Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed filmmaker and director Surinder Singh about his career, what inspires him, and his latest project, And they Occupied Me.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Where some children might play sports with their fathers, I grew up reading news for my father; that was sort of our “play” time. I don’t think it was intentional, but looking back, my father was instilling the values of consciousness and honesty in me as we would spend time together discussing the current happenings in Punjab. The 1980s witnessed a peak of turmoil in Punjab, often perceived as the ‘dark decade.’ Thousands of Sikh men disappeared at the hands of police. Together my father and I would sit and talk about young Sikh men being detained, tortured, killed, and unlawfully cremated.
As a result, I aspired to be a journalist, to tell the story, the truth about what happened and to tell the world that my fellow Sikhs were not militants, they were fighting for their homeland. I got involved in anything I could that would potentially result in me talking about why Sikhs were being treated as slaves in India. I worked for radio stations, TV channels, produced documentary short subjects on such topics to keep me alive. I created my YouTube channel and gained millions of views on the topics I raised. I spoke to hundreds of victims, many may have suppressed the stories and feelings for a long time, mainly for survival. But that doesn’t mean the desire to be heard vanished. Sadly, my YouTube channel was removed by the Indian government earlier this year, which resulted in huge loss of data.
I taught myself everything there was to know about journalism before pivoting to screenwriting. In 2017, I migrated to the US and from there life just flew by. I started writing “And They Occupied Me” (ATOM) and thought about direction, cinematography and editing. I thought that if I planned well, I could do it all. If I put my mind to it and paid enough attention, I could deliver something to be preserved for generations to come. Generations that might otherwise lose out on history (anti-Sikh violence of 1984).
When did you first realize you wanted to make a TV series?
There’s the old saying “write what you know.” There were personal experiences that compelled me to write about 1984 since my young adulthood. In 2009, I wrote the book ‘Swer Hon Wali Hai,’ based on news reports about this subject.
However, I felt despite the constant research and investigations into the events which took place in Amritsar, Punjab, not much had been done at the cinematic level. During the pandemic, I sat through and thought more and more about it, and I felt like now was the time to write a story and produce a TV series on the 1984 happenings. So, I went ahead and tried to tell the truth through my screenplay about the attack on collective Sikh identity by gathering details from various eyewitnesses and victims (I am a victim of the events as well).
What is your favorite thing about films?
Like all filmmakers, I fell in love with movies as a kid. Every time I go to the set, I think back to the ten-year-old me who used to get money from his parents for school fees, but instead would use it to watch movies in the theatre. Luckily, I never got caught! The process of writing, filming, and editing the TV series reminds me of the films and TV series I watched. It really enriches my mind to do so.
What classes or research did you take to support you in your filmmaking career?
I went to the Indian Film Institute for a screenwriting degree and when I was in Punjab, India, I worked in the production line and did research on Sikh History. However, I was unable to make a film on the same topic. Still today, those who speak up about the injustice are silenced.
What was your first film industry job?
Independently, this is my first project in the film industry.
What was your most recent film industry job?
Right now, I am working on “And They Occupied Me” ATOM. I will soon start writing the second season of ATOM and have bagged another film project.
Tell me a favorite experience in your career. Something that stands out in your memories and makes you want to find more experiences like it.
Working independently as a filmmaker. My favorite part is all of it.
Directing is a compulsion more than anything else. It is an all-consuming affair that begins at the conception of the idea and doesn’t end until after the series is released; and even then, the drift of “what was” or “what could have been” stays with you. Being a writer, the creation of the story concept and then its realization, first to page and then to screen, is truly the magic of the profession. It’s the almost surreal reality that you can have a simple thought and later you are sitting at a premiere, having turned the seeds of the thought into a TV series with all its complications and depth. For better or for worse, it is your vision with its inspiration and missteps; it all comes down to you.
What was the toughest experience in your filmmaking career?
Managing egos. Everyone thinks they are creative and are so enthused about the process that they become full of themselves sometimes (myself included).
Finding the right team. In my view and experience, getting everyone on the crew and cast on the same page creatively, so they may make largely useful contributions is the hardest job.
What is the title of your current project?
“And They Occupied Me”
What inspired you to make And They Occupied Me?
As a journalist, when I worked on stories and looked deeper into important documents related to 1984 and confessions of senior officials, it became clear that political and intelligence forces created a situation in which the solution was to carry out large-scale massacres in Punjab in the 1980s and win over most of the people. This research made me feel like I needed to do something on behalf of so many innocent Sikh lives lost in the 1980s.
What is the main conflict of And They Occupied Me?
Media are working as the Indian government tool and portraying Sikhs and farmers as anti-State elements. In that situation, it’s very hard to be able to tell your story. Sikhs have lived through a genocide and witnessed thousands of our youth disappear without a trace. They know the State won’t hesitate to repeat its atrocities and they know they will have to face the brunt of it. Laws like UAPA ensures that any Sikh even thinking about their human rights will be tossed in jail.
Sikhs are a minority in a country that’s had a history of oppressing them. What happened to Sikhs is traumatic, even though we have a very rich and beautiful lineage that shows bravery and courage. We are still human. And we are still impacted by wrongdoing done to our family and our people in general. I think what’s needed more than ever is for Sikhs to come together and remind ourselves of who we are, learn the power of rich Sikh history and secure our future by understanding the past.
How long did you spend in production?
3 years in terms of research and story writing. 1 year in production.
How long did you spend in post-production?
Did you work with a writer, or write And They Occupied Me yourself? Would you do the same again?
I wrote the series myself and yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
How did you find your cast and what made you choose them?
We approached people through social media and other channels. We could not work with some of the artists as anticipated. There was also casting unavailability – international artists could not travel due to the pandemic travel restrictions. Last but not the least, few artists who had to work in the lead roles (I will not name them) declined to show up for the shooting due to the roles they were going to play i.e. Indian Prime Minister Durga Devi, General Arun Kumar and General Kul Brar.
How big was your crew? Would you choose the same size again?
The “ATOM” series features a total of 600+ artists and technicians. Probably not.
How did you find your locations?
Because of the pandemic it was hard to pick preferred locations. Majority of the studios were closed. After a lot of research, we picked some locations in the Fresno, California area.
Tell me some career goals. What would you like to achieve?
My goal is to continue working on historical projects related to Sikh history.
Tell me something you were surprised by something you had never realized about being a filmmaker.
The support I received from my producer – Parminder Singh Mangat. When the producer gives you all the resources you need, the director’s life becomes so much easier. Kudos to him!
What are words of advice you have for other aspiring filmmakers?
Do it because you are passionate about it. Nothing is perfect the first time around, but you learn and gain experience. Just start and build your career one project at a time.
Give me your social links so people can come and find you!
These are the best places to find the release dates and latest news on my ATOM series.
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