It's storytime again! Alok Sharma's documentary brings back a slice of childhood by tracing the journey of Indian comics on screen, says Anusha Parthasarathy

There are certain comic characters that you will always remember — wise Chacha Chaudhary with a grand red turban and his giant friend Sabu, Little-Lulu-like Pinky, Billu with his hair falling over his eyes (who often runs into trouble with Bajrangi the wrestler) and the trusty, straightforward Bahadur. But when did these colourful panels of art begin to hold our attention?

Ever since the 1960s, Indian comics, in different forms and frames, have kept generations of children entertained on long train rides, road trips and summer holidays. Alok Sharma, comic book illustrator and scriptwriter, who grew up on Bahadur, Billu, Pinky and the endearing Chacha Chaudhary has a collection of Indian comics running into many thousands. But that's not all. After years of wondering why Indian comics haven't been documented or had their stories told, he decided to do it himself. His documentary, on the evolution of homegrown picture stories, is called ‘Chitrakatha'.

“This film talks about the evolution of Indian comics through the eyes of a fan and will feature every single comic written by the last three generations of cartoonists — from the Anant Pai-Pran era to the latest batch of Virgin Comics. The idea came about in 2005, when I quit my job as an illustrator with Gotham comics to explore radio. There, they had a massive library where I learnt how much importance international comics had — there were magazines and books dedicated to them but none such for the Indian contemporaries. I've been planning this for a few years but only began working on it from 2008,” says Alok, “I decided to name the documentary after the Indian name for comics. ‘Chitra' is illustration and ‘Katha' means story.”

While the documentary is still in production, a sneak preview shows comic artist Aabid Surti (who created Inspector Azad and Bahadur) talking about how he was introduced to comics in the 1950s. “The first generation of comics was from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, after which the Diamond comics generation happened,” says Alok, “First we had syndicate comic strips that were published in newspapers; Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, Phantom and others. These comics had to be location-neutral so that everyone could relate to them. Therefore, Flash Gordon fought aliens on a different planet and for a long time people thought comics such as Phantom (Vetal in Hindi) were Indian comics.”

When Phantom grew popular, Anant Pai and those in Indrajal comics collected the strips and published it as a comic book. “People were crazy about Phantom in the 1960s, when these anthologies came out as comic books. I had interviewed a book seller who has been around from that time and he told me that all the books would be sold in an hour,” says Alok, “But while this was happening, Anant Pai also wanted Indian comics and so, after a while, the Phantom comic would have 16 pages of Phantom and 16 pages of Indian comics. It was an expensive task, though, to hire artists and print them, so they reduced it eventually.”

Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) began after Anant quit Indrajal and it started off by buying the rights for 10 American fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Pinocchio. “There was Indrajal comics, Deewana, the Indian Mad magazine had already started and Anant Pai was struggling to complete the first comic done. Finally, Krishna (the serial number is #11) was released and it was gone in a day or two. They did not have a copy of the cover art for the second reprint and hence, the artist had to draw another one. Later, when there was a fire in the ACK office, they had to draw another cover art for the same comic.”

To bring about the entire story, Alok spent many months trying to interview the artists. “It was a massive challenge because Anant Pai wasn't at the best of his health when we met but when I introduced the concept of my documentary, he was happy and began to talk. Aabid Surati's comic strips appeared when my parents were children and I first met him at a cartoon fest when I was 17. We kept in touch and then after days of coaxing, he finally gave us an interview,” explains Alok.

The documentary will be released in the first half of 2012 in three different forms, a 45-minute film, one 70-minute documentary and a two-hour fan boy cut. “When I began working on ‘Chitrakatha', I introduced these artists to social networking, created a Facebook page where they can all meet their fans and get feedback on their work. It's funny to see these 70-plus people who never knew the kind of fan base they have, interacting with people who've been trying to reach them for so long.”

For details look up http://www.chitrakathaonline.com/