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MIFF 2018: Indian animation industry believes in service, not creation, says filmmaker Suresh Eriyat

The National Award-winning filmmaker held a masterclass at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival to discuss the past and present of Indian animation.

Photo: PIB

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Suresh Eriyat, whose animated short film Tokri (The Basket) won the Best Animation Film award in the National Competition section at the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), is a busy man. He and his talented team at Studio Eeksaurus Pvt. Ltd., which he co-founded, also created the signature film of the festival which played before every screening.

Eriyat also gave an entertaining and informative talk about the growth of Indian animation – from its small beginnings to the state that it is in now. The animator spoke at a masterclass titled, ‘Indian Animation – Where do we stand globally?’, on 2 February at the festival, that concluded today (3 February).

He believes Indian animation is not at par with its international contemporaries and said he is often asked about the differences between the domestic and world industries. “I always struggle to answer these questions. Not because of the kind of work I have done, but probably because of the work many others have done that I am asked this question,” Eriyat explained.

The works of several international animators show how far they have come while also demonstrates how far India as an industry needs to reach.

The history of Indian animation began with Films Division, where the 15th edition of MIFF was held. Clair Weeks, who worked on Disney animated films, came to Films Division in 1956 to set up a cartoon unit in India. He is the one who taught animation to Ram Mohan and Bhimsain Khurrana, who then taught a whole new generation of animators. In fact, Mohan is referred to as the 'Father of Indian Animation'.

Eriyat calls this the ‘golden period’ of animation in India. After this, in the 1970s, the National Institute of Design (NID), where Eriyat studied and graduated from, began courses in animation. Two-time Oscar nominee, animator Ishu Patel, is one of the notable alumni from NID.

During the 1980s, a lot of animated content was created for the government-run television channel, Doordarshan, that proved to be a big boon to the burgeoning animation industry. “But after the first generation of animation filmmakers, there were no animation filmmakers for the longest time,” Eriyat said.

This wasn’t the case across the globe, as the second generation also continued producing animated films, putting to practice all they had learnt.

Eriyat further pointed out that sustainability is a big issue in India. The Indian animation industry is largely an industry of service, not of creation. These animators began working for the advertising industry and some created animated titles for cinema.

In countries like Japan and Russia, animation films also explored their artistic expressions, which, never happened in India. “They say in India, all good things are for export,” Eriyat said, referring to animators seeking work outside the country.  

Even today, all creation work is done internationally and later its execution is completed in India. This was the case with many successful Hollywood films including Life Of Pi (2012) and Jungle Book (2016). These film were worked upon in India, both animation and VFX. “But it was not conceived in India, that is where the difference is,” he noted.

We have not created our own content and that has been the issue why we have fallen further behind compared to the world. Furthermore, according to him, there are skilled artists in India who are happy to be just artists, and do not want to venture into film making.

There are many in the country who don’t know what exactly an animator does. It’s not just about drawing, it’s also about telling stories. Additionally, animation is not just funny cartoons. The field is not only about the technology and how to be skilled at it because as Eriyat explains, “It’s always the hand-made film that lives longer.” For example, characters like Mickey Mouse and, Tom and Jerry have survived decades of popularity.

He does not believe that learning a software by default teaches animation. Eriyat also spoke of the myths that animation is cheap and it is the same as VFX.

With our cinema, Eriyat said, “We may have an overdose of animated realities, we may not require an interesting animated world to be seen.” Overseas, animation is seen as an art form, as visual poetry and that perspective needs to be added.

At industry meetings too, animation studios would lobby for tax cuts and rebates, while Eriyat feels that channels that show animated content need to devote 10% of the time to original content in India. In Europe, funds and grants are given to artists and animators to explore their talent.  

Another strong point Eriyat presented was that an animator need not be highly educated to join the field. People who work in animation come from all walks of life.

But most importantly, in Europe and Asia, the filmmaker said, “They continue to create content for TV and cinema for their own people. Japanese anime is not created thinking that Americans are going to love it.”

It should be enough for a local audience. With our own vast cultural history, we have enough stories to tell. But perhaps, Eriyat explains, most of these international countries have only one language, while we have several. But if Hindi cinema can succeed in all parts of the country, so can animation, which is universal in nature.

As the audience watched different examples of wonderfully animated shorts, many of them silent, Eriyat believes we have much to learn about artistry and nuance and that will come only with time and experience.

Which is not to say that there are no talented filmmakers out there. Eriyat pointed out filmmkers like Gitanjali Rao, Vaibhav Kumaresh and Charuvi Agrawal who are doing fine work themselves. “But in a country of a billion people, only 10-15 people are creating such movements which is a huge imbalance,” he said.

Eriyat then shared the kind of work that Studio Eeksaurus produces. In 2015, a short they worked on, Fateline, won the Annecy Cristal award, animation’s high honour, at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, held annually in France. The studio's 15-minute short film Fisherwoman And Tuk-Tuk won the National Award for Best Animation Film in 2015.

Both Fisherwoman And Tuk-Tuk and Tokri took over six years to complete only because the studio could work on it only during breaks from other projects. Eriyat also stressed that besides making their own films, they also wanted to mentor the next generation of filmmakers. “We have an incubation setup where we fund, mentor and produce the films because we shouldn’t wait for the government to do something.”

The masterclass ended with a short film, What’s Your Brown Number?, directed by Vinnie Ann Bose, a comical but realistic take on India’s ongoing obsession with skin colour. The short is the first to emerge from the incubation project, mentored by Eriyat. If more animated shorts like this one are encouraged, the future of Indian animation doesn’t look that dim after all.

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Mumbai International Film Festival