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Ram Mohan and RM-USL: India's Change Agents of Animation

Dr. John A. Lent puts Ram Mohan and his new company RM-USL into perspective as India enters a new phase of development.

India has produced animation sporadically for 83 years and steadily for more than half that time, facts that are generally buried beneath the hoopla given the popular and gargantuan feature film industry.

This relative obscurity may be about to change as foreign animation houses move further into Asia to mine inexpensive labor pools, as Indian television channels proliferate and demand large chunks of programming, and as domestic studios and training centers open up to serve these and other needs.

Mumbai (Bombay), India's Hollywood, is home to most animation studios, although a few others have operated elsewhere in Hyderabad, Madras, and New Delhi. Silvertoon and Creat Communications, both in Mumbai, are engaged primarily in subcontract work for U.S., French, and British studios, using digital ink and paint and compositing system. Silvertoon's current project is a feature production of Hanuman, a Hindu mythological character. The project was commissioned by an English producer. Crest Communications, whose forte is 3-D CGI, produces pilots for Los Angeles studios. Drawing on its pool of about 100 alumni, the Zee Institute of Creative Arts (ZICA) in Myderbad, recently switched from animation training to production. Its first assignment is an animated feature, Bagmati. The demise of the three-year-old course left the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad as the sole formal animation training center.

RM-USL--India's Top Studio

Foremost among Indian animation houses in size, longevity, and quality of work is RM-USL Animation, established in April 1997, when Ram Mohan Biographics formed a partnership with United Studios Ltd., India's leading post-production studio. President of the company and animation guru, Ram Mohan said the purpose of the merger was to build a facility with enough space (about 5,000 square feet) and equipment (13 Animo work stations) to handle large volume work, mainly for export.

One of RM-USL's immediate accomplishments was the strengthening of its personnel pool, which was increased from 30 to 120 in one year. Mohan said that before 1997, staff shortages limited Ram Mohan Biographics mainly to the production of short commercials, and when the firm attempted bigger works, foreign collaboration was sought. He gave me an example: "When we took up Meena for UNICEF in 1992, we had a staff of 20-25 artists and we felt we did not have the capacity to handle production of all 13 episodes." Thus, many early episodes were designed and storyboarded by Ram Mohan Biographics, but animated at Fil-Cartoons in Manila.

RM-USL's cast of characters. Courtesy of Ram Mohan.

To ensure a continuous flow of talent, RM-USL recruits artists from the finest art schools and then provides them with in-house animation training; first through a six- to eight-week program for newcomers who join at entry level as in-betweeners, and then in an ongoing series of courses in advanced animation for upgrading clean-up artists to the animator's level.

The added space, equipment, and personnel allow RM-USL to operate at four levels, according to Mohan: "[a] high quality animation for commercials, for which we have a separate team of animators, [b] high-end animation on subcontract for studios in Los Angeles, [c] low-end, low-budget, limited animation shows for local and Asian sponsors, and [d] in-house productions which RM-USL will try and market on its own."

After one year of the partnership, RM-USL's production record is rather impressive. The studio has designed, animated, and post-produced three 12-minute episodes of Meena for UNICEF (South Asia), focusing on the girl child of South Asia; animated one 16-minute episode of Sara for UNICEF (East and Southern Africa), dealing with the problem of the African adolescent girl; animated, on subcontract, two 24-minute episodes of Adventure of Oliver Twist for Saban International, and started pre-production work on a 13-part serial of 24 minutes each, called Jo Killat, for Singapore Television. The latter, co-produced with UTVI of Singapore, is one of several collaborations Mohan has had with foreign companies. In the early 1990s, he co-produced with Nippon Ramayana Films and producer Yugo Sako, The Legend of Rama, a 135-minute, award-winning animated feature. He and Sako are now discussing the possibility of co-producing Krishna, another feature based on Indian mythology.

RM-USL takes pride in its capacity to work on the total concept, from visualization to post-production, handling customized projects and meeting deadlines with high-quality work at competitive quotes. For example, the Meena episodes had a total budget (excluding language dubbings) of U.S. $60,000 each, the Sara episode, U.S. $90,000 (including production, post-production, and dubbing in three languages), and the Adventures of Oliver Twist episodes, U.S. $60,000 each. Mohan admits the latter price in rather low, but said the work gave RM-USL the "opportunity to be measured, in terms of quality, against other Asian competitors."

Ram Mohan, left, and one of his key animators, Ajit Rao, July 1993. Photo by John A. Lent.

Animator Ram Mohan's Visions

Some of Mohan's long-held aspirations have been realized with the establishment of RM-USL. When I interviewed him July 10, 1993, Mohan was optimistic about the future of animation, pointing out that of 15 studios in India, already three or four were computerized, that a three-year diploma course in animation was in the works for the Film and Television Institute in Pune, and that initial contacts with foreign animation clients had materialized. He said, "If we had assurance that studios abroad would send work here, we would have to train animators and get more space. I'd start with 100 animators." To Mohan, using relatively inexpensive Indian labor to process overseas animation was not exploitative: "From the Indian perspective, to do animation for Hollywood is an opportunity for young people to find a career. There are very few chances for artists and this would open up a large area of employment." Reiterating several times the problems incurred by a lack of trained animators and working space, he cited instances where jobs were lost because studios could not deliver work on time. Mohan also saw Modi Entertainment's dubbing of Disney animation into Hindi for Doordadshan television as a potential problem, since it could minimize chances for local animators. However, he was quick to point out the advantages of Disney's presence, especially the building of interest for animation training of Indians in the Disney style. He concluded that all in all, local animation would not suffer because "in all the years that Disney was not here, animation still did not grow." A science graduate, Mohan began his career in 1956, when he joined the governmental Film Division, then in the process of developing an animation unit. For the most part, he was self-taught and early on, adopted the Disney style. In 1968, he joined Prasad Studio, a live-action feature film company in Madras that had invested in animation and needed someone to do the hands-on work. He started Ram Mohan Biographics in 1972.

India's Long Tradition of Animation

Animation reaches deep in India's twentieth century history. In 1915, the father of Indian cinema, Dhumdiraj Govind Phalke, produced the animated Agkadyanchi Mouj (Matchsticks' Fun), followed by Laxmicha Galicha (animated coins), and Vichitra Shilpa (again, inanimate animation). Because the war in Europe had slowed imports, including film, Phalke was forced into making shorter works than features, so he resorted to cartoons and documentaries.

The first Indian animated film with a soundtrack, On a Moonlit Night, was released in 1934, and credited to composer and orchestra leader R.C. Boral. A few others followed, but not frequently or consistently, like Lefanga Langoor (1935), produced by Mohan Bhavani, Superman Myth (1939), directed by G.K. Gokhale and produced by Indian Cartoon Pictures, and Cinema Kadampam (1947), supervised by N. Thanu. However other film cartoons must have been released to justify the existence in the late 1930s of the Mumbai-based Indian Cartoon Pictures.

With the opening of the Cartoon Film Unit, part of the government-operated Films Division, true animation production came to India in 1956. The U.S. International Cooperation Administration helped financially, and former Disney animator Clair H. Weeks, in India as part of a cultural exchange program, provided training. Weeks also collaborated with veteran animator Gokhale to bring out the unit's first work, Banyan Deer, adapted from a Buddhist Janaka story.

The Cartoon Film Unit released a new film biannually until 1962 when production doubled to four films per year. Most of the animated shorts had educational or social themes. However, a few art films were produced and a notable exception was Radha and Krishna (1958). Based on a Hindu legend and Pahari painting, the film was directed by Shanti Varma and Jehangir S. Bhownagary and received several awards. Pramod Pati also directed art films in animated form. Many prominent animators owed their training to the Cartoon Film Unit; besides Mohan, they included V.G. Samant, A.R. Sen, B.R. Shendge, G.M. Saraiya, R.A. Shaikh, R.R. Swamy, V.K. Wankhede, Shaila Paralkar, and Rani D. Rurra, the latter two are among the earliest women in Indian animation.

The workplace of Ram Mohan Biographics, Bombay, July 1993. Photo by John A. Lent.

Outside the Cartoon Film Unit, opportunities opened up for animators in the 1970s and 1980s, with the launching of independent production houses and the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. Chief among independents were Climb Films and, of course, Ram Mohan Biographics. The first to specialize in computer animation, Climb Films was started by Bhimsain, a musician and producer-director of live-action film.

Not much formal animation training occurred in India before NID was set up. Initially, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the institute invited in foreign animators such as Weeks, Roger Noake, and others to teach its staff of graphic designers and artists. After these NID trainers (key among them are I.S. Mathur and R.L. Mistry) were taught by the outsiders, a two-year animation workshop program was created to recruit and train new animation faculty, and finally, in 1985, a two and one-half year advanced entry program for students was developed. A condensed one-year scheme was added in 1986. Both faculty, especially Mistry, Binita Desai, and Nina Sabnani, and students have produced a body of animated film that emphasizes educational and developmental issues such as dowry, road safety, energy, and family planning, as well as artistic and literary themes.

India's Current Opportunity

Several organizations (particularly Cartoon Film Unit and National Institute of Design) and individuals (notably Phalke, Gokhale, and Bhownagary) have attempted to advance Indian animation during the past eight decades, but without much sustained success.

The situation in the 1990s seems to be different and more encouraging, at least for two reasons. First, the merger of Ram Mohan Biographics and United Studios Ltd. has made available the resources that Mohan earlier had said were missing, namely equipment, space, and know-how. Second, the tie-ins with animation firms elsewhere, either through co-producing or subcontracting, allow Indian studios to upgrade their technical skills and enlarge their budgets, which if used wisely, should allow them to engage in more domestic animation.

Dr. John A. Lent has written or edited 52 books and hundreds of articles, many of which deal with comic art. In press are Animation in Asia (John Libbey), Illustrating Asia (Curzon Press), Assorted Issues and Themes in Asian Cartooning (Popular Press), and Pulp Demons (Farleigh Dickinson Press). He has lectured on cartooning and animation in many countries of Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa, and has served on comic at competition juries in South Korea, Cuba, Slovakia, U.S., and Poland.