“Aap bachpan se hi gayab hain? Mera matlab hai ki aap is nahin dikhaaye dene wale profession me in kab se hain?”

Some years ago, while watching Mr India (1987), it struck me that I knew nothing about the visual effects that had made Anil Kapoor’s disappearing act so thrilling. Certainly, the analogue trickery of the 1980s might seem transparent and quaint to those of us who grew up in the digital era, but Mr India remains a classic for its special effects, a rare stab at science fiction in mainstream Hindi cinema. And yet, the people involved in creating the effects have been consigned to obscurity.

An IMDb search yielded two names: Arun Patil (mechanical effects) and Peter Pereira (special effects coordinator). While Patil has since given an interview as president of the Movie Action and Dummy Effects Association (in 2004), Pereira seemed to have been altogether forgotten, apart from an brief appearance in Sidharth Bhatia’s eponymous book about Amar, Akbar, Anthony (1977). Besides Mr India, Pereira worked on special effects for other fantasy films like Sheshnaag (1990) and Ajooba (1991). He is a figure at the cusp of the transition from old-fashioned mechanical illusions to the computer-generated special effects that define 21st-century cinematic spectacle.

Intrigued by his absence from film history, I decided to track him down and speak to him, quite a challenge since Pereira, now in his nineties, had long retired from the film industry. I was given a landline number and told that he lived by himself in Bombay, with attendants engaged by a US-based nephew. Nobody answered the phone. I paid him a visit to see if he would consent to an interview. When I turned up at his old Juhu apartment, the door was opened by a nurse, understandably reluctant to let me enter. Behind her, a voice inquired who it was – Pereira sat in his drawing room, a trophy winking feebly in a corner, his eyesight lost to glaucoma. When I explained that I was here to speak to him about his work, he agreed to a conversation about the man who made Mr India disappear.

Is this the house you grew up in?
No, I was born in Uttan and grew up in Vasai, where my parents’ house still exists. My father would commute to Grant Road for his film distribution work. I shifted to Juhu in 1970 for work and have lived in this house ever since.

Whom did your father work with?
He worked in film distribution with MB Billimoria, a major figure in the Bombay film industry during the 1940s. He was a contemporary and collaborator of Homi Wadia, the famous producer.

Growing up with a father who worked in the movies, did you go to a lot of film sets?
Not really. When it was time for me to get a job, I joined Basant Studio in Chembur owned by Homi Wadia. I worked there as an apprentice, doing odd jobs, setting up cameras and other menial tasks.

Peter Pereira. Photo by Vimalesh Ghodeswar.

How did you get into cinematography?
My father was a photography enthusiast. I shared his hobby and enjoyed photography from the very beginning, throughout my youth. I owned a small Brownie camera and used to take lots of pictures. It was during my time as an apprentice at Basant Studio, where being in that whole environment in which films were being made, I too got attracted to motion pictures.

When did you make your own film?
It was in 1960, called Parasmani. [IMDb lists the date as 1963].

In your interview for the book on Manmohan Desai’s ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’, I read that you worked with the pioneering special effects specialist Babubhai Mistry.
Yes. Babubhai Mistry was a trick photographer in Basant Studios. Homi Wadia used to produce many mythological films and these employed a lot of trick photography for unusual, fantastical scenes. I learned a lot from Babubhai as his assistant, training under someone as innovative as he was. Manmohan Desai also assisted him at the beginning of his career.

In Hindi cinema, making classic fantasy or science fiction films was rather rare. Could you tell me about how you shifted from straightforward shoots to optical illusion and trick photography?
Basant Studios was known for producing mythological films which feature events that cannot occur in reality. They usually involve trick photography, such as showing Hanuman flying [possibly in Pawan Putra Hanuman, 1957). To achieve this, the make-up artist provided Hanuman with the mouth and tail, and then we used wires.

Did you see a lot of fantasy and sci-fi growing up? Do you remember any films that inspired you?
In the 1930s and ’40s, since my father was a film distributor, his job was to take the film to the theatre, wait till the run was over and then get the tin back. So I used to accompany him on these trips. I can’t say I remember a lot of the fantasy and science-fiction but I enjoyed comedies and specifically Charlie Chaplin a lot. There was one Douglas Fairbanks film called The Corsican Brothers (1941), in which he had a double role, that really inspired me to make films.

Parasmani (1963), directed by Babubhai Mistry.

What were the techniques you used to create effects before computers?
I’ll give you an example. In my first film Parasmani, the camera goes through a tunnel in which there is huge, 20-feet lizard. We made the entire thing with rubber. To make its eyes open and close so that it looked life-like, we made a smaller rubber lizard and inserted plastic doll’s eyes, which we controlled with a fine thread.

Obviously, the camera captures only natural things. Special effects are meant to create phenomena that exceed the natural. Now coming to my example of the Babubhai Mistry film in which we had to make Hanuman fly. We made the actor lie on his stomach atop poles and then painted them black so that they couldn’t be seen. He would support himself on the poles and pretend to fly. The background was totally white, colourless. When anything is against white, you can get a cut-out of that. So it was a sequence of cut-outs that made it look like he was flying in the sky. To make it look unsteady, we would superimpose clouds onto the shot, which created the effect of motion.

Coming to your most memorable work, how did you achieve the invisibility of ‘Mr India’?
Mr India was a totally different concept to what I had done before. This was about an invisible man. But we used traditional mechanical tricks, so it was actually all shot before the camera, unlike the digital post-production interventions used today. For example, the scene in which Mr India goes near Mogambo’s feet and picks up a bracelet: we tied the bracelet to a very fine black thread and pulled the thread out of frame so that it appears as though Mr India, the invisible man, was doing so.

We would tie fine wires behind objects and actors and use them to make it look as though they were floating or being controlled by some unseen force, like in a scene where a little boy is being twirled around by Mr India. There was a boom to balance him and hang the wires through which we could move him in and out.

There were lots of in-camera tricks I used. The disappearance/appearance shots were dissolves managed by the camera – basically you superimpose consecutive shots of the actor moving to make it look like he is vanishing and reappearing. For a shot in which the boy sees Mr India’s face and neck in red glass but the rest of his body was missing, we used the classic masking technique. We shot Mr India normally, with the lower half covered with black paper, and then again using a red filter on the lens. Then we combined the two separate images to create one image.

Mr India (1987). Courtesy Narsimha Enterprises.

What about the scene in which Mr India leaves footprints on the mud and then on the floor?
We used a stop motion technique in which we made one footprint after another as static images and then shot them one frame at a time. When you played the frames in sequence, it is as though an invisible person’s shoes are leaving footprints.

Can you tell us about your experience working on ‘Mr India’?
What a beautiful film. [The director] Shekhar Kapur would tell me what he wanted and I would do it. It was easy and straightforward – I worked on a per day basis, otherwise I would have to be there all the time.

I wasn’t the cameraman of the film, that would be Baba Azmi. On the sets, I didn’t work closely with the cinematography department, unless I wanted something changed. There was a scene in which I took one shot, Baba Azmi came up and started asking whether I was sure about the lighting. I asked him to bring me an egg and I would light it in 25 different ways.

Did you think the movie would become such a big hit?
No, not really. I never thought it would become such a hit.

Mr India (1987). Courtesy Narsimha Enterprises.

What about ‘Shesh Naag’? How do you show the transformation between the snake and the woman?
We used a dissolve. Analog cameras have a device called the optical printer, to perform a dissolve by turning a handle. You light an object, close the shutter and light the second object (that it has transformed into) when you reopen it.

What was the most fun effect to do in your career?
There was a Homi Wadia film titled Shri Ganesh Mahima (1950) in which one sequence involved replacing the head of a child with an elephant’s, which is Ganesh’s story. I placed the camera at the bottom and put the body of a four-year-old child with a black mask on his face. Then I exposed the child to the camera. Without moving the camera, I placed a plastic tusk above his body and removed his mask. Then I exposed it again. The third time I exposed him was when the child was getting up.

Through these multiple exposures, I achieved a look that was very naturalistic, as though he just grew a trunk. I took a small close-up of Parvati looking at him which did the work of maintaining the illusion from the point of view of continuity.

Did you have an opportunity to travel and meet cinematographers from other countries who were experts in special effects?
Yes, I had the chance to go to Hollywood many years ago. There, I was lucky enough to meet great cinematographers like Jack Cardiff [known for his work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger] and James Wong Howe [among the earliest cinematographers to use deep focus].

Can you talk about the transition from practical effects to CGI?
It was time-consuming to do everything through physical processes, so eventually, when it started becoming possible, we started transferring the effects business to laboratories. Film Centre in Tardeo [in Mumbai] was one of the first labs to make computer graphic-based effects.

Did people starting losing jobs? Your colleague on ‘Mr India’, Arun Patil, once commented on how the dominance of CGI in the mid-2000s had caused special effects artists to be out of work.
Well, I had co-workers who understood that new technical aspect but of course, many older people who didn’t have knowledge of computers and digital technologies left the line. Some became editors, perhaps because it tapped into a similar understanding of optical effects.

In the days of film, labs were a profitable business because they provided a crucial technical service. In addition, the photosensitive film emulsion had a lot of silver in it, most of which would be left behind as residue after processing. So labs made a lot of money because of that too. They all went out of business with the coming of digital technology in the 1990s.