by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in the Mumbai edition of 'Financial Express'.
When the animation boom hit India in the mid-nineties, everybody said that Indian animation would become the next big thing. Now, almost fifteen years later, it still hasn't happened. World-class animation films and TV series from India remain the exception rather than the norm.
However, things may be finally changing.
For many years, India's animation industry was sustained primarily by outsourcing contracts. Business heads quickly found that it was far easier to build technical competence than creative competence, and India's cost advantage saw considerable volumes of work being diverted to studios here. Even today, the larger Indian studios such as DQ, and Famous focus largely on this market.
But there has also been a gradual increase in the number of studios that are investing in creating their own IP for television and motion pictures. And the quality bar is slowly but surely rising. The reasons for this are manifold.
India never had a tradition of animation filmmaking. We didn't have a generation that was raised on animation, who grew up wanting to create stories inspired by the cartoons they loved as children. As a result, the first generation of Indian animators were mostly force-fitted talent that didn't have the natural advantage of 'animation DNA'. The current crop has much better exposure levels, thanks to the explosion of mass media and the Internet, and it is this generation that will drive the Indian industry to create great IP.
Secondly, the film and television industries are beginning to believe that original, locally created content has much better monetization potential, especially in the long run. So they are, albeit cautiously, making investments into creating films and shows that they hope will break through and become part of Indian popular culture – the tipping point for any animated show in the world to become commercially successful.
The mushrooming of smaller animation studios, which simply do not have the infrastructure to consider an outsourcing model, has also been a catalyst for this change. Motivated by big dreams, and working largely without the pressures that come with large scale, these studios are trying to push the envelope and come up with content that will attract the attention of a local, or perhaps even global market.
And the results are becoming visible. While Hanuman has its detractors in terms of its animation quality, few will argue that it demonstrated that a franchise building model could be successful in India. And Disney's Roadside Romeo, despite not finding box-office success, achieved a level of animation quality that is surely a signpost of better things to come. On television, shows such as Toonz's 'Tenali Raman', Green Gold's 'Chota Bheem', and BIG Animation's 'Little Krishna' are a far cry from earlier efforts, and are closer to world-class than anything we've seen in India before.
However, the question remains if any of this content can be made into a true-blue franchise. Today, while studios have come a long way in terms of animation and filmmaking skills, they sadly remain stuck with the old habit of dipping into Mythology or Folklore for stories. All these characters and stories are in the public domain, and can never really be exploited commercially as IP, at least when compared to original creations such as Ben10 or Avatar:The Last Airbender. This has already had an effect, with at least three separate creations based on Krishna being aired on different channels, surely diluting the viewership.
While the practice of using stories from mythology and folklore, which I'm going to call the 'Amar Chitra Katha' hangover, will perhaps build a market quicker, the animation industry will stand to profit much more from creating original creative IP, because this is the only way that the stakeholders can hold the rights to monetize what they create. While the other factors are slowly falling into place to create an environment conducive to throwing forth a breakthrough animation IP, the dependence on the perceived 'safe zone' of mythology / folklore needs to reduce before Indian animation fulfils the promise of the mid nineties.. The quicker we recover from the Amar Chitra Katha hangover, the better.