Rajesh Devaraj, who scripted the popular Quickgun Murugan series for Channel V, says he has three distinct memories of Chandamama from his 1970s childhood. Dusty, bound copies of old volumes going back decades in his family home in Jaipur; the lurid art panels that illustrated the Vikram-Vetal serial every single issue, and the grand word that ended the serialized story—“kramasheh” (to be continued).
“I have since seen many versions of Vikram-Vetal on TV and in print, but they are simply not the real thing. The king never wore the same red robes and the stories didn’t end with kramasheh and mind you, I didn’t even know what it meant for years. I recently picked up the magazine and found that it had turned glossy. I simply couldn’t connect with it,” says Devaraj for whom the tacky calendar art and the small-town tone of the magazine remain an inspiration.
It is die-hard fans like these that Kiran Kulkarni and his team at Geodesic will have to contend with when they sit down to revamp and digitize the 60-year-old Chandamama. Entire generations have grown up on the kitschy, offset printed (they finally turned glossy four years ago) monthly journal full of stories drawn from mythology, folklore and the nameless genre that threw up melodramatic family films like those from Gemini Studios.
A fortnight ago, the Mumbai-based software firm picked up a 94% stake in Chandamama for around Rs10 crore. They plan to take Chandamama digital in the next three or four months.
Kulkarni is aware of Chandamama’s heavy legacy, but thinks it is time for change. “It was good enough for my parents and me, but it has to be different for my children. The folk and myth elements will remain, but they will be styled differently. It has to change given the onslaught of pop-ups, television, the Internet and mobile technology. We could use the mobile as well as the Net to tell these stories differently,” says Kulkarni.
The e-magazine could, for instance, leave Vikram-Vetal open-ended and invite answers to the riddle. Or allow a fable to be downloaded to your mobile every single day. The magazine archive will also be made available in a CD/CD-ROM format.
Chandamama was launched in Tamil and Telugu in 1947 by film-maker and studio owner B. Nagi Reddi (he produced the Hindi blockbuster, Julie) along with writer-producer Chakrapani. It turned out to be such a hit that it was soon launched in several other languages, including English. The film-maker’s son, Vishwanath, inherited the magazine and it remained in the family till a clutch of investors led by Morgan Stanley acquired 60% of the company in 1998.
Vinod Sethi, who headed Morgan Stanley then, is another Chandamama buff. “It is a great repository of Indian folklore, history, traditions and philosophy. And I admire the fact that it has the ability to attract readers of all ages,” says Sethi.
If political correctness or finesse had anything to do with popular children’s reading, Chandamama would have closed shop years ago. Many stories were structured on stereotypes: wily Brahmins, dishonest traders, helpless widows, nasty stepmothers, loving younger sons, scheming older ones (rule of Chandamama thumb: given two brothers, one would be good/hardworking/handsome/honest and the other bad/lazy/ugly/bent). The stories were all set in small towns and villages with names such as Vinaypur, which had no real point in India and the characters dressed like they were frozen in the Lagaan years. But for all that, it has remained a huge hit with children, selling 2,00,000 copies in 13 languages.
The English magazine was revamped four years ago when it turned glossy and added various contemporary elements such as quizzes, puzzles and snippets. Modern authors such as Ruskin Bond were invited to write and supplements were included on special occasions.
Reddi is firm that the printed version is not going to change. “Chandamama has not, over these years, deviated from the objectives of the founders—to take India’s heritage and hoary past nearer to the growing generation. We are not contemplating a change in the format,” he says.
Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee, a Chandamama fan, who has sketched his own new-age version of Vikram-Vetal (see illustration) says the magazine can be reinvented with Indian style, without any need to emulate the West or Japanese Manga.
“It wouldn’t be an easy makeover. I would keep the basic grammar and the old-world format, but retell the stories. Vikram-Vetal is the best story ever told, a multi-plot Arabian Nights series of our own. Why globalize it?” says Banerjee.
Geodesic, however, cannot afford to ignore the pressures of the new media. As Kulkarni points out, even Rama on Cartoon Network now looks different from the images that today’s adults grew up with.
But Chandamama’s software team is not planning any major shockers. All it wants is to ensure that a grandfather has the option of reading a VikramVetal story off the mobile to his grandchild, with small, sharp images to add to the fun. Or give a quick geography lesson tracing Rama’s journey across the country to Lanka.
So will the popular Vikram-Vetal series get a makeover? “No. Never!” says Reddi. Keep an eye on the Net to see if the red robe and kramasheh survive in the digital space.