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Indian Feature Animation Explodes

With the feature animation industry booming in India, Lisa Goldman reports on the opportunities and challenges presented by an immense and diverse audience.

India's animated feature industry is alive and thriving. In 2005 filmgoers went crazy for the animated feature Jai Hanuman. After this record success, many Indian companies are trying to get in on the action.

In 2005, an animated feature called Jai Hanuman hit theaters in India and set the animated feature industry on fire. Children and families went crazy for this film and, following its record success, many Indian companies have been trying to get in on the action -- but it's not so easy. Connecting with India's billion-plus audience is a big challenge since the Indian market is so diverse. India has 28 states and seven territories, plus each state has its own language and dialects. The challenges are not only cultural; there are business hurdles to clear as well. Distribution is difficult unless you have major Bollywood stars as your voice-talent. Licensing and merchandising are in their infancy, although they show great potential. Piracy is also a concern.

Everyone I know in India has been talking about animated features and has been working on one in some capacity, so I checked in with my colleagues to see what they could share on this topic. Please meet:

Elizabeth Koshy, chief executive officer, Animation Dimensions LLA;

Simi Nallaseth, creative director and animation head of Epiphany Films. She is the director and cowriter of the English script for a feature called Dream Blanket and also served as an animator on Ice Age;

Kireet Khurana, director of animation, 2nz Animation Co.;

Munjal Shroff, chief operating officer, Graphiti Multimedia, Pvt. Ltd.;

Ashish S. Kulkarni, chief executive officer of Anirights Infomedia Pvt. Ltd.

Lisa Goldman: Why did Jai Hanuman strike such a chord with its audience?

Simi Nallaseth: In 2005, after a spell of really bad animated films, Jai Hanuman hit the theatres. It had tolerable 2D animation, a cute baby god named Hanuman who grabbed the hearts of kids, plus the film had a catchy song. Indians are mad about their mythology and gods, especially Hanuman, a superhero god. So Lord Hanuman has opened the doors for all of us and made some Bollywood producers take notice of animation.

Action Hero BC is the working title for a new Graphiti animated feature film that is being planned now. © Graphiti Multimedia Pvt. Ltd.

Ashish S. Kulkarni: The character icons from the Indian heritage are unique and extremely strong in the minds of Indian people. These Indian heritage icons have survived for more than 5,000 years because their stories have passed down from generation to generation through verbal storytelling. They are an extremely strong character brand. These stories can be expressed through animation. It also gives us an edge to design these stories in an entirely different era, taking some visual liberty with a known story.

Kireet Khurana: The success of Jai Hanuman shows the power of emotional connection with the Indian audience. It doesn't matter what the quality of the film is, as long as the audience is able to relate to the characters and the story. The film grossed more than any Disney film released in India prior to it. Localization is the mantra.

Anirights Infomedia's Ashish S. Kulkarni finds there are two major challenges for the Indian market: the availability of feature film-ready talent and the evolution of scriptwriting for Indian animation.

Elizabeth Koshy: The film showed the success of Indian animated content. It's an eye-opener for the trade -- there is scope for animation films in India. Indian audiences will lap up anything with gods, as we are a religious country.

LG: What are the challenges of this market?

KK: The Indian market has a myriad of cultures. We have 14 official languages and more than 1,400 dialects. It is next to impossible to bind the audience to a common cultural trend. On the business side, distribution is a big problem, as the market is not mature enough.

SN: Most Bollywood producers until Jai Hanuman have had very little interest in animated films because it's four times more expensive than an average live-action film. It takes three to four years to make a good animated film vs. one year for a live-action film. Animation studio thinking has a long-term vision that is alien to producers who prefer quick cash returns. But "the times they are a changinggggg..." My film has a unique producer, Ronnie Screwvala, founder and chairman of UTV Motion Pictures, who has respect for animation as an art form and is brave enough to finance a three-year venture in the Indian market.

EK: There are many challenges in the Indian market: Human resources -- the number of films announced are more than the capacity of good animators available. Good stories -- most of the films are banking on stories from mythology. We need to step away from the realm of mythos and extend our imagination and creativity into new avenues. Getting the numbers right --since this is a new space, it will take some time for the market to settle down and for the efficiency to be increased.

ASK: The key challenge for the Indian market is the availability of feature film-ready talent. Secondly, scriptwriting for animation will have to evolve in India. It remains a challenge and will take several years before we have Indian animation scriptwriters. Thirdly, the studios are still in the process of setting up the feature film pipeline, which will evolve only through experience. The unique thing is that most Indian feature film pipelines are built cautiously, learning through mistakes. Hence, these pipelines will be robust and I am confident they will meet all the challenges we are presently facing.

Animation Dimensions has four animated films lined up, including Bombay Dogs. © Animation Dimensions.

LG: Where do you think the Indian animated feature industry is right now?

EK: Indian animation is posted for a stupendous growth. There are one billion people in this country, that is a huge audience to cater to, and there is hardly any content available out there.

SN: In 2007, the Indian feature animation industry is just a baby that's figuring out how to balance itself and walk. Sometimes it stumbles by making really bad animated films that make us cry, but by 2015, the same baby will not only walk, it will fly. It's surely growing fast.

ASK: With the present appetite for Indian animated films being so strong, this market is expected to do well. Indian animated feature films will be established on the domestic front before hitting globally, but there is a long way to go.

KK: An unprecedented 71 animated features have been announced in the past year or so. But going by past estimates and precedents, I expect only about half will make it into cinemas. They are expecting eight to10 features to be released each year in India. This past year there were about four animated feature releases. This industry is small compared to the 800 films made in Bollywood each year, which is expected to spike next year and cross the 1,000 mark.

Munjal Shroff: Indian animation is coming of age, most studios are now realizing that content ownership and exploitation through licensing and merchandising is the name of the game. The first wave in Indian animation was outsourcing, where almost all the studios were working on television series. Now with the success of Hanuman there is a boom in Indian feature animation.

LG: How do you think Indian animated features will do internationally? Will the world be hit with an onslaught of Indian animation in the same way it was with Japanese anime?

EK: Not yet. I am told that currently 72 animated movies are in various stages of production with Indian content, but not sure how many of those are for international distribution.

MS: If we go by the numbers, then yes, there are a huge number of films that have been announced. I think that Indian animation definitely has the potential to be a brand like anime. But the key to this is, like anime, Indian animation needs to find its own signature style. I believe this signature style can be evolved by marrying the unique stories from the Indian cultural treasure trove and the stunning visuals inspired by Indian art. This is the approach my company, Graphiti Multimedia, is [taking in] developing its features. We are currently developing an animated feature for Turner targeting the international market.

According to Kireet Khurana of 2nz Animation Co., animated features do well due to their novelty and unique target audience in India.

SN: By 2010, many awesome animated films would have already hit the Indian market. UTV's Arjun, Alibaba, and my film The Dream Blanket. Many other studios are also making animated films. Hopefully these stories will start seeping into other cultures. Internationally, Indian animation will one day impact film, TV and the Web.

KK: Animated features are doing extremely well due to their novelty and [the fact that their] unique target audience in India, unlike Bollywood films, [is] children. India has a long way to go, though, in terms of quality animation production to reach international standards; however, the existing films are meant for Indian audiences and they seem to have the emotional connect required to be commercially viable and successful. It is too early to say whether Indian animation will make its mark in the international arena. Looking at existing realities, Bollywood has been the largest film industry in the world for decades. But because its content and quality benchmark has been more suited for Indian audiences, it has yet to make a mark in the world and impact cinema internationally. The same could be the case for Indian animated films, where filmmakers are currently catering to the local one billion-plus audience and not the international market, except for the Indian diaspora.

ASK: Indian animation in short- and long-form will soon get exposure, as there is an established domestic market for feature film and television content. The fast-growing penetration into the Web and mobile content will definitely lend a helping hand for Indian animation globally.

LG: What's your involvement with the animated feature industry?

KK: We are currently involved with India's largest animation project to date called Toonpur Ka Superhero (The Superhero of Toonland), a film that I am directing and [for which] my studio is doing the animation preproduction for our parent company Climb Media. Toonpur is India's first 3D and live-action combo feature film and it features Bollywood's top stars. We start shooting in mid-January. Currently, we are in the animation production stage. This film is budgeted at US$10 million. It is the most expensive animated film being made in India currently. We have a three-film deal with the producer of Toonpur. The other two films are in the scripting stages. We are lucky to have the largest Indian producers backing our project. They also happen to be among the top five distributors in the country and, coupled with the fact that the film features top Bollywood stars, distribution is not a problem. Distribution is next to impossible if you don't have Bollywood stars in your film.

Mighty Babies is a Flash animation feature Animation Dimensions is currently working on. © Animation Dimensions.

MS: Graphiti is working on two animated feature films. One of them is called Action Hero BC [working title]. It is the story of an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary resolve to fight selflessly against evil. The second feature we are producing is with Turner. This film is in the early development stage. I am the producer of these films.

SN: My company Epiphany Films is co-producing its first animated feature The Dream Blanket with UTV Motion Pictures. Our film is a Tibetan fairy tale with universal appeal. Animated features are the main focus of our business. The dream is to stick to animated features because we have many fantastic stories to tell.

EK: We have four animated films lined up, but currently we are working on a Flash animation feature called Mighty Babies. The other films are Bombay Dogs, The Sea Prince and Superstar Babies. Our business model focuses on both animated features, as well as animated TV shows.

ASK: AniRights Infomedia Pvt. Ltd is in the process of producing two feature films for the domestic market targeting Indian people. We have successfully set up the pipeline to produce these feature films and release them domestically and then for Indian people worldwide. AniRights is predominantly set up to create original content and to own IP through feature films as a primary module, and expand these properties into animated television shows eventually.

LG: What's unique about your film(s)?

KK: Personally, I feel the soul of our company lies in our storytelling ability. The fact that the company is not being run by marketing or management cadre individuals, but is being driven by creative minds, is another uniqueness that reflects in our work.

SN: It's my producer Ronnie Screwvala of UTV Motion Pictures, the story, and the team.

EK: The story and the treatment. It is mythology repackaged for the current generation in the present context. Also, for all our movie projects we are using writers with international experience and all our directors will also be from the U.S. or U.K., as we strongly feel that the talent in the western world is much better. We want to create entertainment with a lot of moral values that's loads of fun!

MS: If you look at successful animated films from Hollywood, several of them have taken niche tales from diverse cultures and given [them] the Hollywood gloss. Some examples are: The Lion King has a heavy African influence in its story and music, Shrek was inspired from a Czech folk story, and Mulan was inspired from Chinese folk tale. Graphiti is drawing inspiration from Indian folk stories, but at the same time we are consciously staying away from mythological stories based on Indian gods. Also the entire visual style that we have developed is truly unique and will appeal to a global, as well as the Indian, audience. Our approach to developing animated films is that we are using the Indian ethos as an exotic spice in the curry. If you add too much of it, it will spoil the curry and, with too little of it, there is no flavor.

Animation Dimensions' business model includes both animated features and animated TV shows. Above is The Sea Prince, an upcoming feature. © Animation Dimensions.

ASK: Our films are being developed for a particular budget, but will compete with mainline cinema at the Indian box office. The unique story selection, design, the quality of animation, and music are all being set up to meet a very high standard [while] keeping the simplicity of the show in mind. The packaging is very well-balanced to meet the audience expectation vis-à-vis the animation production challenges. We are concentrating on 2D feature films to start within the domestic market and, eventually, we'll move to 3D feature films.

LG: When will the U.S. be able to see Indian animated films -- yours and others?

KK: India has a large diaspora and it will be available at the video stores over there. However, a theatrical release is a remote possibility.

MS: In 2009-2010.

SN: 2010.

EK: Not for another two years, as most of our movies are for the Indian market.

ASK: Indian animated features in the Hindi language are produced for the domestic market, so they may also be released in selective markets in the U.S. that have large Indian populations. Hence, Indian animated features may be seen in 2008 in the U.S. We are covering all markets in India and we will be distributing DVDs globally with selective theatrical release.

I find it inspiring and exciting that what's driving Indian filmmakers is finding that connection with its billion-plus audience through good characters and stories. Plus, this industry thrives without licensing and merchandising (another industry to watch). The sequel Hanuman Returns is due out December 28, 2007 in India. Will this film repeat the earlier success? Will others meet or beat it? We'll have to wait and see.

Lisa Goldman heads up the New York City chapter of Women in Animation. She has been a panelist speaker on animation writing at FICCI-FRAMES 2007 in Mumbai and in 2006 served on the International Jury for Mumbai International Film Festival. Lisa is an animation and comedy writer for family and children.