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Cannes: Toon Biz Animates Indian Cinema

From Dhundiraj Govind Phalke’s 1915 stop-motion “The Game of Match Sticks” to Green Gold Animation’s May 10 3D stereoscopic release “Chhota Bheem Kung Fu Dhamaka,” Indian animation has been around for more than a 100 years.

The sector grew 10% in 2018 to a value of $272 million, per a 2019 EY report, and is poised to reach $353 million by 2021. India has some 300 animation studios, but the majority of them are engaged in creating content for television, which accounts for 65% of the Indian toon market.

Animated feature films make up just 15% of the sector. From the highs of 2012 and 2013, with 10 toon features produced in each of those two years, to 2017, in which just one, Ruchi Narain’s “Hanuman Da’ Damdaar,” featuring the voice talent of Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was released, it has been a steep drop. 2018 was marginally better with four releases.

“It’s still considered a children’s genre,” Narain told Variety. “As a country we are late bloomers in animation, so the children who have grown up on animation are still teenagers.”

“Hanuman Da’ Damdaar,” a jungle adventure squarely aimed at the kids’ market, received the widest release for any animation film in India and was a box-office success.

Soumitra Ranade co-wrote and co-produced wife Shilpa’s 2013 “The World of Goopi and Bagha.” Based on Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s classic tale of a pair of musicians receiving magic powers from the king of ghosts, the film premiered at Toronto. It received considerable festival play and won the inaugural animation award at the Women’s Intl. Film & Television Showcase. The film released in India in 2019.

“The Indian audience has been raised primarily on films coming from Hollywood,” Ranade says. “So that’s the aesthetic that they are aligned with. They see that as the yardstick in terms of ‘art of animation.’ So while the mainstream Hollywood animation is received extremely well, Indian animation that experiments with different styles finds it difficult to break through.”

Gitanjali Rao won three awards at Cannes for her 2006 animated short “Printed Rainbow” and scored a nomination there in 2014 for the short “True Love Story.” Her feature debut “Bombay Rose,” which she describes as “an animated romance hanging precariously between living on the streets and loving on the screen, Bollywood style,” is set to premiere at an A-list festival in the fall. U.K.- and India-based production house Cinestaan Film Co. (“Cold War”) took a punt on the film.

“There was much to love in the script, three stories of love woven together, the dialogues between our leading characters are beautiful, but the animation has turned the script into something truly special,” says Deborah Sathe, Cinestaan director, international operations.

“The challenges for producing and distributing a theatrical are vastly different from those while creating content for television,” says Rajiv Chilaka, who created the immensely popular “Chhota Bheem” franchise that bowed on television in 2008 and has also spawned four theatrical features, including “Chhota Bheem Kung Fu Dhamaka,” in which the titular character and his friends go to China to rescue a friend.

“Although India has an abundance of talented creators and animators who can bring the grandest and most intricate ideas to life, the industry ecosystem growth to support the development, production and distribution of animation theatricals has been on the slower end,” he says. “But the outlook is extremely positive with major distribution houses understanding the scope of the theatricals as well as policies being formed and government initiatives being implemented.”

Viacom 18 Motion Pictures’ 2016 feature “Motu Patlu: King of Kings” is another example of a television franchise that translated to film.

If characters are already well entrenched and kids have affinity to them, the opportunity to succeed is much more,” says Nina Elavia Jaipuria, head Hindi Mass Entertainment & Kids Television Network, Viacom18.

India’s VFX industry that Hollywood regularly outsources to is booming, and projected to grow to $1.1 billion by 2021.

Kireet Khurana, who directed the 2010 hit “Toonpur ka Superrhero,” which blended live action and animation a la “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and featured top stars Ajay Devgn and Kajol, sees the relative lack of content as an opportunity.

“Since we have an incredibly robust outsourcing animation industry, which caters to the top Hollywood productions, we have the skills at the highest levels,” Khurana says. “The fact is that we have a large young population and we don’t even have a tenth of children’s programs locally to cater to them as compared to the West, the opportunity for India is huge. This opportunity is on the verge of unlocking big time.”

With the exponential growth of OTT platforms in India, Khurana and Narain are bullish on commissioning and housing animated features and long formats. According to 2018 estimates from Loup Ventures, Netflix was to spend $1.1 billion, or 11% of its total production budget, on animation, while Amazon Prime Video’s spend was estimated at $300 million, some 10% of its budget. While no animated features have been announced yet, there are Indian animation series including “Mighty Little Bheem,” a continuation of the “Chhota Bheem” franchise, on Netflix, and “Inspector Chingum” on Amazon.

“Unless we dedicate time and money into creating our own original Indian content, we will lose the race,” Rao says. “But if a dozen companies like Cinestaan are ready to take the risk and create a dozen or so good Indian animation films in a year, we can continue to sail.”

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