Tribute | ‘There were so many animation films Arnab Chaudhuri had in his head’

Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao pays tribute to a pioneering peer who worked and died before his time

The year 2013 was a significant one for India at the Oscars with Arnab Chaudhuri’s Arjun, The Warrior Prince among the five films in The Walt Disney Company’s list of submissions. It was entered in the animation feature category, a rare film to find Disney’s backing considering it was not created but acquired by the studio on its acquisition of UTV, the original producers. While India’s official entry, Barfi!, was mired in controversies, Arjun made it quietly to the long list but unfortunately couldn’t progress further on technical grounds. It had been released on video on demand (VOD) before the theatrical screening in Los Angeles, a rule overlooked by the producers.

The Oscar challenge apart, the film featured in the official selection of almost all the major animation festivals in 2012-2013 be it Annecy International Animation Film Festival, Holland Animation Film Festival or Ottawa International Animation Festival. The director of this path-breaking animation feature film and one of the biggest champions of the Indian animation industry, Chaudhuri passed away on December 25, 2019 in Kolkata. He was admired as much for his work as a television professional, and for his stint at Channel V and Turner.

Members of the Animation Guild, a representative body of animation artistes, writers and technicians, plan to get together on February 29 for the annual Afternoon of Remembrance in which they will honour those from the animation community who passed away in 2019. Chaudhuri will be one of them. Filmmaker Gitanjali Rao writes a tribute to a fellow animation artiste and friend for The Hindu.

A visionary

I got to know Arnab through my animation friends from National Institute of Design (NID) back in the mid 90s. The suave, gentle, talented, confident and terribly attractive young artist who was creating waves in Channel V with his superb work. Arnab was ahead of his times. Not only was his work original and imaginative, but the people who worked with him loved and admired him. And that was rare.

I never got a chance to work with him although I tried, years later, and so did he, but the projects never came through. We were a bunch of animators trying for many years to make a good Indian animation feature film back in the early 2000s when suddenly, India had become a hub of cheap though good backend work. We were a frustrated lot given the lack of funds for animation films in India. But Arnab was the first one to land with a totally Indian film to be created in India, an original India story, Arjun, The Warrior Prince with UTV. It was phenomenal!

Collaborative process

My association with Arnab grew when my partner KK Muralidharan worked with Arnab as production designer on Arjun, The Warrior Prince with his work partner Rachna Rastogi. The film took many long years to evolve and complete. Three or more, I have lost count. From idea to completion. But for me just the fact that I could watch this film happening was a huge learning experience. I would hop on to my partner’s side for many a work-in-progress viewings. This was very important for me as I learned so much about the task of dealing with so many artists to make the film.

No one but animators know the immense amount of work that goes into creating a film like Arjun, The Warrior Prince. Right from the script sessions with writer Rajesh Devraj, which were followed by long discussions, what I noticed and still absolutely admire about Arnab was his ability to listen to others. Always with patience and generosity. He always ended up doing what he felt worked best for the film but he listened and absorbed and worked around everyone else’s opinion.

It might look and sound easy but with animation it’s a very difficult way to work compared to live action. An animation film gives you no liberty with extra takes at the time of editing the film. What you plan to animate is what you have in the end. Nothing more, nothing less. So the planning of the film has to be impeccable before you start animating the film.

Arnab would involve all the creative HODs in the creative process and give each and every one a patient ear. And that I think is the key reason why people who worked with him loved him so much. ‘Fearless yet never aggressive’ as KK Muralidharan puts it.

I clearly remember the time when his animation director, Pavan Buragohain was designing characters. In the first draft, all the characters looked absolutely Indian. They were exquisitely crafted out from inspiration from Indian actors in films pan Indian. I remember the design of Draupadi was based on Malayalam actor and danseuse Shobhana. And my, was she amazing!

Challenges of an animator

After having made my own feature film, I know how difficult and painful that decision must have been for him but he took the right decision given the constraints. This, I feel is the predicament of pioneers. Arnab is the pioneer of Indian animation made to international quality but it all came with a heavy price to pay.

And the price was not just at a creative level. Animation is such a labour-intensive work, that to make a film over three years entails that you have no time to live a life. You have to breathe the project day and night, including weekends to just get a few good seconds done.

In the years following the release of Arjun, we often met and discussed the difficulties of finding finance for our own films. He was pursuing the second part of the Arjun trilogy as planned by him and Devraj. He had managed to make a trailer pitch, which looked outstanding. The last time I met him, a little over a month before his stroke, all he said when he hugged me was “You did it! You actually made your film!”

We are almost the same age, having managed to make our first film makes nothing easier I guess. There were so many animation films Arnab Chaudhuri had in his head, yet to be made. Saying this is a great loss to Indian animation industry would be to do a disservice to him. I’d rather say (and I know he would approve) this is no country for animators.

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The article has been re-edited after publication for clarity.

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Printable version | May 31, 2020 10:14:10 PM |

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