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Adventures ahead

NITA SATHYENDRAN
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INTERVIEW P. Jayakumar, CEO of Toonz Animation India, says the future of animation in India is promising

LOTS TO LOOK FORP. JayakumarPhoto: S. Mahinsha
LOTS TO LOOK FORP. JayakumarPhoto: S. Mahinsha

Life at Toonz Animation India, headquartered in Thiruvananthapuram, seems to be as colourful as a storybook. 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 Ayyappan , a biopic of Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala, which is set to release in early 2013, all tacked onto every available surface… Dozens of young creative artists, animators, scriptwriters, prop designers, and others give free rein to their creativity using cutting-edge technology, and take Indian animation to 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 sitting in his 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 last 14 years,” says Jayakumar who took over as CEO within six months of joining Toonz. 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. Of course, it helps that I have a world-class body of work created by my guys. 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.” Carpe diem seems to be the mantra that he follows in life too. Jayakumar was a finance officer with Kerala Water Authority, prior to joining Toonz. “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 entrepreneur, the late G.A. Menon (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 that I wanted to be a part of this exciting new venture, even before they agreed to give me a job!” recalls Jayakumar. When Jayakumar started at Toonz, the animation industry in India was still nascent. So it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Jayakumar grew into animation even as the industry itself grew. “We — 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 had to train people on the job (Toonz began its animation academy in 2002),” says Jayakumar.

Cashing in on the trend

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 an intellectual property portfolio. Having your own property gives you licensing options, which really is the most lucrative part of the animation industry. We have never looked back.”

Jayakumar is 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”.

NITA SATHYENDRAN

Animation in India is growing exponentially.

In the next 10 years, India’s will be the largest animation industry in the world

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