March 30, 2020
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The Tube Gets To Tenali

A little late in the day, but desi Birbals are coming into their own in a world of Mickeys and Popeyes

The Tube Gets To Tenali
The Tube Gets To Tenali
Remember the occasional Katha or Padosan where the film opened with cartoons and credits sharing screen space? The use of animation in Hindi films has usually been limited to that, the odd comedy flick where vague cartoon characters prance about on screen, introducing credits accompanied by some comical-sounding music in the background—thereby setting the tone for things to come.

One of this year's biggest hits, Yash Raj films' Hum Tum, is trying to change all that. Its cartoon characters Hum and Tum are woven into the storyline, quite like songs, appearing in between scenes in an attempt to take the story forward. In fact, very soon Hum and Tum will be leaving stars Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukherjee way behind, moving on with their own cartoon series. Film director Kunal Kohli asks enthusiastically: "If The Mask could inspire an animation show, why not Hum Tum?"

The pencils that sketched the toons for Kohli's film belong to a bunch of animators from Tata Elxsi Visual Computing Labs, Mumbai, who incidentally also did graphics for the 76th Academy Awards (widely known as the Oscars) from their offices in Bangalore and Mumbai. The entertainment industry is clearly opening its arms towards its animator-brethren.

Recent movies like Jajantaram Mamantaram, Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon and Shaadi ka Laddoo (Negar Khan and some lecherous cartoons in the Chal Hatt song) have all incorporated animation. Music channels are playing their part too, creating graphic space for funny animated interstitials like the 'peace-oye' sporting, hugely popular Simpoo Singh character on Channel [V] (whose latest is endorsing vegetarianism for PETA).

Leading the toon assault on TV is Cartoon Network. In the past two years alone, the channel has acquired seven Indian shows: Pandavas—The Five Warriors, Sinbad—Beyond The Veil Of Mists, Ramayan—The Legend Of Prince Ram, The Adventures Of Tenali Raman, The Adventures of Hanuman, Alibaba & Forty Thieves and The Adventures Of Chhota Birbal. So it's no surprise the Indian animation industry is clocking a mind-boggling growth rate of 30 per cent annually, as an Andersen Consulting report points out. Our own NASSCOM estimates the industry will leapfrog from its present $500 million market to a whopping $1.5 billion by 2005.

And there's no magic wand behind these figures. It's pure business. India has emerged as the most cost-effective place for outsourcing animation-related work, leaving behind erstwhile leader, the Philippines. The figures tell it all: a half-hour cartoon production costs $3,00,000 in the US, $90,000 in the Philippines—and just $50,000 in India. In fact, there are reports now of studios in the country employing experienced Filipinos for their outsourced projects. As Indian animation firms look to expand, a few are considering international bases from where they can solicit business more effectively and at the same time outsource work back home. One of them, Color Chips India, has just announced plans to set up a fully-owned subsidiary in the Philippines.

Despite a relatively late start—in the end-'80s—animation is finally coming of age in India. And the success stories are pouring in. Benaifer Mallik and Rajiv Rajamani's video for Bageshree Vaze's song Deewana has just got the Annecy Award (known as the Oscar equivalent for animation films) for Best Music Video 2004, beating 1,400 entries from across the globe. Last year, Pentamedia's Alibaba and 40 Thieves was selected for screening at the Oscars. The company's other series, Pandavas, won the second best film at the Vancouver animated film festival. Thiruvananthapuram-based Toonz Animation's film Cute Bunny was screened at Animadrid in Spain, won the gold at the Kalamazoo festival and was nominated at the Latvian festival.Written by 11-year-old Manasa Rao, it's the story of a mischievous banana peel that teaches the importance of cleanliness.

Things are looking up not only in the festival circuit, but also for business. JadooWorks is said to have partnered with a San Francisco studio, Wild Brain, to produce an animated series for a major US television channel while Calcutta's Animation Bridge has tied up with Los Angeles-based Cybergraphix to co-produce animation format shows for North American and European TV channels.

Indian toon-addicts needn't feel neglected either. Desi animators are dishing out innovative fare exclusively for the domestic market. Says Nikhil Mirchandani of Cartoon Network India: "Indian stories lend themselves to cartoons very well. Our programming team in Mumbai is constantly scouting for shows that will appeal to Indian audiences." On their part, Indian audiences seem to be taking to it like Popeye to spinach.

To cater to this growing demand, companies are busy scripting new shows. Color Chips is working on a multi-million dollar international co-production, Legend of the Dragon, with a German studio. Jadooworks in Bangalore is doing a series on the childhood days of Lord Krishna called Gopal, scripted by Emmy award winner Jeffery Scott. In Delhi, Moving Pictures is producing its Panchatantra-inspired show, Jungle Tales. South of the Vindhyas, Chennai-based Pentamedia is working on Son of Aladdin, a sequel to their earlier successful venture Aladdin, and also on a show called Hanji based on the simian God Hanuman. However, the stable's most eagerly awaited show is Buddha, which Pentamedia claims will change the face of Indian animation forever, with its cutting-edge technology.

Maybe. But meanwhile the industry is also wisening up to new trends like brand-building. Mumbai-based CBM, which represents Pokemon in India, has come up with a desi answer to the international rage. It's created India's first licensed cartoon character, Chhota Birbal. Being developed as a brand, it has licensing deals with products like Horlicks, Britannia Tiger and Camlin. Elaborates Marvin Fernandes, the brain behind Chhota Birbal, "CB is a smart kid icon and we'll associate it with other brands that communicate the same values of knowledge and wisdom." Along with the TV show, there are plans for a feature film, and tie-ins like knowledge games and puzzles.

But why are the themes of most homemade animation shows steeped in either mythology or fantasy? Answers Fernandes: "These characters have instant recall value and brand-building doesn't take so long. Animation is a very costly discipline and we just can't take the risk of getting it wrong. In our case, CB is the story of what would happen if Akbar, Birbal and his nine jewels all met when they were kids. So the adventures are all original ideas, it's just that we are riding piggyback on a household name."

For young couch potatoes, it's all coming together with Disney set to launch an Indian channel for kids and Turner coming out with Pogo earlier this year, its second children's channel after Cartoon Network. After testing the waters, Pogo is now going completely Indian with language options and programming. Plans are on to commission five half-hour live-action shows by the end of this year.

By 2005, the global animation market is projected to touch the $52-billion mark. If India plays its cards right, it could take over a market with huge potential growth. But for that we need a mature, organised domestic sector, more funding and better skilled workers. Except for a handful of institutes like NID Ahmedabad, IIT Bombay and Arena Multimedia, there are few good courses available now in animation technology.Major players like UTV Toons (part of the $50 million global Growel group) though have made a start, setting up film schools in Pune and MumbaiCharnock's city too now has a huge 5,000 sq ft sprawling academy for animation, set up by the West Bengal Electronics Industries Development Corporation Ltd (Webel) in a joint venture with Toonz Animation India.

Infrastructure is also going to be a factor. India has only one-fifth the number of studios in South Korea, in a situation where now more work is directly proportional to more studios. Bill Dennis, CEO, Toonz India Animation, admits "India still has a bad reputation over delivering shows on time. This gets in the way of landing the more lucrative contracts. It'll take a handful of strong and reliable studios to change that perception."

Dennis is responsible for bringing Association Internationale Du Film D'animation (ASIFA) to India. He says "it was important for Indian animation to be in the international loop and ASIFA lends a certain degree of legitimacy to our cause".

So, has the Indian animator really got under the skin of the animated world of today. Well, 'kinetic art' in the country has come a long way from the days of Ek chidiya, ek gilahari.... Subdhasattewa Basu, the man behind Gayab Aya, India's first indigenous cartoon series, must be a happy man today. Seems like his first toil in toon land was inspiration enough for a whole army of desi animators to take on the world.
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