Hot Shot                                                  

This article appeared in the 28 Sep - 4 Oct, 1991, issue of "The Illustrated Weekly of India". This weekly magazine was probably India's most widely read general-interest periodical in the English language for a few decades. It ceased publication in 1993.

It was love at first sight. Ever since Abdul set his eyes on the object of his passion, he had only one ambition: to possess the object of his passion by hook or crook. By the time he was fourteen, Abdul Latif had enough money to buy his first camera.

The year: 1943. Films were not available, as there was an embargo on goods coming to India from Europe due to the war. Jaunpur, the bustling town in Uttar Pradesh where Abdul lived was all the more inaccessible. But that was certainly not going to keep the Latifs of the world from indulging in their passion. Photographs were printed on paper negatives instead of films, which obviously did not produce the desired effect, but then Latif was neck deep into photography. There was no way anybody could stop him. The young lad was a bright student and wanted to become a geophysicist. He enrolled for BSc with physics, mathematics and geology. “I was spending most of my time behind the lenses, so obviously I did not do well”, reminisces Latif. Ultimately, he realized he could not two-time and decided in favour of his first love. He set up a studio in Jaunpur but soon Calcutta beckoned and he relented.

He had no reason to come to the city, Delhi was just a few miles away from his hometown. But a friend who had come to the great eastern metropolis, wrote to him saying that Calcutta was the place to be in. And Latif came down in 1953, opening a studio in Park Circus.

By then he was a family man and he needed more money than he was making. So when the Geological Society of India offered him the post of an inhouse photographer, he took it up readily. “I thought it would be boring at first, but soon I started liking the job. I got a chance to do a lot of outdoor work apart from the routine work with rock specimens and so on,” says Latif. But soon he got his big break.

Harris, a British accountant working with Grindlays Bank was one of his Latif’s regular customers. A few years after Independence, he went back to England from where he would occasionally write back. In one of his letters he made a lucrative offer. It was an apprentice’s job with the makers of Paillard camera. Latif took it immediately. He applied for a long leave from GSI and set out for Edinburgh. “I sold my fridge and scooter to pay for the passage money”, recalls Latif. He sailed from Calcutta to reach Dover via Calais. From there he took a train to Victoria.

He did quite well as a trainee, graduating from there to Xeiss Ikon (Zeiss Ikon), the famous camera manufacturers based in Germany. He spent six years growing from strength to strength. But his employers back in India became increasingly impatient, so he resigned from the GSI, although he had become the chief photographer even before he had left the organization. Latif, however did not relish his stint in Europe long after this. So he returned to India. This time around, he set up shop on Chowringhee, in downtown Calcutta. He got many more clients as his fame as a camera expert spread far and wide. People flocked to his shop to get their cameras repaired. The best names in the world of photography queued up with their defective equipment for Latif’s ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’. People waited for days together to get their cameras repaired by Latif. At sixty, Latif is one of the leading experts in the field> anybody who possessed a Leica or a Xeiss Ikon (Zeiss Ikon) and wrote to the company complaining about some trouble, was recommended Latif’s name. As a result, people from all over the country became his clients.

Even the union government has got in touch with him. He has been petitioned to repair a high speed camera at the Chandipur nuclear testing ground.

Most photographers in Calcutta have had a brush with Latif. The consensus is that Latif’s professional fee is steep and yet he takes time over repairs. Tapan Das, chief photographer of Ananda Bazar Patrika says: “Latif may not be number one, but he is certainly among the better known.” Das’ personal experience is not too satisfying though. Latif failed to deliver a camera in time and when he did, Das discovered that it had not been repaired. Sunil K. Dutt, a leading photo-journalist rates Latif very highly. “He is not for the middle class lenseman; his charges are exorbitant,” he says.

“We professionals can pay an extra buck, but then when you give your camera to him you are completely at his mercy. He takes a lot of time. But all things considered, it is all right I guess, he is a perfectionist. He attracts a lot of foreign clients because he can speak good English and his shop is centrally located,” adds Dutt. Nemai Ghosh, Satyajit Ray’s still photographer says: “In one word Latif is terrific. He is the pioneer repairer in Calcutta. Most of the others sat at his feet to learn the tricks of the trade. He has never kept me waiting.” Ghosh recalls an incident during the shooting of Ray’s thriller Shonar Kella. On returning from a longish spell of outdoor shooting, the photographer discovered that there was something wrong with the shutter of his new camera. Nobody could say what had actually gone wrong. But Latif took one look at it and fixed it immediately.

Dhiman Ghosh, a freelancer, rates him as the number one, “although his charges are high, he is quite popular,” says Ghosh. Dilip Banerjee, staff photographer of the Economic Times is emphatic. “Latif is definitely among the best in town, he is a master repairer.” But Banerjee is a busy professional, and Latif takes time to deliver. So the two parted company.

All the pending work adds up to a lot. A camera which has come in for repair in September, for instance, will be delivered only in mid-December. “I do not believe in rushing,” says Latif. He would rather take more time but accomplish perfection. And Latif gives priority to outstation customers. “They come down exclusively to avail of my services, so its not fair to keep them waiting,” says Latif. But then there are exceptions. A fashion photographer came to him in a desperate condition. A model had tripped over his camera stand, toppling the costly equipment and completely shattering the lens. Latif could feel the agony the poor lensman was in. His camera was delivered to him in two weeks time.

After all these years, Latif has finally decided to pass on the mantle to son Asif. “I am not comfortable with today’s electronic stuff; he copes better”, says the proud father with a laugh. So is retirement on the cards? Not at all. In fact Latif has already embarked on a different trip altogether. His new passion is locks. It might sound strange, but then for Latif it began like any other experiment with machines. He just opened up a few world class security locks made by Xeiss Ikon (Zeiss Ikon) and that was it. He picked up the system immediately and started making samples along those lines. He has now branded his locks ‘Nishan’ and is planning to market them. There are also plans of a full scale manufacturing unit, not to mention the fact that Latif has got offers from a couple of companies who are interested in his product.

Going by the samples that he has to show, he might beat the leaders any day, although his product is priced higher. “Why should anybody not pay more for security items like locks? It does not make sense”, Latif points out. “If thieves in India were up on technology, no building or locker will be safe today. My locks can beat a thief equipped with the latest knowhow”, claims Latif. There are also export plans on the cards. But Latif is confident of seeing it through.

So, he goes on, working for hours, at his desk. The last time Latif went for a holiday with his family was in 1978. But he does not mind. Work to him is like having a picnic. And when he wants to have a ball he just takes look at his collection of 54 antique cameras!

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