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India's Growing Might

Jayanti Sen explains India's proud animation history and the country's growing hopes for the future.

Early Animators: The Films Division and Governmental Support

When we think of what is happening in Indian animation today and try to take a critical look at it throughout the country, our first attempt must be a look back at the past. It is ultimately the past which creates the present, so to understand the present let us go back to its roots, way back to the dawn of Indian Cinema. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, a first attempt at animation was made by one of the founders of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, who used match sticks and a stop-motion camera to create a short film which was never released. In a book published by the Directorate of Film Festivals, New Delhi in 1981, edited by Rani Day Burra, an animation script writer and film-maker in later years herself, we hear Phalke speaking out as early as 1917, "I was well up in all the arts and crafts that go toward making a motion picture -- drawing, painting, architecture, photography, drama, magic -- I was fully convinced that it can be done!" Finally, after a lot of effort and struggle, he did make his first film, The Growth Of A Pea Plant, and again it was using stop-motion, i.e. time-lapse photography. So, did anyone realize that 1912 officially marked the beginning of Indian animation using the animation technique of time-lapse photography? (Interestingly enough, the first Indian animation released in theatres on June 23, 1934 by New Theatres Limited, was directed by Gunamoy Banerjee, and was called The Pea Brothers -- were our forefathers in some way possessed and fascinated by the pea plant?!) Then there is a gap, until finally another film, coming from Bombay, was released by Ranjit Movietone called Jumbo The Fox, and later another animation from New Theatres, Michke Potash, directed by Bhaktaram Mitra which was released on April 6, 1951.

Jehangir Bhownagary. Courtesy of the India Films Division.

After this, we see it is mainly the Indian government who took up the cause of animation in India. Where Indian animation is concerned, it would be very difficult to deny that whatever may or may not be its other achievements, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting played a very important role in shaping today's industry through its film production unit, The Films Division in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). As early as 1945, a Cartoon Film Unit had already been set up with Jehangir Bhownagary serving as the script-writer. From an extremely important document published by the government called The Panorama of Indian Cinema, with a preface by Harish Khanna and an editorial article by B.D. Garga, we can glean a lot of information. Garga in his editorial article writes, "Between 1931 and the outbreak of World War II, the industry expanded rapidly. Several outstanding films were made during this period. Innovations like colour, cartoon films and dubbing in English were attempted. The period of the Second World War witnessed an increase in the number of cinemas to 2,090 though production declined owing to shortage of raw film."

Radha And Krishna. Courtesy of the India Films Division.

One of the most important animations, Radha And Krishna, was produced in 1956, in Eastmancolour. The 22-minute film was directed by J.S. Bhownagary, with music by Vishnudas Shirali, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. The animation was photographed by K.B. Godbole, H.R. Doreswami, V. Murthi and P. Bharadwaj, with commentary supplied by Zul Vellani. This was a cel animated film using miniature paintings of Indian art, which were used as the animation material. As far as we can guess, the animation was created using mainly camera movements over the paintings to create the illusion of animation. Significantly enough, in 1948 a film called Kalpana was released, directed by the dance maestro Uday Shankar, with the same music director Vishnudas Shirali, composing music for the film. Although the film was made using live-action, the use of movement, film-language, and synchronization of rhythm and melody, was a lesson to all Indian filmmakers. Filmmakers Mrinal Sen and Satyajit Ray saw the film 12 and 13 times respectively. This film had a great impact not only on animation, but the entire Indian Cinema.

Animators like Kantilal Rathore, Pramod Pati, G.K. Godbole, and V.G. Samant, along with Ram Mohan, Bhimsain, Satam, Suresh Nayek and others, joined the Films Division slightly later. However, the film Radha And Krishna had already won international acclaim for the Films Division, establishing it as an important animation producer. In fact, in 1959 Radha And Krishna won both the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and a prize at the International Film Festival of Documentary and Experimental Films in Santiago, Chile. Several other international festivals in Japan, Canada and Australia also recognized the film.

This Indian sensibility was somehow lacking in the next film The Banyan Deer, which was released in 1959, and based on a Hindu Jataka tale. It combined the Ajanta fresco and Disney drawing styles. Between 1956 and 1957, the Films Division, with the financial help of UNESCO and the US Technical Aid Programme, brought Clair Weeks, an animator from the Disney Studio, to India for an intensive training period, which resulted in some of India's best animators such asRam Mohan, Bhimsain, Satam, Ezra Mir and Pramod Pati.

This Our India. Courtesy of the India Films Division.

In 1960, Ezra Mir used G.K. Gokhale to animate a social awareness animation called A Great Problem, which dealt with family planning issues, and is probably one of the earliest pro-social animations. This was also internationally acclaimed. Ezra Mir produced This Our India in 1961, which was animated by G.K. Gokhale, with music by Vijay and directed by Pramod Pati. Later Ezra Mir went on to become one of India's best documentary filmmakers. Nevertheless, his achievements in early animation are still very valuable. Vijay, as we see later, is the eminent music director Vijay Raghav Rao, who in 1969 created the music for a 9-minute animation Chaos, directed by V.K. Gokhale, with commentary by Alyque Padamsee. Other films made in this period and slightly later by the Films Division include Metric System, My Wise Daddy, Shadow And Substance, Dreams Of Mojiram and Healthy And Happy. Under Clair Weeks, other trainees included Mr. A.R. Sen who made films like The Thinker and Skin In The Bin. Sen has just suddenly passed away in an unfortunate accident in Pune a few days ago. In addition to A.R. Sen, Suresh S. Naik, Narvekar and More, 15 artists were working in the Cartoon Film Unit then. They were mostly making promotional films on government policies, family planning, hygiene, etc. However the lack of governmental funds and other bureaucratic hazards ultimately almost brought the Films Division's activities to a near hault. It was then in 1969 that Ram Mohan, Suresh Naik, Praful and Satam all left the Films Division to join Prasad Productions. Up until 1979 this core group worked for Prasad, creating many interesting animation films, including Ram Mohan's Harmony. Bhimsain went on to open his own independent studio called Climb Films, where he has been working independently ever since making feature films as well as an immense number of animation films. Another studio which deserves mention in this context, and which did a lot of animation work for other independent filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, was Rauko Laboratories. Headed by S.R. Rao, Rauko, was the only place besides Prasads where filmmakers who needed animation work done could go. Existing even as late as 1987, all of the National Institute of Design's (NID) films were processed there, including the present writers' NID diploma film, Inch By Inch, Anjan Ghosh's Green Story and Dilip Goswami's The Human Dilemma. In fact, it was at NID that we first heard about Rauko and later Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray's son, who is an eminent filmmaker himself. He also told me a lot about how Suresh S. Naik's studio and Rauko were the only places for special effects and animation work for people outside of the government system. Suresh Naik opened his own studio Cine Magic in 1979, and Ram Mohan opened his studio, Ram Mohan Biographics, in practically the same period. His films, mainly innumerable ad-spots and other films, were then shot exclusively at Cine Magic. As Suresh Naik says, "Ram Mohan and I share a very long professional relationship, spanning more than 20 years." As Indian animation gradually started picking up momentum in the hands of these animators, some other studios, like Gimmicks and Pictoreel Facet, opened in Bombay, but not much is known about the work they were doing. Since there was a great boom in the animation-ad industry, that must have been their source of sustenance. Unfortunately, these studios are no longer in business, and rigorous research is necessary to unearth more material on them specifically. The most important task that the Films Division undertook on a national level was the organization of the Bombay International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films. On March 1, 1990 the first festival had as its Director V.B. Chandra, and the jury included distinguished film personalities like Ulrich Gregor, Ishu Patel, Dennis O'Rourke, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Erika Richter and Mikhail Litviakov. From its very inception, it was a competitive festival and cash prizes were given in different categories. The first festival had a Lumiere retrospective and was scheduled to be held every two years. From the very next festival in 1992, it was renamed the Bombay International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films, stressing and showcasing the growing importance of animation in the Indian context. A special section was organized in 1992 and called theWorld of Animation Cinema. The works of John Halas, Ishu Patel, Osamu Tezuku, Jiri Brdecka, Jiri Trnka, NID animations, Children's Film Society Animation, and others were all screened. Lectures anddemonstrations were held on the art and technology of animation by Barry Parker and Ishu Patel. A seminar on computer versus traditional animation, and an exhibition on the history and evolution of animation cinema were also included. (As usual, this writer and other Eastern region animators did not have the resources to be present, and it is solely by courtesy of the Films Division, who have been kind enough to supply a massive amount of material from their archives,edited by Amrit Gangaur and others, along with the help of other animators both young and old that have made this article possible.)

From 1990 onwards, the Mumbai International Festival for Short, Documentary and Animation Films has grown to be one of the biggest and most important short film festivals in the world and is considered one of the four most important short film festivals, along with the Oberhausen and Mannheim Festivals. The last festival was held in 1998, and was especially important since it coincided with an exhibit of Indian animation which was screened at the acclaimed Hiroshima International Animation Festival. The Films Division's present director Bankim and others, helped gather 50 Indian animation films to be screened in Hiroshima, which made MIFF an important factor in the growth of Indian animation on a worldwide level. The Festival has from its very beginning started a special section, "Spectrum India," to project the best documentary and animation films produced in the previous three years. This is an important addition since animators, critics and film-buffs from all over the world gather to discuss and screen their films and exchange ideas.

Arun Gongade's Shanti. Courtesy of the India Films Division.

Today the Films Division has been given anew lease on life, with its Cartoon Film Unit going full swing, and comprised of expert animators like B.R. Shendge, Shaila Parulkar,Arun Gongade and a host of other animators producing award winning animation films. Thus the Cartoon Film Unit as a whole is again humming with animation activity. Another extremely important government organisation which has produced a massive number of animation films is the Children's Film Society of India set up in 1955 by the Indian Government to promote children'sfilms. In between 1992 and 1995 it was renamed the National Centre of Films for Children and Young People, but now it has gone back to its original name. Located in the same complex as the Films Division, CFSI has produced a huge number of animation films such as Jaise Ko Taisa by Madhab Kunte in 1988, Karuna Ki Vijay byK.S. Bansod in 1985, Lav Kush directed by K.A. Abbas in 1973, Adventures Of A Sugar Doll in 1966 by Kantilal Rathod, andAs You Like It directed by Sukumar Pillay in 1965. All of which have won national awards. In fact, almost all of our great Indian animators have worked for the CFSI at various points in their career.

CFSI had been headed by Jaya Bachchan, Shabana Azmi and now Sai Paranjpe as Chairperson. Like the Films Division, CFSI has also been organising an International Festival for Children's Films everytwo years and its volume is increasing every year. The festivallocated at various times in Delhi, Mumbai and now Hyderabad, is held November 14 - 23 every year in memory of the late Prime MinisterJawaharlal Nehru, whose love for children was extremely well known. Hence the festival starts on November 14, Nehru's birthday. The festival brings in, along with other children's classics and featurefilms, a lot of the best animation produced throughout the world. This is also a competitive festival with attractive cash awards selected by an international jury and a special children's jury. The festival also invites foreign animators to teach children from all over India how to make their own animation films. Moreover child delegates from all over India attend. Thus with two such big international festivals laying more and more stress on good animation production and encouraging a competitive spirit, the picture for Indian animationis bound to improve in the near future.

R.L. Mistry.

National Institute Of Design: The Bedrock Of Animation Teaching In India

The Animation Department of the National Institute of Design came into being in the early 1970s when Disney's Weeks and UK academic Roger Noake came to change animation by creating the necessary facultyto teach the art. I.S. Mathur and R.L. Mistry were notable instructors among them. Then another two year workshop programme trained byMathur and Mistry produced Chitra Sarathi, Benita Desai and Nina Sabnani, among others. Then the first official two and half yearA.E.P Animation Programme started with Prakash Moorthy, Vasab Raja, a post graduate in Illustration and Painting from the M.S. University of Baroda, and Soma Banerjee, a science student from Delhi, as the department's first three students, under the Faculty of Visual Communications banner headed by I.S. Mathur. After about 6 months we joined as the Calcutta Cel Special Programme Trainees. In the next A.E.P Programmeanother batch of 6 students joined and graduated. The present department numbers around 30.

Patang by Binita Desal. Courtesy of the National Institutue of Design of India.

With training in traditional and computer-aided animation spanning all aspects of filmmaking, NID has produced a huge quantity of animation films, thereby significantly contributing to Indian animation. In addition to National Highway, a national award winner, R.L. Mistry created Perspectrum, an abstract study on movement and graphics. Leo Lionni, a famous animator and designer, came to NID as a Visiting Faculty member and made his film Swimmy using cut-outs, which to date is one of the best cut-out animations created. Vinita Desai made Cirrus Skies, a graphic depiction of the changes we see in the sky's cloud formations;her other film Patang, meaning "kite," explores the movements of a kite through the eyes of its flier. This film won her the first prize at the 1985 "Shorts I" Festivalin Calcutta. Nina Sabnani shared this prize with Vinita with her film Drawing Drawing based on the reactions of a child upon seeing his drawings come to life. However, Nina Sabnani won international acclaim with her next film which is perhaps the first feminist animationin India. Shubh Vivah is a strong comment on the much-hated dowry system, a social evil where money is paid by the bride's family to the groom and his family when a daughter is married. This film uses the traditional Rajasthani Madhubani style of painting. Other filmmakers from NID include Nagendra Patel, Darshan Bhagat, Shyam Patil, Shailesh Modi and Mita Bhagat who made films like EnergyMerry Go Round, Sakhi And Mukhi and Curiosity Killed The Cat.

Shubh Vivah by Nina Sabnani. Courtesy of the National Institutue of Design of India.

Of the later students, one animator who has distinguished himself is Prakash Moorthy. His film Jungle King, based on a Gujrati folk tale, was selected as part of India's presentation at the India Festival in Russia. Moorthy later made The Square On The Hypotenuse (1995), The Progress Report (1994) and The Protagonist (1988). In between making animation films, Moorthy has been working as an Art Director in the Bombay film industry. He also teaches at NID as a Visiting Faculty member to raise money to produce his own films. Moorthy is an animator who utilizes a different kind of abstract symbolism in his work. He has his own way of satirizing the state of the country at various levels, including social, political and economic. Today he is one of the best known young animators in India. Another important happening at NID in between 1986 and 1989 was the arrival of Scottish filmmaker Keith Geive who, while working on a feature, included a small piece on India using animation. This became an Indo-Scottish venture when he asked Shoma Banerjee Kak, by then a very successful animator who had created the title sequence for her husband Sajay Kak's serial on India Pradakshina, to help him out. Finally, Shoma did the entire Indian portion using cel animation. NID also sends its faculty for further training abroad, like in January '86 when Nina Sabnani and Vinita Desai went to London and Belgium on a UNDP fellowship. In London the two worked together to create an interesting piece called Walking Feat, which explores various walking cycles with music in varying rhythms and beats. NID has at various times brought in foreign animators to conduct workshops in animation, graphic design and typography. Guests have included Saul Bass, David Tudor, Evan Chermayeff, Bob Gill, Bruno Pfaffli and others. Today NID's students form a massive part of the young Indian animation community. Through them, NID has remained a path-finder and producer of good films in the Indian animation scene. NID's excellent library with books on every subject under the sun is another asset from which any visitor can benefit. Plus, the Government keeps going back to NID for its developmental films which use animation.

Young Animators of India

In addition to the NID trainees, a host of other young animators are working in India. This includes Shilpa Ranade, whose film Moni's Dying depicts the slow death of a sister as seen through the eyes of her brother. This sensitive portrayal of the situation won her a special Certificate Of Merit in the 1994 Bombay Festival and also won wide international acclaim. She is now working on various other projects. Irina Saakiyan, a Russian animator, has come to settle in Mumbai, and has joined forces with Asha Datta, a dynamic producer, to form Multik Productions, and, as an excellent animator, Irina is working on various animation projects with Datta. Saakiyan was also working as a faculty member at ZICA in Hyderabad for awhile, training Indian animators. She even completed a small animation sequence for my film Hunchback Woman's Tale. Vinay Rai is working in Delhi and he has made films like Keep Your City Clean, The Drummer and Animated Bhangra, which was screened at Hiroshima's Indian showcase. Other young animators' work we saw there was: Pravin Thakur's The Brave Bird, and The Louse Story by Rani Day Burra, who is well-known in the animation circuit scripting and directing many animation films. Other filmmakers include Neeraj Sahai and Pallvi Sahai working in Delhi, who make films like A Monkey And Two Crocodiles and The Big Run. Aman Bajaj who runs the Bajaj Animation Kendra in Delhi has made films like Khel Khel Mein, Alphabet A and Chikoo And Angola.

Hunchback Woman's Tale by Jayanti Sen. © Calcutta Doordarshan. Courtesy of Jayanti Sen.

One young man who has distinguished himself in the international field like Prakash Moorthy is Ajit Rao. A brilliant animator working with Ram Mohan Biographics as one of the leading animation designers there, Rao received his animation training in the United States. On his return he worked with Ram Mohan, and later did quite a bit of work with the internationally known director/producer, Derek Lamb, for whom he worked on various animation projects for an outside Indian organisation. But then, like Ishu Patel, who has left actual filmmaking in order to teach at the University of Southern California, Ajit decided to dedicate his time to the propagation of animation as a trainer. It is as a trainer that he worked with Mohan's RM/USL. He has now joined a new studio, Toonz Animation India, to teach young animators there.

Toonz Comes To India

Although India has many animation studios, most of the investment in training Indian animators has benefited the international market whose productions are serviced more economically in India. Meanwhile, the value of creating original content in India for the Indian market and beyond has gone unrecognized by the private sector. So when Toonz Animation was set up in Kerala to train Indian animators, particularly in the pre-production processes, to cater to the International market and India as well, tapping India's rich heritage of folklore, this was welcome news indeed. The new studio Toonz Animation India has already begun operating, but will officially open in November 1999.

Ishu Patel, who now teaches at the University of Southern California.

It was mainly through the efforts of Bill Dennis, President and CEO of Toonz, and a group of Indian entrepreneurs, that Toonz was established. According to Ishu Patel, one of the National Film Board of Canada's finest animators, "I think this ....can only help to establish animation in India as an industry. Toonz will set a new production standard and provide opportunities for young animators to understand the entire process of animation. It also brings in new technology and will allow the international exchange of people and skills, attitudes and knowledge." As Bill Dennis explains, "Our initial focus is to use the talent that we have already recruited from around India to develop our pilot shows. While many of them lack the polish and skills that are required to develop a pilot show with international appeal, none of them lack the enthusiasm, energy and vision. It's our job to provide the polish and skills. We are very interested in hiring talent from India, and we are in the process of looking for top layout and background artists to join our team." 45 students are already training under Rao to tune themselves up for an intensive workload. For the first year of operation Toonz plans to create four series pilots and numerous commercials.

Lok Gatha, an animation serial by Bhimsain. © Climb Films.

The one thing that often intrigues this writer is the way animators who have been trained abroad, unlike our earlier animators who received training in India, have a distinct element of Western influence in their work which comes out quite strong when we see their films. To retain the essential elements of one's own country, be it Japan, India or Czechoslovakia, is a difficult task, but it is possible. We can see it when we watch the work of Lotte Reiniger, Jiri Trnka or Renzo Kinoshita, or even Norman McLaren or Len Lye, Oscar Fischinger or Peter Foldes. This "being in touch with one's own soil" is one of the things we learn from our master filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak in live-action, and Ram Mohan and Bhimsain in animation. When teaching Indian animators, this is something every trainer should keep in mind -- and this is where Irina Saakiyan surprised me so much. For someone coming from far-off Russia, Irina has absorbed the basic elements of Indian animation so well. One feels stunned.

In Delhi, Mumbai and South India, a lot of young animators are working, creating not only their own films, but contributing to India's thriving animation ad industry. Where India's animation future is concerned, the picture looks bright with a host of young talents joining in. Jayanti Sen has been working as a freelance journalist for various English and Bengali journals in India and abroad for the last seventeen years writing on subjects such as cinema, theatre, art, music, science, puppetry, advertising and animation. She is also an animation filmmaker who has had several of her films screened in International film festivals.

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