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50 years of Saraswatichandra: When director Saraiya met the great Walt Disney

In an exclusive interview, Govind Saraiya spoke of his experience with animation, of working at the Walt Disney Studios, and of meeting the great man himself.

Shriram Iyengar

On 6 September 1968, an opulent but classically shot Saraswatichandra arrived in Indian film theatres. With melodious songs, a classic plot, and Nutan in her prime, the film became one of the most famous of its era.

The art of the film was greatly appreciated by cinephiles and classicists alike. It should have come as no surprise. The director, Govind Saraiya, was a man well versed in the arts. And he was one of the earliest Indians to be offered a working scholarship at the Walt Disney Studios in Hollywood.

Sitting down with the team at Cinestaan.com in 2015, Saraiya shared some of his experiences working at the legendary animation house and his memories of its founder.

Having arrived in Bombay in the early 1950s, Saraiya was determined to work in the field of arts. He joined the Sir JJ School of Arts and graduated with a degree in fine arts. Soon, he was employed with the newly formed Films Division of the information and broadcasting ministry in Bombay. This was to be his launchpad into the magical world of animation.

Manish and Nutan in a still from Saraswatichandra (1968)

Remembering the time, he said, "They were planning to select a member of the subcontinent to travel to England on a fellowship. My record was clean, so they picked me to travel to France, England, the US, and Canada. It was well paid, and I had a one-bedroom flat at all these places.” It was the best training a filmmaker and animator could receive. Travel opened the young man's mind to different styles of filmmaking.

Govind Saraiya receiving the National award for Saraswatichandra (1968)

Saraiya was an accomplished short-filmmaker and his work found new fans in the countries he visited. “I was invited to Europe and America and Canada to learn from them and work in India," he recalled. "After a while, the members from the Film Board of Canada, who had seen my films in India, told me, 'After seeing your films, what can we teach you'?”

But the greatest moment of the journey came when Saraiya met the great Walt Disney himself. It was to be the beginning of a short but memorable friendship for the director.

“I went to the Disney Studios without knowing what to do," he recounted. "As a courtesy, for an Indian from the land of Mahatma Gandhi, Walt Disney himself came down to meet me. That day was my birthday. I instinctively touched his feet. He was surprised, but I told him it was an Indian tradition to touch one's elder's feet on one's birthday. This was how our relationship began.”

The friendship between Saraiya and Walt Disney was a creative one. Speaking of the great animator, the director said, “He gave me the freedom to work in any department I chose. In the evenings, he would invite me home for drinks.

"Walt was protected like a treasure in America," he continued. "Not everyone was allowed to meet him. People would get jealous when he would invite me."

The legendary animator was a jovial man. "His daughter would whisper, 'Don't drink any more. Walt will also drink and he can't handle it'," Saraiya recalled. "I would try to refuse, but Walt would keep pressing 'one small one'. After several small ones, when we would plan to leave, he would stand up and say, 'One for the road' (laughs)."

Disney also helped India acquire exclusive technology and cameras for use in animation, Saraiya said.

The 1950s were a great time at Disney. Animation was in its prime. Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Alice In Wonderland (1951) were some of the classic films to have emerged from the studio by then. It was in this environment that Saraiya found himself.

The journey through Canada introduced him to another big name in animation, Norman McLaren. A brilliant animator and auteur, McLaren is known for his fantastic films like Neighbours (1952), Rhythmetic (1956) and Pas De Deux (1968).

Talking about the eccentric genius, Saraiya said, “He would draw panels in his letter. One letter of his is three pages long but had only six or seven sentences. That man was a master of cell animation, perhaps as good as Disney. These people were far ahead of their time. And such humble people. That country looked after its treasures.”

Norman McLaren would also visit India to teach animators and run workshops under a UNESCO fellowship. It was to be the first step in the development of the Indian animation industry, now worth a billion rupees.

Yet, Saraiya is not very pleased with the current state of Indian animation. "We are creating films for Japan and the West," he pointed out, "our studios are working on rendering and stylizing films for the West, but we have not created an audience [at home].

“We only use animation for advertisements. Maybe we need a Disney to arrive and create an explosion in this industry."

As they say, hope springs eternal.