Why India’s film animation industry is still struggling

In a report released last month, the Association of Japanese Animations estimated the market value of the country’s animation industry at 2 trillion yen ($18 billion or Rs1.1 trillion) for the year 2016. In comparison, the Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report, co-authored by industry lobby Ficci and consulting firm KPMG, places the Indian animation and VFX market at Rs5,950 crore. This despite the fact that India has provided talent and services to several animation and visual effect-heavy films of the West and major Bollywood studios, including Yash Raj Films and Dharma Productions, have dabbled in local animation movies like Roadside Romeo and (the unreleased) Koochie Koochie Hota Hai, albeit with little success.

The one major obstacle for animation to take off in India, industry experts say, remains the lack of original, home-grown characters.

“The Indian animation market basically started a decade ago for services that came from the West. When we started the animation industry here, we primarily looked at mythological concepts as compared to the West where they’ve created characters like Spiderman and Batman,” said Tejonidhi Bhandari, chief operating officer, Reliance Animation, which has made films like Krishna Aur Kans (2012) and television series like Shaktimaan and Little Krishna. “One major reason (for focusing on mythological content) was that we didn’t have the funds to invest in establishing new characters. A Krishna or Hanuman, on the other hand, are already entrenched in the minds of people and so it’s easy to build stories on them.”

In the West, Bhandari added, it was the other way around. Investments were made on building strong characters and spinning stories and movies around them. A good-quality animation film in India is made for around Rs8-10 crore, slightly lower than a mid-sized feature film. But even that recovery isn’t possible given the size of the market, low budgets and low recoveries, creating a vicious Catch-22 situation.

“The Indian market is not big enough by itself. Companies like Disney and Pixar spend millions of dollars, about $40-50 million each on a project,” said director Ketan Mehta, co-founder of animation company Maya Digital Studios. “So we are competing with global players with 20-30 times the budget that Indian animation can afford while our producers haven’t been able to attract international finance to do animation films that can compete globally.”

So even though The Jungle Book is something that should ideally be made in India, given that lead character Mowgli is Indian, the kind of investment it requires is just too steep. Further, the fact that the Hollywood film (and many others like it) is already dubbed in local languages like Hindi, Tamil and Telugu makes the opportunity for Indian animation even smaller.

To be sure, it’s also about mindset. Bhandari said even today, adults would see animation films as something meant only for children, preferring to take the family instead to a regular, big star-driven Bollywood feature film.

“We have to stop calling animated feature films cartoons and considering them to be only for children,” said director Nikhil Advani, who made 3D animation comedy Delhi Safari (2012), featuring the voices of Akshaye Khanna, Govinda, Sunil Shetty, Boman Irani and Urmila Matondkar. “In the US, the Toy Story franchise was launched as a summer blockbuster and competed with any big tent-pole film. Here, we release animated feature films like they are apologies.”

Advani said the cartoon-centric format of animation may work for television but the marketing and distribution circuit needs to understand that a good animation film can compete with a Bajrangi BhaijaanDelhi Safari, made on a budget of Rs24 crore, earned box office collections of a little over Rs2 crore in India but minted about Rs12.5 crore in South Korea alone, according to Advani. It is also one of the highest-grossing Indian films in China, besides Dangal and PK. The second part of the franchise has been sold by producers Krayon Pictures to a Hollywood studio to be made into a China-based story.

“Clearly, there is a market,” Advani said. “Our distributors and exhibitors (in India) still follow extreme herd mentality. What is working, will work always. Until something new comes and works, you don’t realize you weren’t thinking that way. The difference between us and the West as industries is that they are fine-tuned to think out of the box. They encourage creativity and different formats whereas here we only want to follow a formula until someone comes and rewrites it.”

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