With a weeklong international children’s film festival starting in New Delhi this Friday, let’s look at the genre of children’s films in India.

One of the CFSI films bagged six international awards last year

This past Tuesday when Delhiite Deepti Bharadwaj checked her five-year-old daughter’s school bag, a circular popped out. It sought her permission to allow her child to join a class trip to watch the film “Kung Fu Panda”. Well, more than the kid, it made Deepti happy, for it will save her from taking her for it this weekend. Earlier, Deepti recounts, her daughter had also watched “My Friend Ganesha” from the school.

Well, this is not a one-off case. In fact, most city schools now increasingly organise such trips. It now seems to be picking up as an effective mode of promoting children’s films. Making use of it from this Friday is WorldKids International Children’s Film Festival. The weeklong festival to be held at New Delhi’s PVR Cinema at Select City Walk, Saket, has roped in over 20 top rated Delhi schools to gather audience between age 8 and 18 for as many as 17 films picked from across the world.

Says Manju Singh, the festival convenor, “Parents today have very little time to take their kids to a children’s film festival. So we thought of approaching the schools. This got us 24,000 children when we had our festival in Mumbai last year. Ditto in Indore this April. The weekend, though, is open to all audience.” Each school pays a nominal registration fee, adds Singh.

So then, with such an efficient way of attracting a steady audience to this genre, is the sun finally beginning to shine on our ailing children’s film industry? Are things changing for better? Well, yes, and no.

Yes, because the number of films meant for child audience produced annually in the country has increased now. To quote Nafisa Ali, now serving her second term as Chairperson, Children’s Film Society of India, the only body which finances children’s films in India, “We have five films on the road and five more being readied this year.” Then there is a sizeable number of roll-outs from Bollywood directors keeping child audience in mind. For instance, “Raju Chacha”, “Koi…Mil Gaya”, “Krishh”, “The Blue Umbrella”, “Chain Kuli ki Main Kuli”, “Tara Rum Pum”, “Tare Zameen Par”, “Ghatotkach”, “Thoda Pyar Thoda Magic”, etc. Bollywood then is developing a slow, but sure interest to attract kid film-goers. No wonder then, child actors like Zain Khan and Darsheel Safary are endorsing products! Also, as Ali put it, the budgetary allocation for CFSI films has gone up and is likely to rise. “I suggested a five-fold increase but the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister has promised a three-fold increase.”

Not a rosy picture

Still, all the pluses can’t afford to paint a rosy picture of the state of children’s films. Though the number of local films has gone up, it is nowhere near the foreign imports, both in terms of quantity and quality. Agrees Sai Paranjpye, who had headed CFSI twice, “In most of our children’s films the characterisation is so weak that it is difficult to figure out who is playing the grandmother: the kid or the actor who is playing her grandmother! I have not seen kids speaking with so much rationale around me.”

Nitin Bikchandani, North India Head of Sony Pictures which distributes the movies of Columbia Pictures and Walt Disney, counts this as the undoing of our home-grown films. “Kids are smart these days. They have seen films like ‘Finding Nemo’. Why would they take a substandard Indian film?” So obviously, he adds, “‘Narnia Tales’ did fabulously here whereas ‘Hanuman Returns’ couldn’t.” The Warner Brothers’ latest “Harry Potter” film made even more money than “Narnia…” in India.

Perhaps for poor production quality, Singh too could pick only one Indian film for her festival which has films from Iran and Cuba among others. She has borrowed four films from CFSI out of which three have been procured from other countries. Ali differs, “One of our films bagged six international awards last year and two National Awards this year.” Not easily available for children, she promises the facility to download the films for a fee from the CFSI site soon.

The Bollywood effect

Some also look at Bollywood’s role in promoting the genre with doubt. Commerce rules there. “Bollywood produces the highest number of films in the world, but doesn’t bother about making good children’s films because it looks at everything from the commercial angle,” says Singh, remembered for hosting Doordarshan shows like “Ek Kahani” and “Show Theme”. That CFSI has not a single Bollywood producer on its list of assignees speak of its unattractive budget. Paranjpye points out: “The CFSI gives Rs.30 lakhs to shoot an entire film. Bollywood filmmakers shoot a song in this amount. How can you expect quality in such a situation? Particularly when your competition is from the slickly made Hollywood films.” No wonder then, films like “Herbie Hancock” opened to a highest ever weekend opening of a foreign film here, points out Bikchandani. “Besides a good product, we do a lot of marketing to popularise a kids’ film,” he adds.

Those from the Bollywood who do make a rare good attempt fail at the box office. Like Vishal Bharadwaj’s “The Blue Umbrella” suffered due to poor marketing.

Meanwhile, Ali too has problems. Convincing the States to do their bit to popularise children’s films in their areas is an uphill task. “The Chief Secretary of every State or their representatives are supposed to attend our annual governing body meeting but 80 per cent of them don’t come,” she states.

Buoyant about getting a go-ahead from the West Bengal Government “to hold a children’s festival in that State after 30 years”, it is a small battle won by Ali. Her next big task is to get the budget rolling for the coming Golden Elephant Award of CFSI. Adds Ali, “I just found out that no money had been set aside for the country’s only prestigious international award for children’s films.”

No child’s play this!