My confusion with encountering the Chacha Chaudhary comics as a boy of seven was one related to scale. The show that I had come across on television featured Raghubir Yadav and Praveen Kumar Sobti in the roles of Chaudhary and Sabu. Sobti was a celebrated national athlete, who had also famously played Bheem in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata and therefore had the commanding physique to match it. The relatively diminutive Yadav played the brains to Sobti’s all-encompassing brawn. But nothing prepared me for the striking contrast that was depicted in the comics.

Pran Kumar Sharma’s Chacha was a man more moustache than anything else, a curious amalgamation of Mario and Mickey Mouse to my young mind, yet far from derivative in any real sense. Sabu was a giant with the soul of a djinn distilled into the frame of a wrestler or circus strongman. Yet none of that episodic splendour would have been possible on television if Chaudhary had remained confined to the three-page strips of the Hindi children’s humour magazine LotPot that he had launched in 1969.

Chacha Chaudhary made the jump to his own comic books only in 1981, after an intrepid new publisher took the reins of his family’s pre-Partition pocketbook publishing company and decided to go all-in on Indian comics.

Raghubir Yadav and Praveen Kumar Sobti in the roles of Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu in the 2002 TV show "Chacha Chaudhary." | Picture credits: Hook.TV on YouTube.

The legacy of Diamond Comics

This man was Gulshan Rai Verma, a physics graduate who had until then shown little interest in his family’s modest Hindi pulp fiction and religious texts enterprise. But something changed when – armed with a Diploma Course in Printing Technology from Heidelberg University – he branched the business off into publishing comics with his brother Narendra Verma under the banner of Diamond Comics in 1978. This was happening at a time when the existing culture of Hindi comics consumption in Mumbai-based publications like Indrajal Comics and Amar Chitra Katha was shifting towards the cheaper production ethos of the pulp markets in Delhi and Meerut.

Rai moved fast to both acquire publication and distribution licences for existing characters like The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician and in platforming a slew of original, relatable character-led titles set in the middle-class milieu.

Leading with characters like Pran’s Chacha Chaudhary, Billoo, Pinki, Raman, and Shrimatiji this line-up also extended to the likes of Motu Patlu, Chotu Lambu, Tauji, Rajan Iqbal, and, arguably India’s first superhero to debut in his own comic book, Fauladi Singh. They also made a foray into more adventure-based serials like Mahabali Shaka, Dynamite, and Agniputra Abhay that were more in line with the brooding anti-heroes that were emerging out of Bollywood. The popular Hindi films also inspired a line of photo comics called Film Chitrakatha that used stills from new and popular films to repackage their stories in the comics medium.

Alongside its focus on moral, message-oriented narratives, Diamond Comics doubled down on an approach that emphasised the bottom-line. Comics were printed in colour on cheap, easily available paper packed with advertisements. They pioneered directly associating sponsored products marketed to children with their comics, leading to synergies with prominent brands like Rasna, Britannia, Parle, Maggi, etc. that all but cemented their position as the dominant player in the comics industry.

Their own advertisements echoed across mediums, from print to radio, where the tagline “Chunnu Padhta Diamond Comics, Munnu Padhta Diamond Comics, Mazedar Hain Diamond Comics” almost became the company’s credo. With a focus on translation, they channelled the wide reach of their existing pocketbook distribution networks to make these comics readily available at competitive rates on newsstands in far-flung transport stations and street bookstalls in urban areas. This enabled the titles to be accessed by readers across a vast spectrum of age, location, affluence, and levels of literacy, thereby creating their media empire as it stands today.

A transmedia empire

However, it is inadequate to limit Rai’s contributions to only that of a publisher. The assembly line-like production system that churned out hundreds of these comics on schedule month after month were very much centred around his (or, on occasion, a family member) figure as an editor. Though rarely acknowledged, his hand in shaping and conceiving of conceits for series like Lambu Motu, Tauji, Dynamite, Shaka, and others have not even begun to be documented yet.

What we do know from existing histories is that akin to the much storied and maligned Marvel Bullpen, the editor often produced plots for stories that were then developed and illustrated collaboratively by writers, pencillers, and colourists. The dialogue was then translated into multiple languages by translators, enabling the nation-wide appeal of these comics.

Diamond Comics under Rai ran an entire line of comics collectively known as Pran’s Features, with the titular artist’s name prominently featured on every issue. But the credit due to everyone else (like their American counterparts) largely fell through the cracks of their work-for-hire freelance contracts. The same system has ironically also led to an effacement of Rai’s own contributions to so many of these comics.

Chacha Chaudhury’s own transition to full-fledged comic book is probably the most prominent example of this. The change in format fundamentally changed the characters, creating the quirks we now know them for. Chacha’s elderly, rural, Krishi Darshan-friendly outlook was replaced by a well-dressed, middle-class suburban Nehruvian while Sabu transformed into an alien superhuman from Jupiter.

While these may be read as mirroring the uneven urbanisation of the country, what it created was the seeds of a transmedia empire. The comics and their recall value have become fertile sources for adaptation into live-action and animated shows. It has also become common practice for Bollywood to either market their films or cash in on their success through various tie-in or adapted comics.

Advertisement for the startup CRED, featuring Chacha Chaudhary.

Diamond Comics continues to be run as a family-owned business, now hedging its bets towards the future by investing in digitisation, the metaverse, and minting their own NFTs. Their success also inspired the rise of many of their competitors, including Raj Comics and Manoj Comics. But the legacy of Gulshan Rai, who passed away in December 2022, might be better sought elsewhere.

Earlier in the same year, the cartoonist Sumit Kumar, one-time intern for Pran, appeared on the business reality show Shark Tank India asking for funding his comics and animation company, Bakarmax. While the Sharks were entertained by his pitch and the possibilities his relatable, millennial content presented, they all passed on investing, asking him to refocus on animation-related services to boost revenue. Kumar was also asked to toil away until he hit upon Intellectual Property that would keep him afloat in franchising deals for the rest of his life.

BharatPe founder Ashneer Grover painted a picture of Kumar as someone who laughs at his own comics between the sheets, of comics as a self-indulgent medium that was directly responsible for Bakarmax not having the kind of following its animated projects demanded. Rai – who also shepherded the company through the infamous low-selling “Dark Ages” of Indian Comics from the 1990s to the 2007s – had remained far from enthusiastic until the end about the current wave of independent Anglophone graphic novels and anthologies from trade publishers, saying that “[t]heir limited to 11–17 percent of the market. If you step out of the metropolitan cities, no one even knows about them.”

Comics deserve to have their appeal as a mass culture in India in the vernacular languages and in translation extend beyond nostalgic reminiscence into a braver new future. Gulshan Rai blazed a trail with Diamond Comics, proving this was possible. What a Bakarmax needs today is the same thing that Pran needed in the 1970s, someone with the vision to invest in the economies of scale that makes comics accessible for everyone again.