The curious case of Indian animation

Why is there such a dearth of good quality content at home when there’s so much Oscar-winning talent?

March 25, 2017 04:20 pm | Updated March 26, 2017 02:17 am IST

A stills from Tripura.

A stills from Tripura.

Much of the painstakingly detailed animation for the live-action/ CGI Disney film The Jungle Book was done in the Bengaluru offices of the Soho-headquartered Moving Picture Company. The film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects this year.

A lot of the advanced computer graphics technology used to shoot the tiger scenes in Life of Pi was done in the Mumbai and Hyderabad offices of Los Angeles-based SFX company Rhythm & Hues. Life of Pi won the Best Visual Effects Oscar in 2013.

Skyfall , Shrek , How to Train your Dragon … the list of animation films that have outsourced large portions of work to Indian studios is long and growing. Yet, if you look for stunning, award-winning original SFX or animation cinema from Indian studios that are visible or commercial hits, you will find almost none. The closest we get is the 2015 smash hit Baahubali: The Beginning . Its sequel Baahubali: The Conclusion is slated for a July release and reportedly has 33 studios working on VFX post-production, effects that took 15 months to create.

In 2005, there was the very successful Hanuman , which made a profit of ₹5 crore. Chhota Bheem , created in 2008, is said to have garnered over 40 million viewers in its nine years, with a 2013 study valuing the brand at ₹300 crore. Rajiv Chilakha, its creator, is possibly India’s most commercially successful animator.

The hugely popular children’s series ‘Hanuman’.

The hugely popular children’s series ‘Hanuman’.

Besides these, there seems to be nothing. An occasional Chaar Sahibzaade (2014), Harry Baweja’s super-hit Punjabi animation, or Motu Patlu (2016), the TV sitcom for children. And after that, we go right back to the 1970s and Ek Anek , the very famous Films Division short.

Full, but empty

It would seem that the country is swimming in animation talent, but home-grown films are either awkwardly made or non-existent. Animation studios here are clearly good to provide assembly-line labour but are not coming up with original cinema. And this has been the state since the animation boom of the late 90s.

E. Suresh, the founder of Studio Eeksaurus that in 2015 won India’s first-ever Annecy International Animation Film Award, among several others, says: “Of some 10,000 animators (as in people who just animate to a brief), we may have 10 animation filmmakers who are passionate about making a film using the animation medium.”

Suresh adds two other reasons for animation being stuck in a limbo here: “The lack of original stories; of writers who can think and write animation,” and second, the lack of producers and studios who see merit or money in animated content. “Instead,” says Suresh, “they just lament that there’s no market for animated content in India.”

It is, interestingly, also a comment on the state of the country’s filmmaking imagination today. As Suresh explains, animated stories can use crazy impossibilities as a premise, but “our imagination right now seems limited to what we can see.” Almost all films want to tell popular stories from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata . Says Suresh, “It’s like India has only two mangas that are really popular; Japan has a million mangas to choose from.”

Vaibhav Kumaresh of Vaibhav Studios, who created the popular character Simpoo Singh for Channel V in 1999, has a rather dismal tale: “All our productions have been huge flops... whether Arjuna , which was very critically acclaimed, or Roadside Romeo , which was a very high investment film, the biggest entity from Bollywood.” And why was that? According to Kumaresh, the approach might have been all wrong. “It’s not a Bollywood story; you can’t just translate flesh and blood to cats and dogs. It’s not going to work like that. This is a different language, a different art form.”

Roadside Romeo.

Roadside Romeo.

Making an animation film is only half the job; promoting it is the other half. As Kumaresh explains, “Even if I’ve made a brilliant film over five years, I still need a proper partner to market it, distribute it, and advertise it. I need to get Bollywood on my side because that will be our biggest competition. They are fighting among themselves, they book dates in advance; it’s almost like they have a monopoly. Yashraj and Devgn Productions had this clash with Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Son of Sardar because both wanted to release on the same day. With such cut-throat competition, why will they show some kutta-billi (dog-and-cat) film when a Salman-starrer will bring in the audiences?”

Policy paucity

Government support for animation is non-existent because in theory, it is a profitable business, predicted to grow in the coming years. Neither is there a rock-solid television or theatre policy to give space to home-grown animated content. Gitanjali Rao, critically-acclaimed animation filmmaker, talks of how Disney came on board to produce her contemporary version of the Mahabharata but later pulled out citing the math. Says Rao: “They told me no animation has made more than ₹4 crore, so we cannot fund your project. That doesn’t make sense to me, so I think there’s another reason.”

Rao has a conspiracy theory. “Some marketing experts tell me Disney India will never make an Indian animation successful because that undermines their own market. They have to sign a paper that says they will produce indigenous content, but if they don’t like the quality, they can call it off. So they open shop here, so that everybody can use us as manual labour. While the contract promises to generate in-house content, they can always say later they don’t like it enough to produce it. They will never make an animation film in India.”

Then, there’s the cost factor. As Kumaresh explains, Cartoon Network can get readymade animation from anywhere in the globe at one-tenth the cost of a new Indian production. “If, say, for ₹4 lakh, they get a season of Doraemon (a Japanese anime show from the 1960s), why would they pay close to ₹1 crore to make a tele-feature here,” he asks.

Channel V’s Simpoo Singh.

Channel V’s Simpoo Singh.

This could be said of all international children’s channels, whether Disney, Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, who, say industry experts, have done nothing to create a healthy turf for good, home-grown animated content. Suresh reiterates: “These multinational companies reap profits by beaming 30-year-old reruns in India, cheaply procured from various countries, and children lap it up for want of anything better.”

But if you think domestic studios might be more sympathetic, then you are wrong. Chetan Sharma, co-founder of Animagic India, says his experience making films for Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) Media was disappointing. The trailer of his film Tripura can be found online, but the film cannot. There was no promotion or buzz around it. Says Sharma, “In India, people want animation films to be made in half the time and a quarter of the budget. They then expect the same profits as from a Pixar film. This is what happens when business people get into animation.”

In this gloom-and-doom scenario, there is Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), one of the few government bodies that does provide funds to animation filmmakers. But CFSI is famously bad at distribution. CEO Shravan Kumar says that in 2013, when he joined, they hired Rajshri Productions to distribute Rajan Khosa’s Gattu , but even though the film could not even recover its making cost, the distributors insisted on their 20% cut. This dissuaded CFSI altogether from hiring distributors.

Kumar agrees that good Indian films ought to get visibility, but says that only children come under CFSI’s purview. Take Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya (2013), for instance, which is shown to school children across the country, but is not available to an adult audience.

Rao argues that CFSI has some brilliant films with it, but they are just collecting dust. The prints available on their website are often bad and CFSI is just not invested in promoting talent. “It is only interested in carrying out its stated objective of showing films to children.”

Despite these odds, and the uphill task of making animated films, all four animators I spoke to are working on films. They are aware of the responsibility on their backs: of putting out a good film after the many flops that have turned the market against Indian animation. Sharma and Kumaresh are working on undisclosed films, while the most concrete project is Rao’s Bombay Rose , scheduled for a 2019 release. Studio Eeksaurus has been releasing short films regularly and has started an incubation centre to mentor young filmmakers. There’s reason to hope that The Jungle Book might one day be made in the country of its origin.

The author is a Mumbai-based writer and filmmaker who wishes all the city’s pavements were as wide as in Kala Ghoda, so people could walk on them sometimes.

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