Low budgets & no imagination: Lifeless Indian animation films

Winning glory for Hollywood, but little to show at home


February 25, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Low budgets & no imagination: Lifeless Indian animation films

Children's TV sitcom Chhota Bheem had managed to garner almost 50 million views by 2020 (Image Credit: Green Gold Animation)

Growing gradually in the late 90s and early 2000s, the animation film industry in India is still struggling to find audience, funds, theatres and success in domestic productions.

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Much of the painstakingly detailed animation for the global-hit Disney film The Jungle Book (2016) was done in the Bengaluru offices of the Soho-headquartered Moving Picture Company. The film won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2017.

A lot of the advanced computer graphics technology used to shoot scenes with a tiger in Life of Pi (2012) was done in the Mumbai and Hyderabad offices of Los Angeles-based SFX company Rhythm & Hues. Life of Pi also won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2013.

With critically acclaimed works like Skyfall (2012), Shrek series (2001 to present), How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and many more ongoing projects, the list of animation films that outsource large portions of work to Indian studios is long and growing. However, when it comes to domestic animation content with good-quality, India has little to no praise-worthy substance.

“If one looks for stunning, award-winning original SFX or animation cinema from Indian banners and made in home-grown studios, that are visible or commercial hits, one will find almost none,” says Hariom Puri, owner of Vision studios, an animation studio based in Delhi.

Few ups and a lot of downs

Motu Patlu (2012-16) was a super-hit Punjabi animation series (Image Credit: IMDb)

The closest India got to acing special effects in domestic production was the 2015 smash hit Baahubali: The Beginning and its sequel Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017). On just these two films, according to the media reports, about 33 studios worked on VFX post-production and effects that took 15 months to create, says Puri, who goes on to say that in the early 2000s there seemed to be hope that animation could flourish in India, but then the realisation dawned that there was no way that these films could have withstood competition with Bollywood.

Puri refers to Percept Picture Company’s Hanuman (2005), based on the Hindu mythological character that made a profit of USD 1.1 million. Another milestone came with Green Gold Animation’s Chhota Bheem, created in 2008, the story of a laddoo (a sweet) munching nine-year-old superboy from the fictional city of Dholakpur. Targeted at children, Chhota Bheem managed to garner almost 50 million views by 2020 and a 2013 study valued the brand at almost INR 300 billion. Rajiv Chilakha, its creator, is hailed as India’s most commercially successful animator.

“Besides these, there seems to be nothing. An occasional Chaar Sahibzaade (2014), Harry Baweja’s super-hit Punjabi animation, or Motu Patlu (2016), the television sitcom for children. And after that, we go right back to the 1970s and Ek Anek, the very famous Films Division short,” Puri adds.

Talented but lacking imagination

Puri further says that it would seem that the country is swimming in animation talent, but home-grown films are either awkwardly made or non-existent. Animation studios here are clearly good to provide assembly-line labour but are not coming up with original cinema. And this has been the state since the animation boom that began in the late 1990s.

“Of some 10,000 animators (people who just animate to a brief), we may have 10 animation filmmakers who are passionate about making a film using the animation medium,” K Dinesh, the founder of Studio Originals that won Annecy International Animation Film Award in 2015 for their short film Fateline (2014), tells Media India Group.

Dinesh identifies two other reasons for animation in India remaining stuck in limbo. The lack of original stories is one. “We don’t have writers who can think and write animation,” and second, he says, is a huge lack of producers and studios who see merit or money in animated content. “Instead of producing something new, they just lament that there is no market for animated content in India,” Dinesh adds.

As Dinesh explains, anime-lovers admit to the notion that animated stories around the world, especially in the much-acclaimed Japanese animation, creators use extreme impossibilities as a premise. “Our imagination right now seems limited to what we can see. Almost all films want to tell popular stories from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. It is like India has only two genres that are really popular; Japan has a million mangas (Japanese animation) to choose from,” he adds.

Tasks beyond creating animations

Vaibhav Kumaresh of Vaibhav Studios, who created the popular character Simpoo Singh for Channel V in 1999, has a rather dismal tale. “All our productions have been huge flops, whether Arjuna (2012), which was very critically acclaimed or Roadside Romeo (2008), which was a very high investment film, the biggest entity from Bollywood,” he says.

And why was that? According to Kumaresh, the approach might have been all wrong. “It is not a Bollywood story. You can’t just translate flesh and blood to cats and dogs. It’s not going to work like that. This is a different language, a different art form,” he explains.

Making an animation film is only half the job; promoting it is the other half. “Even if I have made a brilliant film over five years, I still need a proper partner to market it, distribute it, and advertise it. I need to get Bollywood on my side because that will be our biggest competition. They are fighting among themselves, they book dates in advance; it’s almost like they have a monopoly. With such cut-throat competition every day, why will theatres give screens to some ‘dog-and-cat’ film when a Salman Khan-starrer will bring in the audiences?” he says.

Narrow policies and narrower funds

Government support for animation is non-existent because, in theory, it is a profitable business, predicted to grow in the coming years. Neither is there a rock-solid television or theatre policy to give space to home-grown animated content.

In this gloom-and-doom scenario, there is the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), one of the few government bodies that provide funds to animation filmmakers. But CFSI is famously bad at distribution, according to most animation artists and studios. Also, only children come under CFSI’s purview.

Puri of Vision Studios argues that CFSI has some brilliant films with it, but they are just collecting dust. The prints available on their website are often bad and CFSI has just not invested in promoting talent. “It is only interested in carrying out its stated objective of showing films to children,” he says.

Despite these odds, and the uphill task of making animated films, most animators and studio owners are working on their upcoming films. “They are aware of their responsibility – of putting out a good film after the many flops that have turned the market against Indian animation. These animators are the reason to hope that The Jungle Book might one day be made in the country of its origin,” Puri hopes.



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