We spoke to Surjit Singh, author of Edwina: An Unsung Bollywood Dancer of the Golden Era, The Illustrated History of Punjabi Cinema (1935-1985) and Indurani: An Unsung But Unforgettable Heroine Of The Early Talkies.
Professor Surjit Singh is a retired Theoretical Physicist. He has been watching movies since 1952, collecting Hindi songs, movies and magazines since 1969, and has been writing about these topics since 1996. Check out his website for more.
Tell us about your writing journey.
Even though I chose Physics-Mathematics-Chemistry in the ninth grade, I always enjoyed reading and writing essays. I learnt how great essays were organized into paragraphs and how the ideas flowed naturally and logically. I used what I leaned when I was publishing Physics papers (I have almost 90). While I was at the Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, I jumped at the chance to be co-author of two Physics books. I always planned to write lots of books. I am glad that I am able to publish them using Pothi (India) and Amazon (USA).
You are a theoretical physicist. Why did you choose to write about Bollywood’s forgotten faces?
I started watching films when I was in the seventh grade, bunking school. Liked stunt films and was fascinated by the details of film production. Just as in Physics, one looks at stuff happening behind the scenes (at atomic/molecular level) to understand laboratory phenomena, I was inclined to look into details and I did not fail to notice the same minor and character artists appearing in Hindi films again and again. I started to collect music, films, books, magazines, articles and other film-related stuff about these people in the late sixties. Naturally, I started writing about them.
How did you compile Punjabi cinema’s history? While writing about movies, you must spend a lot of time watching them. Do you take notes for every movie you watch?
I really cannot take much credit for that. This was Bhim Raj Garg’s baby for almost 30 years, during which time he had been collecting data. I kept pestering him to publish it and, finally, I helped him to do so on Amazon and Pothi. For my work on Hindi films, of course, I take detailed notes. I write down the names of actors not mentioned in the credits, the ones on whom the songs are picturized, any interesting connections with other Hindi/Panjabi/Hollywood films, interesting bit of dialog, something special about the setting, scenery, historical place, about Sandhu Transport trucks, cars, just about anything I may need for my books.
How do you do research to write a book with a Bollywood theme?
As I said I have been collecting source material for almost 50 years now. This includes books and magazines published on Hindi cinema since the 30s! I have a huge collection of songs and films, again going back to the early talkies. Also, in many cases I have been lucky to be able to interview the actual people (Edwina Voilette for the book on her) or their relatives (Salim Shah for the book on his mother Indurani).
Tell us about your experience with self-publishing.
It has been wonderful! My other two books on Physics were published in the traditional manner. The publishers did publicize and lots of copies were sold, but I was not happy that the royalty was such a small percentage. For my current books, I was thinking of having copies printed and then selling them from home, as many of my friends had been doing. Then I saw one of my Facebook friends (Aditya Pant) publish his poetry book on Pothi. I asked around if you guys were any good, my friend Pavan Jha (of Jaipur) said that Pothi guys are good. So, here we are 🙂
Your favorite movie? Are you fond of contemporary movies as well?
I am a huge fan of 30s-40s films, in particular I like any film starring Saigal or Noor Jehan. Saigal’s Tansen (1943) and Noor Jehan’s Jugnu (1947) I have watched many times. I also like Madhubala and Dilip Kumar. I do watch current films, may be one or two a year. Story-wise and musically they are so much influenced by Hollywood that, in my thinking, one might as well watch the original Hollywood films on which they are mostly based.
Your favorite Bollywood book (if any) or book in general?
My favorite Bollywood book is the world-famous compilation of detailed information on Hindi Films and their songs, the six-volume Hindi Film Geet Kosh by Har Mandir Singh ‘Hamraaz’. I am an avid reader and have many hundreds of books, some of which I bought in the seventies. List of my favorite authors and their books would be very long, for now let me just name Shakespeare, Kalidas, Wodehouse, Wilde, Christie, Ghalib, Nanak Singh, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Acharya Chatursen, Ibne Safi, Manto, Asimov, Gardner, Koestler. For most of them, I have most of what they have published. As you may guess, if I like something, I would rather read it again than reading something new 🙂
Any advice you wish to give potential authors who wish to market their books?
Announce it on social media, tell friends and relatives, prepare a press release and email to relevant newspapers and websites.
What are you working on right now?
I am usually working on 2-3 books at the same time. I will soon be publishing a book on Hindi film extras or junior artistes. More books on character artists and background dancers are in the planning stage. Another big project I am working on is to put all the information in the Hindi Film Geet Kosh in the form of a searchable database on the internet.