To say that Aabid Surti – the creator of ‘Bahadur’ and ‘Dabbuji’– is a multi-faceted man would be an understatement. He dons myriad hats; each of them as colourful as the other. Apart from creating some of the most renowned comics of the yore, Aabid Surti is also the author of close to 80 books, is a professional painter, and is additionally running an NGO which alerts people to save water. Incidentally, Surti has also won a National Award for his short story collection ‘Teesri Aankh’ (Third Eye) in 1993.
The 80-year-old, though, is more renowned for his cartoon strips which have enamored people of all age groups from the past several decades. The cartoonist cum painter cum author cum social activist has created several memorable characters like Dr Chinchoo ke Karnaame, Inspector Azaad, Shuja and Inspector Vikram, apart from Dabbuji, the witty simpleton, and Bahadur, the son of a dacoit who pledges to free villages which are infested with bandits.
These days, Aabid is actively involved in his “one-man” NGO ‘Drop Dead Foundation’; which has vowed to save every drop of water. However, there is more to Aabid Surti than just his work. He has led a very interesting life, full of struggles, which can inspire several people.
In this interview to me, Aabid Surti sheds some light on his early cartooning career, tells us that how after a break-up he became an author, informs about his NGO and much more. Read on.
Excerpts from the interview
Q. So what do you relate the most with- painting, cartooning or writing?
Aabid Surti: Oh, painting absolutely. I was a born painter and it will always be my first love. In fact, I began writing and cartooning because I needed money to get items for painting. I can be a tad laidback while I am writing or making cartoons, but while painting, I never do so. It’s my passion.
Q. I had read that in your early life, your family had lost seven ships of theirs and had to struggle a lot. Can you share that experience?
Aabid Surti: Well, we used to initially stay in a very large mansion in Surat, Gujarat, and had a nice joint family. My family had a shipping business which was doing quite well. However, after the First World War, we lost all our seven ships one after the other. All of them were lost to bizarre and unfortunate circumstances. With everything lost, we couldn’t stay at our place in Surat anymore and then migrated to Mumbai. There, our entire family used to stay in an extremely tiny kholi in the Dongri chawl. Those days were quite tough, but it taught me some real lessons of life. I have shared those experiences in my latest book ‘Sufi’ which is inspired from my own life.
Q. What was your parent’s role in your career?
Aabid Surti: It was nothing to be honest. But they were so busy making two ends meet that it was impossible for them to cater to my needs. My father expired when I was in the 10th standard and to earn some money I began working as the ‘Spot Boy’ in Shakti Films. Nevertheless, the biggest contribution that my mother made was making me attend school. That, I believe, played a massive role in my life. If I hadn’t gone to school, I would have been a nobody.
(Aabid Surti also worked as an assistant writer in several Hindi films; his first being ‘Singapore’ and the last one was ‘Ek Phool Do Maali’.)
Q. How did your interest in cartooning germinate?
Aabid Surti: When I was a child of about 8 years old, I remember there were British troops who would pass through our area in Bombay port during the Second World War (1943). These troops were transported by a mini-train and the soldiers there would often throw out varied items like chocolates, books and magazines. I, along with many other children; all underprivileged, would run to get those stuff. One day, when one such troop was passing by, someone threw out a comic book from it. I rushed ahead and caught the book along with the other kids; curious to see what it was. All I managed to get hold of was a page and it turned out to be a ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic strip. I looked at it and fell in love with it instantly. It was then that my interest in cartooning took birth.
Q. When did you realize that you could be a good cartoonist?
Aabid Surti: I always had this theory in my life that ‘If you can, so can I’. When I saw that ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic strip, I somehow got that feeling that I too could make similar drawings. I thus began making my own versions of the comics and felt confident as days progressed. With time, I realized that I could use this to earn my bread and hence began approaching different magazines and newspapers for freelance work. This really helped me become a little financially stable.
This is what I want to say to people. If you believe you have any talent, then you must pursue it passionately and earnestly. Parents too have to support their children by building their confidence which unfortunately doesn’t really happen in our country.
Q. Tell us about your progress in your cartooning career.
Aabid Surti: For a long time I used to keep copying and making different versions of Mickey Mouse. Later on, I got the knack and began making my own creations.
The first turning point of my career came in the year 1951-52, when I was in my 9th standard and did not have money for my school fees. During this time, we used to have a special annual programme in our school called the ‘Khari Kamaai’ day where we students could sell our own varied products at school and earn for it. I then thought that why don’t I try and sell my own comic strips there. Hence, I dressed up in my Boy Scout attire, took my comic strips and presented it on that programme.
Thankfully, it got noticed and my name spread. There was a Guajarati magazine called Ramakadu (toy) which then brought my comics. It was 4 -page comic strip called “Rang Lakhudi” and consisted of the adventures of a boy, a girl and a monkey.
This emboldened my confidence and I then went to meet the Times of India editor with my cartoon. It was a ‘silent comic’ and the editor loved the idea. He then published my work and it made me believe that I belong to this world. After that, the ‘silent comic’ idea was taken by many other cartoonists and they created their own versions of it.
Q. Dabbuji was your most famous comic. However, if I am not mistaken, it was panned by readers when it was initially published in Gujarati as ‘Batuk Bhai’.
Aabid Surti: Yes, you are right. You won’t believe the amount of criticism I got for ‘Batuk Bhai’- the initial Guajarati version of Dabbuji. It is quite bizarre that the comic that gave me all that name was criticized vehemently by the Gujarati readers. I did try and think of the reason that might have caused this reaction but never got my answers. Perhaps, it depends on the mindset of distinct regions who accept different things differently.
Q. Dabbuji seems to be an antithesis of R.K. Laxman’s common man isn’t it?
Aabid Surti: (Laughs) Well, I never thought of that really, but maybe people look at it that way. When I created it though, it had nothing to do with Laxman’s cartoon. I will tell you how I got the chance to make it first. In those days, newspapers were filled with Western cartoons like Tarzan, Phantom, Mandrake and the likes. The editor at Dharamyug (a Hindi periodical owned by the Benett Coleman and Co. Ltd.), Mr. Dharamvir Bharti, wanted me to create something Indian and indigenous and that is how Dabbuji took birth. Before me, though, Dharamvir ji had tried several other cartoonists for the magazine including the great Mario Miranda. I was the last one to be approached apparently. At that time, as a young teenager, I had already done some freelance work and worked for a children’s magazine called Parag; where I used to make another well-known comic strip of mine ‘Dr. Chinchoo ke Chamatkaar’. The guys at Dharamyug didn’t have much hope from me, but luckily I clicked. Within one month, Dabbuji became a nationwide super hit. I remember people telling me that they used to buy Dharamyug those days just to flip to the last pages and read Dabbuji!
In its Hindi avatar, Dabbuji was wholeheartedly accepted and people just loved his goofiness and it went on to create innumerable fans. Among the most noted ones were our ex- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and singer Asha Bhonsle, who publically praised Dabbuji. Then there was Osho (spiritual guru), who was a self-confessed fan of Dabbuji and would often speak about the character’s adventures at his gatherings when people would get bored of his speeches (chuckles).
Q. The other comic character of yours which is very famous is ‘Bahadur’. The story was quite intricately detailed. What research did you do for it?
Aabid Surti: Yes, this story required quite some research from my part. When Bhadur was supposed to me made, Bennett, Coleman & Co. had again asked me to create something novel. I hence began thinking of the issues and problems facing our country at that time, from which I could create a character. A lot of research was thus put into it: What would the problems be? How would they be solved? I thus began researching; the same way a director does his research before making a film. I had to visit many places which were affected by the dacoits like the Chambal valley and similar places. I spoke to people there and tried to understand how the bandits had made an impact in their lives. I learnt that dacoits came to many villages just for leisure; like a picnic. They would then simply ask the people to give them the booty or face their wrath. These bandits were very smart and chose locations which did not have any police stations nearby.
I kept all this information with me and used these anecdotes from my visits to these villages in making the story. Thus Bahadur was then created (in 1976). I had also read a book on the bandits of Chambal named Abhishapta Chambal, written by Taroon Kumar Bhaduri, the father of Jaya Bachchan. It was a brilliant book and helped me immensely in framing my story.
Q. If Bahadur were to be remade today, how would you present him?
Aabid Surti: See, I would make him tackle the problems plaguing society today, like terrorism, cyber crimes etc. In those days, these bandits were the moot cause that was gnawing at our society. Now, however, our problems have increased manifold. Bahadur really would have a tough task dealing with the plethora of issues today.
Q. You were planning to relaunch Bahadur weren’t you? What happened to it?
Aabid Surti: The problem is that the Times of India now claims that they are the original copyright holders of Bahadur. They have gone and registered the character in their name and now I am struggling because of it. In those days, I had never cared to go for an agreement whilst making the comics as those editors were more like my friends. These people now have taken use of this lapse of mine and are claiming Bahadur as their own product. I was the original creator of Bahadur and everyone in India knows it. However, I do not have the money to fight them. Perhaps I can find a good copyright lawyer someday who can help me.
Q. Moving on, what are your views on India’s current comic scenario?
Aabid Surti: Today, the technology has advanced a lot and some great work is being done. Virgin comics had completely revolutionized the Indian comic scenario with their brilliant concepts. Now, there are several more like them. And I think there are some wonderful comic artists coming up in the country today. I keep visiting comic cons and meet several talented young artists. All this is very heartening to see. Indian comics has a good future.
The only problem, though, is that this industry is still not very commercially viable in India for the comic artists. Hence, the talented ones move away to animation as it pays more. I hope something can be done about that.
Q. Any cartoonists from today who have impressed you?
Aabid Surti: Oh yes, there are quite a few I like. However, three of them- Sudhir Tailang, Manjul and Pawan- are the ones who I think are simply awesome. I really admire their work and follow it closely.
Q. What about your all time favourite cartoonist?
Aabid Surti: Well, that would be Mario (Miranda). He was just exceptional. In my view, he was even better than Laxman, as his creativity had a much larger canvas. His ideas and style were of international standards. He was a very close friend of mine as well.
Q. Coming to your life as a writer; you became an author by chance didn’t you?
Aabid Surti: Yes, that was quite an incident really. It all happened because of my break up. I was a young man and it was my first love. The break up was quite violent and left me shattered. In those days, I did not have any friend whom I could confide my feelings in and thus felt very helpless. It was then that I decided to pen those bottled emotions. I took a notebook and began writing; relentlessly pouring all my feelings down. Before I knew it, I had written close to 500 pages. When I finished the book, I felt very relived and relaxed.
Incidentally, there used to be a scrap collector who would often visit our chawl at that time. I gave my notebook to him, as he was quite fond of reading. He took it to his shop to read and found it quite engrossing. Now that scrap paper dealer was in good terms with this guy from Swati Prakashan, which published several books of new writers. The scrap dealer gave my story to the man and he loved it. And that is how my first book, Tute Hue Farishtey (Broken Angels), was published (1965).
Q. What is the status of your case that you had filed against the makers of ‘Athithi Tum Kab Jaaoge?’ the story of which you had claimed was taken from your book ‘72 Saal ka Baccha’?
Aabid Surti: The case has been stuck from the last four years and is not moving up. Last year, I had learnt that they (the makers of the film) had bought my lawyer as well. Now, I have sacked him and am looking for a new one. I will not give up though, for I know that I am right. These people stole my story lock, stock and barrel with minor changes. After I filed a case against them in the Writer’s Association, they said that they are willing to apologize but will not pay me. But I will not accept that. It is my story and they have to pay me for blatantly using it in their film and milking crores out of it. I have already spent close to two lakhs in this case and will perhaps spend some more. In the end I may not win, but at least I am happy that I am fighting for what is right. Whatever you do in life, you should never bow down to injustice.
Q. You have also been heading the NGO, ‘Drop Dead Foundation’ which is trying to aware people to save water. What has been the general response so far?
Aabid Surti: Oh it has been absolutely tremendous. You know, I got this idea when I realized that a lot of water was being wasted unnecessarily from faulty taps. People do not get it repaired for varied reasons and hence it amounts to a massive amount of water wastage. I decided to do something about it and hence ‘Drop Dead’ came into being. I have a plumber with me and every Sunday we visit one locality and give them free plumbing service from my side; also informing them about saving water in the process. People have reacted very positively to this and Drop Dead’s name is now spreading far and wide; in India and across the world. I just hope that more people realize the importance of our cause and pay heed to it.
Q. What are your future plans now?
Aabid Surti: I have a lot of unfinished books that I am currently working on and hopefully shall complete them soon. And then I want to write several books on children based on the environment. I have noticed that there are hardly any books in the market on this subject for children. It is important that our children get educated about our environment and yet have fun knowing about it. I shall attempt to do it.
Q. Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
Aabid Surti: Well, in my school days I never had any friend from my own age group. All my friends were senior to me and I respected them a lot. There were three of them – a photographer, a painter and a script-writer – who played a major role in my life. All of the three were good professionals in their fields and guided me very nicely in my teens. I will always be indebted to them for their guidance. They were undoubtedly the biggest influence in my life.
Q. You must have had many fans in your life. Is there any particular fan experience that you would like to share with us?
Aabid Surti: I had gone to Patna last year to attend a workshop. When I was returning, I got a call on my cell phone while I was in the airport. It was someone who said he desperately wanted to meet me. I hesitated, but gave in and asked him to see me outside the airport. As I went out, I saw a simple looking man, clad in a plain dhoti and a jhola around his shoulders. When the man saw me, he seemed spell-bound. He first touched me and then fell to my feet. I felt embarrassed and picked him up. The man then took out a thick notebook from his bag and showed it to me. When I opened it, I was quite surprised. It was Dabbuji’s comic strips right as they had appeared in Dharamyug. This man had tirelessly cut the comic strips of Dabbuji as and when they were published in the magazine and had made its collection into various albums; this was one of them. I was quite stunned to see this and asked him why he did this. He said, “Aabid Ji, I am a patient of depression. This Dabbuji is like my medication and helps me in times of need.” This truly was the best praise I have received from anyone in my life.
Q. The last one. How do you stay so fit even at 80?
Aabid Surti: See, I am not 80. I am 20 years old, with 60 years of experience (laughs). Well, to be honest, I guess when you work for the betterment of others, which I have been doing through ‘Drop Dead’, it rejuvenates you. Moreover, there are several of my fans who always pray for my well-being. It keeps me going.