Movie time, with my child
Why do we produce so few children's films and TV shows? Have we finally moved beyond mythology? A ground report (and a millennial mom's search for what her child can watch)
Super Bheem, Chhota Bheem, both are the same. They don’t need to fight much," my daughter’s eight-year-old friend said, not quite approvingly. The two times in a week his mother, a Tiger Mom and Helicopter Mom effortlessly rolled into one, allows him to watch TV, he chooses sports. His parents have sparsely and selectively exposed him to the world of cartoons, Indian and international. The boy now rarely watches Chhota Bheem, the most popular children’s TV show in India.
I am not sure he has missed a lot, but he does have exceptional taste. A recent study on the media consumption behaviour of Indian children concluded that a minuscule number watch sports.
Most millennial parents know who he is, but for the uninitiated, Super Bheem is the new 3D Chhota Bheem. The little superhero from Dholakpur, imagined as the child who grows up to be the ultra-masculine Pandava from the Mahabharat, stormed Indian television a decade ago. “You can’t fool children with mediocre content. With so many avenues and channels open to children to access shows from all over the world, we have to keep up. Super Bheem is much more modern and bigger in scope," explains Rajiv Chilaka, founder and chief executive officer of Hyderabad-based Green Gold Animation, which created the show for Turner. Astride a genial blue, winged creature, Super Bheem flies to outer space to solve interplanetary disputes.
The eight-year-old sports geek could be right. The updated Bheem has the same simplistic arc as the 10-year-old Chhota. Simple challenges take him and his friends Chutki, Raju, Kalia, Dholu, Bholu and Jaggu the monkey to a place far away from the fictional town they live in. The action unfolds aimlessly, and breezily. There are no moral dilemmas, there is certainly no sorrow. Two emoticons are adequate to describe this superhero: the big-eyed grin and the thumbs-up.
The show has had no serious home-grown competition so far—the reach of other shows that have been airing on TV channels for more than five years now, such as Motu Patlu, Shiva, Doraemon, Little Krishna and Ninja Hattori, is significantly smaller than Chhota Bheem or Super Bheem. The interest in American and British shows, however, has been growing, the most popular being The Adventures Of Dora and Peppa Pig. Netflix and Amazon Prime have broadened the choice of shows and movies. I recently introduced my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter to the Stories Podcast, an independent podcast for children, with great success. The narrator’s voice and the minimal sound effects had her enraptured for more than half an hour.
India creates very little entertainment for children, and here I mean the two mass vehicles of entertainment: TV and the movie theatre (and by extension, the internet, because most movies and TV shows now have their streaming equivalents). Publishing is many years ahead. Tara Books, Tulika Books, Little Latitude, Red Turtle, Eklavya, Young Zubaan, Pickle Yolk Books, Pratham Books and other children’s publishing labels have produced authors who don’t rely on easily derivable morals and monotone narratives.
In late 2014, when my daughter turned three, I decided to introduce her to movies with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. We had received gifts of Baby Einstein and Mickey Mouse DVD packs, some friends recommended Teletubbies and In The Night Garden on BBC’s excellent children’s channel CBeebies, which was then available in India. But we waited. Besides books, we introduced her to the oldest form of entertainment that humans have turned to the screen for.
My Neighbour Totoro is the story of two sisters, their ailing mother, who is recovering in hospital, and their erudite father, with whom they live in a rambling house in the Japanese countryside. The girls meet Totoro, a burly, benevolent spirit of the surrounding forest, who opens their eyes to life’s simplest and greatest gifts. The three-year-old was immersed, first frame onward. She did not quite understand what was going on, but the two little girls in the film and Joe Hisaishi’s beautifully wistful score accompanying Miyazaki’s 2D virtuosity had an impact. She watched the film over and over again for months before we introduced her to other films, including some of Pixar and Disney.
After the visual education (or miseducation, only time will tell) of the last two years, she has little patience with Mickey Mouse or Chhota Bheem, or most children’s films and shows available for streaming. Given the lack of extreme real-life adventures in her protected city life, her understanding of death, longing, courage, danger and justice comes from the movies.
My takeaway from this search regarding what my daughter should be watching is the realization that children love the subtext, they like to engage with their hearts and minds. We can’t shelter them from the ugly and give them stupid.
All this while, my search for home-grown stories and films has continued.
On the one hand, there are big TV properties such as Chhota Bheem, and on the other, rare theatrical releases such as Nila Madhab Panda’s I Am Kalam, Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, Amole Gupte’s Stanley Ka Dabba and Rajan Khosa’s Gattu. We are still a nation of “family movies", although a Rohit Shetty film hardly counts as entertainment for children. After Dangal, the film that children above 6 or 7 will enjoy is Anurag Basu’s new feature Jagga Jasoos—more than a stylish doff of the hat to Tintin, it is about two misfits whose emotional bond and peripatetic adventures make for utterly enjoyable cinema. It has the kind of anarchic magic that children love. The makers quite rightly promoted it as a film for children, a rarity in Hindi film marketing.
Ruchi Narain’s Hanuman Da’ Damdaar, which released in the first week of June, is an attempt at humanizing mythology. Dev Lok, the abode of the Hindu gods, is a corporate confederacy. There are clever references to a world where social media has upstaged journalists. The language is Hinglish in parts. It’s a safe experiment, which makes mythology palatable and non-preachy, using Bollywood tropes: a token gay character, raucous north Indians and thickly accented south Indians.
Narain believes children’s films in India tend to be preachy. “I wanted to tell the Hanuman story, but without the baggage of mythology and morals. I wanted both children and adults to enjoy the movie; I wanted to make it fun," Narain says. Salman Khan is the voice for the adult Hanuman in an expository opening sequence, in which the dialogue is from his own movies.
Regional cinema and literature are far ahead of Hindi and English when it comes to good stories about children. The new wave of Marathi films has memorable child protagonists, although the films are about caste, class and identity. Bengali cinema has had unusual child detectives and child heroes. One way of finding good stories for children is revisiting our mother tongues.
Mumbai’s film industry produces around 1,400 films a year, and around 0.1% of them are children’s films, according to the “KPMG FICCI Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report, 2015". There have been no foreign collaborations in television or films. Annette Brejner, creative director of the Sweden-based Financing Forum For Kids Content, which collaborates with film-makers from across the world to develop and produce films for children, says: “There are no political agreements made in India that specifically are aimed at supporting a children’s film culture. In my part of the world, it has taken several different initiatives to make it happen over the years. Some countries have ruled that 25% of the governmental yearly film subsidies must be given to children’s films."
Vaibhav Kumaresh, owner of Vaibhav Studios in Mumbai, which produces animation work for children’s channels and commercials, has been working on an animation feature, Jungle In The City, for a few years. “It is an expensive, long process to make a full-length animation film, and producers and distributors in India are hesitant to take on a children’s film because they think it is not profitable," he says. Jungle In The City has two parallel stories: one in the jungle, and one among a bunch of children in a school. Both worlds collide in transformative ways.
Animation for children and about children is a distinction many writers and directors consciously make in their minds, but this distinction blurred in Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya (2013). It is based on Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s Bengali comic fantasy Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne, which was famously made into a film by the writer’s grandson, Satyajit Ray in 1969. Ranade’s film adds layers to the original story about Goopy, an off-key singer, and Bagha, a tone-deaf drummer, through illustrations inspired by ethnic marionettes, with bulbous eyes and protruding lips. They have encounters with ghosts, avert wars, marry princesses and help sort everyman troubles.
The film is like a lush illustrated book come alive, with violin-laced fusion music by 3 Brothers And A Violin and Hindi dialogue. Written by her husband, director Soumitra Ranade, who also made the delightful Gulliver’s Travels riposte, Jajantaram Mamantram (2003), the film found its own following, first by premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and later, through screenings across India. It is yet to get a theatrical release or an online streaming platform.
The duo is now at work to make another film favourite—Kabuliwalla, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s short story—into an animation film. Ranade says she was surprised by the reaction she got from children. She recalls: “At the first screening at TIFF in front of a largely under-17 audience, I got so many questions. I thought the language and the Indianness will be a barrier, but the children comprehended all of it." She says she thought of it as a film for children as well as adults.
It’s a thought reiterated by Amole Gupte, the writer of India’s most famous film about children, Taare Zameen Par (2007, directed and produced by Aamir Khan), and director-writer of the equally successful Stanley Ka Dabba (2011). “The fact that there is so little of children’s films and mature, layered stories for children has to do with how we as a society think of children. We don’t respect them, we don’t engage with them. ‘Let them laugh, give them something stupid for time-pass’ is the attitude," says Gupte, a former chairperson of the Children’s Film Society, India (CFSI). For Stanley Ka Dabba, his second film, Hawaa Hawaai (2014), and his forthcoming Sniff, Gupte subverted the usual writing, casting and shooting rigmarole of film production and let his stories unfold through acting workshops with children.
Monica Wahi, a former artistic director at CFSI and its children’s film festival, The Golden Elephant, and director of the Southasian Children’s Cinema Forum, says children’s juries at film festivals often surprise adult jury members. The Malayalam film Ottal (The Trap) by Jayaraj R. is not a happy, upbeat film. It is a slow, lyrical film set in a fisherman’s village in Kerala, based on Anton Chekov’s short story Vanka. It is a story about the environment, told through the life of a boy and his grandfather. “It won most top awards at film festivals across India in 2014. The children’s juries were unanimous in their choice of this film over others," says Wahi.
Wahi is now the curator of Tata Sky Kids Cinema, a channel available to all subscribers of Tata Sky. It airs films from around the world, and does not include popular titles from big studios. “We did a test run last year to see if subscribers would respond to a channel like this, and it was encouraging. The idea is to not compete with cartoon channels, but to offer something that cartoon channels will never give parents," says Arun Unni, chief content officer, Tata Sky.
Wahi’s list now includes many Studio Ghibli titles (My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, The Secret World Of Arrietty and others), Tomm Moore’s The Secret Of Kells, animated shorts from India and other countries, including Hum Chitra Banate Hai by Nina Sabnani, which won the National Award this year, Santosh Sivan’s Halo and Malli, and some foreign language titles with subtitles such as Birds Of Passage (Belgium), Blue Bicycle (Turkey) and Lamb (Ethiopia).
At the forefront of children’s film production in India is the CFSI. At its south Mumbai premises, more than 260 films have been preserved for posterity. None of them has been released.
Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiiya, a CFSI production, did pilot runs at theatres as morning shows for schoolchildren. The only film that released officially in theatres was Gattu, in 2012. Among many other films this year, the CFSI is co-producing Pahuna, a film set in Sikkim, by Pakhi A. Tyrewala, along with Purple Pebble Pictures, a banner started by actor Priyanka Chopra and her mother, Madhu Chopra.
Its reach is wide, through government schools, but it does not have the muscle to distribute films in multiplexes and theatres. Under Shravan Kumar, who has been CEO of CFSI for five years, Ranade’s film reached audiences worldwide—a first in CFSI’s history. An Indian Revenue Service officer, he has been testing innovative ways to market children’s films. Since last year, they have had a tie-up with PVR theatres and Ryan International School, which allows bulk bookings for CFSI film screenings at non-peak timings. Kumar says: “PVR had additional sales and the school could show films to the children at a drastically lower cost. We also have a similar tie-up with Cinepolis theatres now. Taking ahead from our learnings, we involved Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore, for further research and recommendations on building the market for children’s cinema in India." The IIM report suggests some obvious remedies: online distribution and social media presence for this 62-year-old organization.
The Niti Aayog recently recommended that the autonomous organization, which produces films about and for children with funding from the Union information and broadcasting ministry, be merged with Films Division, which was formed in 1948 to make documentaries and films to publicize the work of the Union government and keep a record of India’s celluloid history. “It is at the elementary stage of consideration with Niti Aayog. It is too early to say anything about it," says Kumar.
The CFSI is a rich repository of stories about childhood. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea to promote and popularize children’s cinema in newly independent India—and it remains the only organization of its kind in South Asia. Every two years, it hosts the International Children’s Film Festival or The Golden Elephant, which opens on 14 November, the birth anniversary of Nehru.
Hyderabad, where it is held, sports the mascot on billboards and at traffic junctions. Around eight theatres in the city play children’s films in different languages all day. Hundreds of schoolchildren from the neighbouring villages come with teachers in crowded buses to register.
It is an annual reminder that we need the CFSI to think bigger, and that we need robust, intelligent cinema for children.
In 2016, the Turner India network came out with the “Turner New Generations Report", which gives an insight into the media consumption behaviour of Indian Plurals (those born between 1997-2015). No big surprises there. The biggest conclusion from the study is that an overwhelming majority of Indian children watch cartoons—on television and mobile phones.
These are some of the specific findings, based on face-to-face interviews with 6,690 individuals—both children and parents—in cities and towns across India.
97% of Plurals watch television; it is their main form of media consumption.
7% visit movie theatres.
65% of children aged 11-14 say cartoons are their favourite kind of entertainment.
1% watch sports or adventure.
44% read books.
71% of children aged 11-14 are mobile phone users.
The 2017 picks
Children’s films to look forward to this year
Amol Gupte’s next film is a caper set in a housing society in Mumbai. Directed through workshops with children, all non-professional actors, it is about a boy who has no olfactory sense. Miraculously, he gets an enhanced sense of smell and embarks on a crime-solving adventure. Humour, superhero antics and caper rolled into one.
Releasing on 25 August
Under the banner of Purple Pebbles Pictures helmed by Madhu Chopra, Pakhi A. Tyrewala directs her debut film ‘Pahuna’, set in Sikkim. Three Nepali children are separated from their parents as political conflict forces them to flee Nepal for Sikkim.
The film is scheduled to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival from 7-17 September; the release date yet to be finalized.
The Red Turtle
Studio Ghibli, Japan’s famous home of animation, known for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, has for the first time co-produced with other studios on this film, which released in January, and is now available to watch online. Directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, it is about a shipwrecked man, a red turtle and the man’s new life on an enchanting, solitary seaside (island?). It has received rave reviews worldwide.
Available to watch on Netflix.
This is the Pixar film to look forward to this year. It’s the story of a boy named Miguel who aspires to be a famous musician. His dreams take him on a magical journey through the Land of the Dead. Directed by Lee Unkrich, it is set in old Mexico.
Releasing on 22 November in the US.
A workshop on celluloid
The Mumbai Academy of Moving Images, which organizes the annual Mumbai International Film Festival, along with Film Heritage Foundation, is organizing its first children’s film workshop, Do You Speak Cinema on 22 July.
Film-maker and film restorer Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and actor Irawati Harshe Mayadev will conduct the day-long exercise for children between 7-10 years of age. It will introduce children to cinema through screening of snippets from films on a vintage projector and have them touch and see film objects such as celluloid strips.
Registration is free.
At Essar House, Mahalaxmi, on 22 July, 10am-1pm. For more information, write to email@example.com.