Interview Hindi

Kireet Khurana: Need to nurture storytelling in local animation industry


At the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival, the filmmaker opened up on the legacy of his father, the legendary Bhimsain, and the future of the Indian animation industry.

Photo: PIB

Sonal Pandya

The first day of the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) featured a long overdue retrospective of the filmmaker Bhimsain Khurana, a pioneer in Indian animation, who began his career as a background artiste at Films Division.

The 83-year-old was felicitated by the festival and the audience as his familiar and iconic animated short films like Munni (1976) and Ek Anek Aur Ekta (1977), which are still relevant today, were screened.

MIFF 2018: Legendary animator Bhimsain Khurana honoured with retrospective

Bhimsain worked at Prasad Studios with Ram Mohan, considered the father of Indian animation, and later started his own production company, Climb Films, after the success of his own landmark short film, Climb (1970).

Over three decades, the filmmaker won 16 National awards and was also on the jury of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France.

His son Kireet, a filmmaker himself, studied at Sheridan College, Canada, and won six National awards for his work in animation. Kireet Khurana directed Toonpur Ka Superrhero (2010), starring Ajay Devgn and Kajol, which combined live action with animation.

Kireet Khurana's upcoming film, T For Taj Mahal, is due to be released this year. The film is about a man who journeys into becoming a social entrepreneur through his dhaba (roadside restaurant) and how he empowers his entire village with it.

After the retrospective, Kireet Khurana spoke about learning the art of animation from his father, the early intricate process, and the future of the Indian animation industry.

“When I was growing up in the 1970s, nobody knew how animation is done," Khurana recalled. "When they looked at the animation, they couldn’t know that these are drawings. We hardly used to get one or two short films in the entire week [on television]. We used to stop all play and come running, ‘Arre dekho cartoon aaya hai'!”

His father, Bhimsain, had a light-table at home where he drew his stories, frame by frame. Those drawings were then copied on to a celluloid sheet (a transparent acetate sheet). This is where the term, cel animation, came from.

Khurana observed this manual process as a child and made his own short films when he was a teenager, using this same technique. In 1991, he went to Sheridan College to learn classic animation without computers.

He attributes much of the early growth in the Indian animation industry to Film Division. “Whatever you see in India today has a direct or indirect connection to Films Division and to the cartoon film unit,” he said.

But he added that today Indian animation storytelling is not prospering. There are projects that are being worked upon in India, but they are not of the standard that they should be.

“We have not been able to kickstart an indigenous movement in a meaningful way," Kireet said. "We have not succeeded in that. We are the ones who are animating [certain elements of] Life Of Pi (2012), which also forms a realm of special effects, not necessarily animation. India is doing extremely well there.

"The Indian film industry now requires a lot of visual effects works for its films and that has contributed to the rise of VFX studios which employ many technicians and artists.

“In the 1980s, there were only four or five animators. In the mid-1990s, when I came back from Sheridan College, there were hardly six, seven animators," he said. "You could count them on your hand. Today there are more than a lakh. It has grown exponentially.”

Khurana estimates that within the next four years, the industry could grow to have 15 lakh artists. But he cautioned that it will still be mostly contained to a service-providing area.

Kireet Khurana believes that to encourage and inculcate our own industry, there needs to be governmental protection and interference. He gives the example of the French animation industry, where a rule has been put in place to boost the local artists.

He said, “15% of the content has to be French so the local studios are engaged gainfully. And they are storytellers and writers and all the creative facets of animation are being utilised as opposed to [just] do the animation and be a sweatshop for the rest of the world. That interference or that intervention from the government is not happening. We need to protect and nurture the local animation industry from a storytelling perspective, not a commercial perspective.”

A lot of animation programmes are screened in India today from overseas but amongst our popular local animated series, only a handful like Motu Patlu and Chhota Bheem can be counted. More focus needs to be encouraging our own Indian stories, he said.

“We are not saying we should go to the Mahabharat or the Ramayan," he explained. "Even if it’s relevant in a contemporary aspect, you need to show it to an Indian audience in an Indian way. That will happen only if the channels are forced to take the content. They are forced to buy it because if you say 15% of all programmes running on prime time have to be Indian, studios and content, directed by an Indian director, written by an Indian origin person and produced by an Indian studio, then we have a chance of creating that local animation industry.”

Kireet also warned that if other countries in Europe and Asia begin offering the same work for a cheaper price, India will stop becoming a destination for international markets.

“Today, we are cheap, therefore we have work from the world. But essentially we have become a sweatshop, we have not gone up the value chain to create our stories and become a storytelling nation. That’s the main difference,” he said.

Bhimsain and Kireet Khurana have begun a restoration process of the senior filmmaker's work with the Film Heritage Foundation which will archive and store the prints for preservation and for later generations to remember and enjoy.

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Mumbai International Film Festival