A few weeks ago, a trailer for the animated movie “Arjun: the Warrior Prince” was released. Even though the tagline calls it “the untold story of India’s greatest warrior”, it is, in fact the story of a central character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It marks the first release of an animated movie after the acquisition of UTV by Walt Disney Pictures. The movie seems particularly intriguing, as it brings back the epic feeling of Disney’s late 90s films, even though it seems that the combination of 3D and 2D animation is at times quite problematic. However, if one sees past the flaws in animation and some clichés in the narration, the movie does hold the promise of a visually interesting large scale spectacle.
Disney’s interest in the country is neither brand new, not unexpected: in 2008 it collaborated with Yash Raj Films for the production of “Roadside Romeo”. Like many other media companies, Disney has seen the potentials in the developing country and has been investing there for the past fifteen years. Currently advanced discussions also take place for the creation of an Indian Disneyland. Such ambitions and investments are supported not only by the growing GDP of the country, but also by the increased domestic consumerism and the nation’s fascination with media. It is a huge market that consumes huge amounts of movies and other media per year. It has a strong domestic production, with media products routinely exported to other parts of Asia, as well as Western countries with strong South-Asian communities. However, what India lacks is a long tradition of animated movies production. For quite a long time it has remained a consumer of imported animation products, as animation is a much more tedious process that requires the mind-blowing combination of huge amounts of money, highly specialised and talented professionals, experience, time and patience. When a live-action movie can go through all the stages of production within a year (pre-production, production, post-production, marketing and release), an animated movie requires a few years and a lot of love and attention to detail to reach, at least, respectable standards. Therefore, it is an investment of much higher risk.
However, it is not all that bleak. Animated movies are also a product with fantastic potentials for long-term revenue due to DVD rentals/sales, streaming, downloads, theatrical and television reruns and the licence agreements abroad. The ca also be affiliated to a plethora of merchandise, from toy figures to bed sheets. It has the potentials to create a universe of characters that can be marketed and sold, re-branded or evolve separately from the original product. Also, as it depends on the re-imagination of the world and the creation of a separate universe that can be inhabited by creatures of all shades, forms or shapes, it is a product that transcends cultural differences more easily than live-action movies. Therefore, it can cross into the Western mainstream more easily than other “ethnic” movies. However, there is a catch to these fantastic opportunities: the movie – or series – needs to be good enough to capture the imagination of the children.
The combination of certain elements is essential for the success of an animated movie. First and foremost, the production studio needs to set high quality standards for the final product. This can be a very expensive decision which will involve a lot of risk, especially in a country that is still experimenting with the production of animation. The studio needs to have enough faith in animation as an art form to be willing to invest long term or find patient investors who understand the difficulty of the endeavour. Take Pixar as an example: for a very long time it was a tremendously costly investment that seemed like it would never ever bring any revenue. It was the faith of investors such as Steve Jobs that kept the company afloat and allowed it to produce and release the ground-breaking and commercially successful first “Toy Story” movie.
However, domestically produced animation will certainly not bring the level of novelty “Toy Story” brought upon release. Animated movies (2D and 3D) of international standards have been released in India in the past. Producers can count on the desire of the people to see something that reflects their culture, but at the same time, if they solely bet on it, they will miss the bigger picture. Something should not be “good enough for India”. It should be just good, especially in terms of animation quality and storytelling (which, unfortunately, has been traditionally the weak point of Bollywood movies). For all their advantages, animated movies/series face fierce competition in a global scale, with the two major players being the US and Japan. Their products have penetrated and dominated foreign markets for a very long time. So, even if the content produced is oriented for domestic consumption, it still needs to compete with the international releases that are also released domestically. In other words, in a globalised world the better product will win and cultural references can only offer a relative advantage, especially when the audience consists of little people who still decipher their culture and can easily blend Tom and Jerry into their intimate sphere of experience. This is where the involvement of foreign companies with long tradition in animation, such as Disney, can bring a tremendous advantage, due to the possibility of injecting local productions with foreign know-how.
The problem with creating a product for an audience that is not well-established (or has been driven away by previous aesthetic and commercial failures) is that the producers need to make conscious efforts to identify the elements that drove previous domestic productions to fail and the elements that assisted local and foreign productions to succeed.
It is a long and difficult path, but that doesn’t mean that it is all in vain. If one looks once again at the story of Pixar, it will become obvious that brave visionaries will fail multiple times, but if they have dreams, knowledge and skills they will eventually succeed. The success of animation in India won’t be just a romantic story of how a different narrative form infiltrated a seemingly hostile and rocky territory. It will be a victory for animation worldwide, as a strong Indian animation Industry that doesn’t just do work for foreign companies, but uses its talents for the production of original material will eventually form its own schools, aesthetics and narrative forms. It will enrich and renew the animation industry, while offering refreshing products to an audience that can easily become hardcore fans and ascribe “cult” status to movies/series. It may also turn into the Trojan horse that the Indian film industry has been looking for in hopes of infiltrating the Western market.
But first thing first: India is a country with great heritage, an ambulance of interesting stories and a colourful present that can be used as the backdrop for compelling, contemporary narrations (in fact, even the ugly can be beautifully incorporated into a film, as the use of favelas in the movie Rio proves). Indian animation is already a very promising business with significant revenues. However, it needs long-term investments, talents with excellent education and broaden horizons and time to grow and develop its own distinctive identity. Otherwise, it will weather as fast at it will grow.