person objected on that issue. Sometimes I feel we were more progressive in those days than now.

I understand you are working on reviving Bahadur again! And that a movie is also planned? That’s great news. Care to share some details on what’s latest with Bahadur?

To be honest ShahRukh Khan and Ashutosh Gawarikar are interested in making a movie on Bahadur. Unfortunately there is no legal agreement between Times group and me. When I was with Indrajaal I worked as a contributor from outside and never as a staff member. I had given them rights to print once. Similarly in case of Dhabbuji, when they reprinted some of the strips in their Silver Jubilee issue, they had to pay me again for the same comic strips. Thus the copyrights of the Character Bahadur that I created, are naturally with me, however these fllm companies, they need NOC from Times and the Times flately refuses. On 10th Dec. 2010, i’ve  launched a website www.bahadur.in for reintroducing Bahadur’s comics. We are first going to upload a few initial issues of Bahadur to make people aware of his backdrop. We would be getting new readers and we want them to be aware of Bahadur’s origin. However once that is done, we are planning to create new content where Bahadur will face today’s issues like Terrorism and would be working with new gadgets.

What happened with Indrajaal comics? Why did they shut down. They were doing a tremendous job in bringing comics to India…

I feel this was due to the new generation of management that took over the Times Group. They felt that there was more hassle in producing comics for little reward. To them the economics of comic publishing didn’t work out and since they weren’t coming from nationalist background, the feeling of doing something indigenous wasn’t that prominent. Not only comics, in those times there was only one evening paper in Mumbai, Evening News which was also close down with the best literary Hindi magazine Saarika and children’s magazine Parag.

Talking about your other famous series Dhabbuji, what was the inspiration behind his creation?

In India Lakshaman’s “The common man” is very famous. His common man is just an observer and never interferes with the state of affairs. In some sense it is the true representation of a common helpless man. I thought, why not create an “Uncommon” man. My uncommon man would not be content to observe , but would interfere with everything for better or worse, giving rise to hilarious situations. Thus Dhabbuji was born.

Dhabbuji also works on two levels, the first one is on superficial level which most people identify with and laugh on. Then there is another sub-level where each Dhabbuji’s idea is pregnant with a message. Only discerning readers can understand both of these levels.

Osho is known to have used my Dhabbuji ideas to explain the under currents and world affairs. Whenever he realized that his lecture was getting dull he used to say “ Let’s see what Dhabbuji says this week” , which was followed by that week’s idea .

Former Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and famous singers like Asha Bhosle have publically admitted to be ardent fans of the series.

Your characters, Dhabbuji and Bahadur are very different from each other. There was a time when you were writing them simultaneously. Was there any specific mind-frame you needed to be in when writing such poles apart series? Just want to give readers a glimpse of creative process while you write..

See Dhabbuji was a weekly feature. I used to do six month’s quota at one go, making sure I am giving special ideas for whatever festivals fell into those six months such as Holi, Diwali etc. They would then be published weekly and would stay current since we would acknowledge all the festivals.

Bahadur was another affair. A Little known fact is that I started my career in Hindi film industry. When I was in 10th class. My father HAD expired and I didn’t have any money to continue my studies so I had to look for a job. A friend helped me get a job as a “Spot Boy” in Shakti Films. In my free time I was often found reading hefty volumes of poetry and Indian literature of the time. People used to be surprised to see a lowly spot boy reading such classics.. Soon I was offered a job in the writing department. My first film was Singapore, the last one was Ek Phool Do Maali as an assistant writer.

Working in films honed my comic writing skills as I was essentially doing things such as story board, understanding camera shots like “close up”, “long shots” etc which is essentially what comic making is all about.

By the time I was asked to create Bahadur, comic making had become a second nature.

I understand you have authored several children books as well. Are you planning any Graphic Novel length work for children? Do you think children would be interested in such a work?

As of now I am not sure how much demand is there for such a work. I published a work with NBT called “Buddh kyun muskuraye 2500 saal baad” ( Why did the Buddha smile after 2500 years). It is an excellent children’s story and I wanted to do it as a graphic novel, but the publisher wouldn’t accept it. The story is about a child who after watching discovery channel is inspired to go around the nation. However his body parts refuse. Only his left eye says yes and goes on the trek alone. Along the way she meets various other body parts of people from various religions and they combine to form a  new human who is a true Indian. Now Children Film Society is planning to make a film on that.

I have tied up with NBT (National Book Trust) and if they require it then I would consider it. Otherwise if some publisher comes and can offer me my fees

With Bollywood’s recent inclination towards comedy genre in the last few years and the growing popularity of stand-up comedy, do you feel there’s good chance for more original newspaper strips to spawn? Why isn’t that happening? Of course there has been a few webcomics in this genre but why the newspapers and periodicals aren’t much interested?

Even today I feel, the economy isn’t working out for most publishers. Virgin group started out with some good concepts, but they failed. So I guess something must be wrong somewhere.

I understand you are in legal battle with producers of “Atithi tum kab jaoge” ? How did that come about? Can you share what is the current with that dispute?

The writer-director of Atithi has completely lifted my novel! This is also the view of my 17 readers from differant parts of India who informed me on phone. I have therefore claimed 1.Crore + as compensation in the writers association. The judgement is expected soon.

I am certain it would be in my favour. If the Producers don’t agree post this, I can always go to court with this judgement.

The comic industry has again started spreading its wings in India. are you thinking of getting involved, via any of your previous creations or maybe creating a new one for the new generation!?

Nowadays I prefer to work at leisure for myself. My lifelong passion is painting. Writing comics is something I did to help me earn my livelihood. My painting exhibition is almost ready , plus I am focusing on children’s books these days. So I have a lot on my plate.

But never say never I say!

What are your future planned releases?

I m planning to make a feature film based on my novel Kaale Gulab and hope to launch it in 2011.

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