With yet another animation film bombing at the box office, it looks like Indian animation still hasn’t come of age. Bal Ganesh 2, which released on 23 October, limped out of theatres barely two weeks later. The film, produced by Shemaroo and directed by Pankaj Sharma, was made on a budget of Rs6.5 crore. It cost six times more than Bal Ganesh, but failed to create even half the interest that the first film generated. But animators say Indian animation shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of this.
Though animation scholars such as John A. Lent trace the beginnings of Indian animation to Dadasaheb Phalke’s short film Laxmicha Galicha (1916), the real buzz in animated feature films began with the success of Hanuman, directed by V.G. Samant and Milind Ukey, in 2005.
Still from the film ‘Toonpur Ka Superrhero’
Hanuman, produced by Manmohan Challa and released by Sahara India Parivar, was made on a relatively low budget of Rs2.5 crore and had glaring production flaws. Yet it made decent profits with its neat and fast-paced storyline. This attracted many investors to the medium and multiplex screens were swamped by infant Hanumans and Ganeshas.
In 2008, the maximum number of animated feature films were released: among them, Roadside Romeo, Cheenti Cheenti Bang Bang, Ghatothkach, Dashavatar and Jumbo. All of them flopped. Owing to the economic downturn, several of the films scheduled to release this year have been postponed. The only 2009 releases were the spectacular Little Krishna (produced by BIG Animation and released only for television) and Bal Ganesh 2.
One of the first technically sophisticated animated feature films to be produced in India was the 1992 film Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Ram. Directed by Ram Mohan, known as the father of Indian animation, the film was an Indo-Japanese collaboration. Apart from children and animation enthusiasts who caught the film on Cartoon Network, the film went largely unnoticed in India—it didn’t have a theatrical release. Other animated films met with a similar fate. Some of them, such as Pentamedia’s Pandavas: The Five Warriors (2000) and Sinbad: The Veil of Mists, didn’t have theatrical release despite winning the National Award. “These films were well scripted and decently produced and came out of a passion for animation,” says award-winning animator Vaibhav Kumaresh of Vaibhav Studios. “The same is true for the Indian shorts that are applauded at festivals abroad.”
Kumaresh—the creator of Simpoo, the animated character featuring in Channel V fillers, and the ads of Amaron Batteries—says 2008 saw so many animated films flop because the ones making them were not animators but investors. “We’ve always been weak on production and storytelling but after the modest success of Hanuman too many businesspeople decided that animation was a profitable venture.”
However, Kireet Khurana, whose Toonpur Ka Superrhero is set to release next summer, thinks commercialization is a good step. “There may be a lacuna in animation because of players not being from the animation industry itself, but once people understand that animation is an art that speaks its own language, the situation will change,” says Khurana.
Khurana says the animation industry here has been plagued with problems in the three core areas: storytelling, production and investment. “The main reason why these animated films fall like a pack cards is because they don’t tell engaging stories,” says Khurana. “An animated film, like any other medium, needs endearing characters and a story that you can connect with. Choosing the easy route of retelling a story is simply an indication of bankruptcy of ideas.”
Still from the film ‘Alibaba Aur 41 Chor’
But Jai Natarajan, CEO of Maya Entertainment whose film Ramayana the Epic is awaiting release, disagrees with Khurana. Natarajan compares the Indian animator’s preference for mythologicals to Walt Disney’s preference for fairy tales at the start of his career. “Since animation is such a time-consuming affair, it’s natural for budding animators to want to cut down time on developing a story and instead experiment with form.”
But form, too, isn’t being used in a compelling way, says Kumaresh. “Ever since Hanuman’s success, animators and producers have been paying attention to production quality but it’s still not comparable to world animation.” He explains that this is primarily because of the difference in investment. “The reason that films like Roadside Romeo and Little Krishna look better is because they are backed by production giants like Disney and BIG Animation.”
Khurana takes this argument a step further, saying producers pay Indian studios one-third of what it actually costs to make an animated film or series. “TV series like Chotta Bheem may be smashing TRPs, but financially it’s creating a hole in the studio’s pocket.”
In 2010, things can be expected to change. One of the most anticipated animated films, Arjun, directed by Arnab Chaudhuri and produced by UTV, is set to release in the summer. Though wary of mythologicals, Khurana claims that Arjun is going to be a benchmark for Indian animation. His other picks are his own Toonpur Ka Superrhero, Alibaba Aur 41 Chor and Koochie Koochie Hota Hai, an animated take on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, directed by Tarun Mansukhani.
Kumaresh is betting on on Delhi Safari, directed by Nikhil Advani and produced by Krayon Pictures and People Tree Films.