[Reader-list] In search of animation

sukanya ghosh skinnyghosh at gmail.com
Sat Aug 4 00:51:34 IST 2007

The grand old man of Indian animation, Ram Mohan celebrates 50 years of 
being in animation this year. He has a sort of parable to tell about 
animation in India. He tells of how not many know that Dadasaheb Phalke, 
the father of Indian Cinema was also the first to try animation and 
hence is also the father of Indian animation. But as animation remained 
the much neglected Cinderella daughter, the other daughter (the ugly 
sister) grew by leaps and bounds. It is only after many years that this 
Cinderella finally got her prince. It is however another story that the 
prince turned out to be something she didn't quite expect.


Ram Mohan is one of those who has lived through most of this history. He 
claims that despite early attempts by Phalke, Mandar Mallick and others, 
not much was known about animation and it certainly did not ever become 
any kind of industry. His career took off under the training programme 
under Clair Weeks.


Why Clair Weeks and to what purpose I ask? Clair H. Weeks of Walt Disney 
Studios, came to India under the Indo-US Technical Aid program (1951). 
The fledgling Indian Government was readying up to deliver the first of 
The Five Year Plans. According to Ram Mohan the government felt the need 
for widespread communication in matters regarding public health, 
savings, education and other objectives that were envisaged as necessary 
for the growth of a healthy economy and country. Animation was felt to 
be the medium that could easily fulfill this vital role of visual 
communications. The pictorial nature of the communication could be used 
to impart knowledge.


Here, we might take an aside to understand the 'nature' of the animated 
image. The vital difference from cinema can be attributed to the dual 
nature of deconstruction and the re-construction of reality. Being an 
overtly self conscious medium, the 'constructed' nature of its image is 
of prime importance. The set of assumptions that the animated image 
carries with it allow our levels of disbelief to be transcended far more 
than the cinematic image. For instance the phenomenon of 
'anthropomorphism' -- we are happy to believe all manner of talking 
animals and otherwise inanimate objects. Or the manner in which the 
unseen becomes 'seen' or imagined. The flexibility of the canvas of 
animation where virtually (and I use the word in all its various 
connotations) everything is possible and everything can have a voice. 
This played a huge role in its selection as a medium of mass appeal and 
understanding. One that would cut across cultural, regional and language 
barriers by the sheer audacity of its images. The cartoon, specifically 
could be used to portray serious issues on a lighter note.


This was perhaps the reason that the Army Cartoon Unit chose animation 
to produce various films which were to carry various kinds of messages 
to the people. This unit was the predecessor to the Films Divisions 
Cartoon Film Unit and subsequently most of its members went on to join 
the Films Division. When Clair Weeks was asked to come to India, the 
choice of choosing had a lot to do with the fact that Clair Weeks had 
been born in India and had some knowledge of the Hindi Language. The 
Films Division had installed its animation rostrum camera -- an Oxberry 
16 mm camera -- under the directorship of Jehangir Bhownagary. The film 
/Radha and Krishna/ was created suing this camera. From here onwards the 
production of animation films remained pretty much within the 
territorial scope of the films division. One of the biggest reasons 
being the role that the films division occupies. The government saw this 
as the main agency for producing short features to meet the various 
requirements of the political and social agenda that they were plotting 
out. Thus -- "The Films Division of India has within its archives, a 
recorded legacy of our glorious past. With the infra-structure 
available, it is not merely a store-house of this legacy, but also an 
active participant in making it."

The Hindi film Industry however never adopted animation as anything more 
than creative film titling. This perhaps played a crucial role in 
determining the directions that Indian animation took in those early 
years. World War II had begun the process of disintegration of the big 
studios. A peculiarity of the shortage of raw stock, among other kinds 
of rationing led to the beginnings of huge amounts of illegal trading 
and black money. Film financing now saw a different kind of pattern and 
the development of an established star system. Animation was not a 
proposition that seemed to fit this scenario as a suitably profitable 
medium. A labour and time intensive medium like animation did not really 
much of a niche in the mainstream of film production. Besides which, 
there was a simple lack of trained personnel. Ram Mohan reiterates how 
very few people were trained and how there was no platform where people 
could train because only the films division had a regular animation agenda.

One wonders how and where the seeds of growth and development really 
lie. Can art flourish in the absence of an infrastructure? If so, then 
is art then dependent on the infrastructure provided by the kind of 
support that only a commercially driven industry can provide? Is art 
taken forward only under the aegis of a certain visionaries and 
philanthropists? One remembers that the most widely seen/remembered 
animation in the world is the one created by a maverick megalomaniacal 
empire builder who saw the potential of his certain skill. And that the 
other most highly regarded (though less seen and heard of) national film 
production board was led to its stature through the platform provided by 
one visionary iconic (and albeit iconoclastic) artist, filmmaker.

In between the endless search through the twists and turn that animation 
in India takes here onwards, we have a huge repository of films on 
health, family planning, savings, the economy, the girl child, 
education, history, somewhere we let go of the essential artistic 
impulse that informs the medium.   

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