P. Jayakumar, CEO of Toonz Animation India, is in tune with the times

Life at Toonz Animation India, headquartered at Technopark in Thiruvananthapuram, seems to be as colourful as a storybook. Everywhere you look inside the state-of-the-art animation studio there are bright spaces and huge framed posters of well-loved animation films. There are life-like cut outs of young Hanuman and Tenali Raman, some of the popular animation characters created by the firm. There are beautifully illustrated caricatures, drawings and storyboards of past and present projects, especially Toonz’ latest home-grown animation tale, Swami Ayappan, a biopic of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala, which is set to release in early 2013, all tacked onto every available surface… Here dozens of young creative artists, animators, scriptwriters, prop designers, and so on give free rein to their creativity using cutting edge technology, and in the process they take Indian animation into new adventures and hitherto uncharted territory. Leading the merry band from the front is P. Jayakumar, the company’s chief executive officer (CEO).

“Life is colourful, indeed,” agrees Jayakumar, known as ‘JK’ to his associates, as MetroPlus catches up with him in his haven of an office that proudly displays huge posters of The Adventures of Tenali Raman (India’s first animated television series), Hanuman (India’s first 2D Animated movie), and Paddy’s Pages – some of Toonz’ signature projects that he holds close to his heart. “In fact, it’s been a colourful journey for the past 14 years, ever since I joined the company as its chief financial officer in 1998. I took over as CEO within six months of my joining,” adds the verbose Jayakumar. He is credited with steering Toonz from a relative non-entity into a global player and one of Asia’s most reputed animation houses.

“It’s all about timing and seizing the opportunity, actually. We were there at the right time and place. This business depends on me being pro-active. I have to go out there and find workable projects and convince major studios and international networks to collaborate with Toonz. That’s why I have to travel constantly, roughly 15 days out of every month! Of course, it helps that I have a world-class body of work created by my guys on the floor here to show them. In fact, since Toonz conceptualised and produced Tenali Raman (2002), I’ve never had any trouble convincing major studios such as Walt Disney or Marvel, broadcasting majors such as Cartoon Network and BBC to bank on Toonz. But, in the initial stages, at least, it was not only about selling Toonz. It was also about selling Thiruvananthapuram; about selling India. After all, animation in India is only 10 years old, a mere kid when compared to the United States, which has a 60-year history of animation!” says Jayakumar.

Carpe diem seems to be the mantra that he follows in life too. Jayakumar hails from a “middle class, agrarian family” in Thiruvananthapuram, and was a finance officer with Kerala Water Authority, prior to joining Toonz. “I’m a completely home-grown boy,” he says referring to his education at Kundamankadavu Lower Primary School, Malayinkil Government School, Arts College and finally, M.G. College from where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics.

“I wanted to move out of my job, though I was working on a prestigious Dutch-Danish project at the time. Then I saw a newspaper ad for the post of chief finance officer for a new animation company. At the time I had zero idea about animation. On a lark, I went and met the Toonz’ founders – U.S.-based Malayali entrepreneur, the late G.A. Menon (who is also founder chairman of UST Global) and reputed animator Bill Dennis, who has worked on Disney’s Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, among others. I decided then and there that I wanted to be a part of this exciting new venture, even before they agreed to give me a job!” recalls Jayakumar, with a laugh. Convincing his family was the bigger challenge. “My parents didn’t understand why I wanted to chuck my ‘safe’ government job, especially because I had been married for just about two years then. My wife, Bindu, was also apprehensive. But all three gave me their blessing when they saw how confident I was,” he says.

When Jayakumar started at Toonz, the animation industry in India was still in its nascent stages. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Jayakumar grew into animation even as the industry itself grew. “We – I’m talking about both Toonz and the animation industry – had quite a few teething problems, even though as a country we had a rich repository of stories – legends, folk tales and history, all waiting to be told. There was a dearth of skilled manpower and our exposure to international productions was minimal. So we had to depend on expatriates – when we started, Toonz had 50 or so foreign employees – which was a financial burden on the company. We literally had to train people on the job (Toonz began its animation academy in 2002),” recalls Jayakumar.

Toonz, though, was quick to cash in on India as a low-cost production destination for animation and started off as a BPO (business process outsourcing) firm, creating content for major studios and broadcasters. The company’s first client was Cartoon Network, Hong Kong, for whom they made a series of 20 ads for the channel’s millennium campaign titled ‘Get Tooned’. “There is only so much you can grow when you are doing the work of others. Therefore, it was important for us to start investing in projects and build up a (intellectual) property portfolio. Having your own property gives you licensing options (think Disney’s theme parks and merchandise; Time-Warner’s Tom and Jerry series), which really is the most lucrative part of the animation industry. We have never looked back.”

Jayakumar is nowadays gung ho about the future of animation in India and aims for Toonz to be “the biggest content provider of Indian content for India. Animation in India is growing exponentially. In the next 10 years India’s will be the largest animation industry in the world.” And by the looks of it Toonz and Jayakumar, will be right on the scene.

Off screen

Whenever Jayakumar gets free time, “which is never”, he likes to watch movies (“mostly those shown on long haul flights”) and listening to music. Of course, he is keen on watching cartoons too. His top five animated films/series are: The Lion King, Tom and Jerry, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Toy Story. Jayakumar lives in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife and two kids, Anand and Abhinand.

On screen

Toonz Animation, which employees close to 500 people of varied nationalities, offers “soup to nuts” (end-to-end) animation services for a full spectrum of media platforms. Over the years Toonz has collaborated (or continues to collaborate) with media production houses of the likes of Walt Disney, Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, Hallmark, BBC, Sony Entertainment, and Cartoon Network, on a variety of popular international projects such Freefonix, Wolverine and X-Men, Dragonlance, Finley the Fire Engine, Gatturo, and a TV biopic on author J.K. Rowling titled Magic Beyond Words, to name a few.

Keywords: Toonz Animation