Thought Box

In gentle streets where people play

In gentle streets where people play

by Vinta Nanda December 19 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 14 mins, 8 secs

I first met Suryaveer (it tickles my Panjabiat to call him Veera) in the year 2004, writes Vinta Nanda

Aroona Bhat, his partner in life, and he had dropped in at my sets along with a dear friend Ranjit Rodricks, when I was shooting the final sequence of my film White Noise.

It takes not more than a moment to feel connected to both Aroona and Veera. They’re full of life, eager to talk about music and food and they crack up laughing with you when Aroona attempts to speak in Hindi – her Malayalipana is beyond hilarious but because this article is not about her and I need a whole other piece for her story to be told to you, I’ll leave it here for now.

This is about Veera, the man gracious, ever ready to go along with you on jaunts – we drove from Mumbai to Delhi in 2008 just because he said his always ready ‘okay’ and we stopped midway to stay with his parents in Ahmedabad – the hospitality is incomparable to any other and warmth you will never want to extract yourself out of and leave. All in all, we’ve been ‘good’ friends ever since that we have met. Many evenings have been spent over drinks and great food cooked by Veera himself and the conversations are electric; about art, creativity, filmmaking and storytelling - always!

This particular interview I’ve done with him, is to showcase ‘resilience’, to understand ‘conviction’ - two words that emerge as key from Veera’s story. This is the story of a man who never gives up or for that matter, gives in. His is the story of all those people who experiment with the arts, knowing fully well that the risk they are taking is to evolve something new, something undiscovered, therefore that, something during a long journey based on ‘just’ faith can also go terribly wrong and send you right back home, to lick your wounds and then get back to the drawing board to start all over again.

But then what is life, if the endgame of each time that you adventure on a path never tread before, is already known! And, this is something that only creative people like Veera know - that in failure is the beginning, the middle and the end of every kind of ‘new story’ that has never been heard before.

My introduction to the polymath is over – the man who has many talents and the resolve to do them all at the same time. Now I leave him Suryaveer Singh Bhullar, producer of the films Tamanchey and Box, to tell you the rest about himself.

I’ve known you from the time you set foot in Mumbai and planned to produce and direct films. How did it come about that you are here in this city?

I was always fascinated by films and music and the creative arts. But in our growing up years, none of the above was looked upon as a career option. Since I came from a family of bureaucrats & servicemen, one never dreamt of pursuing it. But 2001 was a life altering year for me. I had to make a decisive choice and get out of a nightmarish marriage if I had to save myself. So I left behind a very successful business and everything I had built and moved out with 15000 rupees in my pocket and a small bag of clothes; I moved in with my parents.

It took me a few months to decide my future and I chose to set up an events company, as that was something I had been good at in college and thoroughly enjoyed. The event company slowly connected me to Bollywood and rekindled that dream of cinema. I met Aroona Bhat (my current partner) in 2003, as i wanted to expand my business to Mumbai and I needed someone to represent us there. From then on things just happened and one fine day I found myself nestled in a cozy apartment in Lokhandwala.

What was life like for you while growing up? I do know that you lost your father at a very young age… 

Yes I lost my father at a very early age. I was just four years old when he passed in a car crash. My younger brother was just two. But we were blessed to have a mother who didn’t let this tragedy overtake her responsibility for her two children. We grew up with limitations but she never let us feel deprived of anything. I am very close to my mother as I have witnessed first hand, all the hardship she had to go through as a single parent, while she raised us, playing the role of both, our father & our mother. Everything I am today is because of her and I’m grateful to her for making me the man that I am.

The answer to this question would be incomplete, if I did not recognise the commitment, involvement, love and support of the man who entered my mother’s life when I was in my teens - my stepfather, who has and continues to be my father to this day. We actually don’t refer to him as step father ever. We instead have a word coined for him – DAD TWO. He slipped quietly into my real father’s shoes & never let me feel that he wasn’t my birth father.

In my life I have encountered tragedy, strife, hardship - I have walked the corridors of power, failure, violence, success, love, heartbreak and yet picked up the pieces again. All of this has shaped me tremendously.

I am unfortunately, very misunderstood. I am a very silent man & have for the longest time believed that your actions should speak. But I am learning that it never works that way. Your silence keeps getting misunderstood. I realise now that communication is key. And believe you me, I am trying to work on it.

I know you were into events management in Ahmedabad before you came to Mumbai. What was the experience like and how did it come about? Share with us what you gained in the process and what you lost… 

After walking out on a terrible marriage, which also meant leaving a very successful business, it took me some time to regroup things & ideas in my own head. I was known for the fashion shows that I had choreographed and organised during my College Days. There was no one who was professionally doing these things in Ahmedabad in those days. I thought it would be a good idea to set up a company, which could curate and manage events, and I felt I would be in a happy space ideating and creating - it was my strength.

Years later, as I was producing my first film, it dawned on me that my experience of producing events, helped me in organising funds, managing people and equipment, all of which were a part of the filmmaking process.

We did some big events, including a Bollywood show in Glasgow and the first all Women’s Car Rally in aid of the Women’s Cancer Initiative. We almost came close to pulling off Woodstock in India with Artie Kornfeld, the founder of Woodstock.  

At a time when we could have built on our event company and taken it to another level, I choose to give it up and focus on films. I gained the confidence to make the transition from events to filmmaking but lost out on an opportunity of making a lot of money doing large events.

Share something about the times in which you grew to recognize that you are a creative person and making cinema is your calling… 

I always knew I was creative. I had a penchant for anything creative. I was great in craft work in school, I dabbled in theatre as well and I used to write stories & poems too. Unfortunately, coming from a family background that focussed more on structure, following up on this was not an option.

I grew up watching a lot of cinema. We used to spend days watching films on our Weston Color TV and VCP. Once we even watched eight films in one single day. My parents’ close friends had two boys - Karun and Kannan - and they would bring over these Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry films and we would all sit and watch them.

DAD TWO, was also an avid watcher. Despite the fact that my career choice and move to Mumbai to pursue films is something he has never liked, DAD TWO’s enthusiasm and being part of our days of binge movie watching was one of my biggest early influences. And then I watched Deewar and became an AB fan. Ever since, I wanted to make films. And one of the strongest reasons for me to make films was Mr. Bachchan.

Of course over the years, I have watched cinema from all over the world and my film making is influenced by all that I have watched. By the way, I boast of a collection of more than 3000 dvds from the world over.

What was the experience like when you were producing your first film, Tamanchey? 

Tamanchey was a film that taught me everything that I should not do in my life. But it was my first film and I made it with a lot of love and heart. There were strong personal relationships, which sadly went wrong. I am a very emotional person and the ways of Bollywood hadn’t yet seeped into my blood then. I trusted people - blindly and implicitly.

Aroona and I almost lost everything. I was unfairly involved in legal issues. Of course, I had a lot of family support and I was lucky to have a partner like Aroona who stood by me rock solid through it all. Today it is all a thing of the past but I realised how fragile and fake relationships can be in this industry and learnt not to give too much of myself personally.

How did the learnings from your first film pan out into your next? 

The learning from my first film was, to only go with my gut, to make sure that the reins are in my hand and not to depend on anyone. Despite my honesty and integrity, I had in the past too, hit rock bottom, only to bounce back. Throughout my growing up years I have learnt one solid lesson, to be eternally grateful for what I have. This in turn taught me to always count all the blessings we have instead of getting sucked into a web of negativity. Hence I am one of those people who has never fallen into a trap of depression or self pity. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I am Sikh. We are very resilient & strong as a community - both physically & mentally.

So it was all of this that gave me the confidence to move on and continue working instead of breaking and leaving Mumbai. A lot of people did expect that I would never make another film. Guess it is always in us humans to underestimate each other. 

Why did you make a film like Box? What made you believe that it was a project that needed to be shown the light? 

Box was a challenge. When I read the script, I knew that if anyone would make this film, it was me. Not many had the courage to back a script like this one. In fact, I must tell you that when Debu Da (Dibyendu Bhattacharya) read the script, he actually asked me, “Are you sure you want to produce this film?” A few other friends also advised that it was too dark and experimental and would be difficult to get a release. I was also told I was risking my money. I was aware that I was taking a risk and I knew that a story like this could also go totally wrong. But having seen a variety of films from across the world and the kind of stories that had been told, I believed that this story also needed to meet an audience. So even today, we are not sure if this film is going to be liked, accepted or released. But we are happy we made it.

Of course, after Tamanchey I had decided that I would not decide anything without first taking Aroona into confidence. She, as usual, backed me. Box appealed to me. Despite the approach being experimental it dealt with a very common issue that every human faces - of being trapped within one’s head. This film has become even more relevant today after the lockdown wherein a lot of people have faced and experienced all kinds of situations and emotions – inside of their heads.

Your relationship with Aroona - where did you find each other and how did it all come together? 

Like I mentioned earlier, we met due to work and then things just happened. Of course it took me a while to commit as I had been so badly burnt in my first marriage. She is a witty and wicked Gemini - amazing and strong, yet kind and compassionate. I have never really seen anyone who can forgive as much as she can. For me all of these qualities were very different to what I had experienced in my first marriage. We are together 15 years now, been through a hell of a lot together and survived and grown stronger. I am the rock & she is the star.

Your relationship with food? Your passion for it made you start cooking at first and then turning food into business – share with us everything about it… 

I come from a family of foodies. I’ve been told that DAD ONE was a phenomenal cook and my Daadi even better. I used to look forward to my holiday break as a kid, going to Chandigarh, as it meant being spoilt with all the food I loved. So I somehow feel that cooking came to me naturally.

In my first year of college I ended up starting a roadside thela (handcart). So we identified a spot outside IIM Ahmedabad, illegal of course, and staked our claim to it and opened ‘Roadhouse’. We ran this roadside joint for almost two years before it was shut down. But it was a great experience. I started cooking and have enjoyed cooking ever since.

Of course being a foodie, I would always look forward to trying new and different cuisines but I truly got into cooking much later after moving to Mumbai and after the debacle of Tamanchey, wherein we were down in the dumps. So I fell back onto cooking to both sustain our survival as well as deal with my stress and fight from falling into depression.

I was one of the first home chefs on the popular food app "Holachef" and my food became extremely popular from there. After that i realised that even though I loved films, my true calling was with food. Today with two of my closest friends, we have set up a company called The Happy Food Co., and our brand The Legacy Kitchen, which is a cloud kitchen, has been extremely successful. We take pride in our food and strive to be the best. Now, we are on the verge of launching more brands, offering different types of cuisines as well as expanding and multiplying our cloud kitchen.

What are your plans in the coming days?

“Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans”, said John Lennon. So yeah, I just take each day as it comes now.

Which are the various projects you’re dabbling with and hope to take to the floors?

There is a film we are working on but I can’t talk about till the official announcement happens. I am also writing and developing a web series with another filmmaker, a friend, which has us very excited. I have always wanted to direct a film and am writing my script and hope to be ready with it soon. As independent producers, we dream big but I have learnt to live with reality. I am still a complete outsider, never been one to network or be part of any chamcha brigade, so it is always a struggle to put together a film. But thankfully, the doors open.

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