In a country without a thriving animation scene, filmmaker Gitanjali Rao has carved a niche for herself after nearly twenty years of honing her craft.
One of her films, 'Printed Rainbow' (2005) won nearly 25 international awards, and won three best short film awards at the 2006 Cannes film festival. She also served as part of the jury for animation films in the 2011 Cannes festival.
But this recognition came only after several false starts and slow, patient effort. Gitanjali draws and prepares each frame of her films herself. Largely self-taught, she feels that Indians in the field face several hurdles because they lack funding and don't have a clear vision about what Indian animation should be.
Her new film, 'True Love Story', is part of her attempt to define the scope and nature of animation in India. Gitanjali spoke to Scroll.in about her work and the challenges that Indian animators face. Excerpts from the interview:
When did you first become interested in animation?
I saw a retrospective of Polish and European animation at the Bombay International Film Fest in my last year at the JJ School of Art. I decided to learn animation then and joined Ram Mohan Biographics (a major animation studio in Mumbai) after I graduated in 1994.
After that, I worked at other studios before striking out on my own as a freelance film maker and animator. In 2002, I made my first short animation film, 'Orange', which was screened at a few festivals and won about three awards. I was making it while working at Famous Studios (an animation studio). I did each frame myself and got some friends to do the voices. It didn't, however, clear the Indian censor board, so it was screened largely at foreign film festivals.
Could you tell us a bit more about 'Printed Rainbow'?
I made 'Printed Rainbow' after leaving Famous Studios and starting off on my own. It took three years to make. It was a breakthrough film for me. I was able to show it at nearly 100 film festivals and it won several awards. In effect, it put me on the map.
Your next feature was Girgit, which had to be shelved...
Yes. Girgit was a major venture right from the start -- an 80-minute fully animated film that had an estimated budget of around Rs 7.5 crore. My producers, however, went bankrupt and I was unable to go beyond eight-minutes of finished footage, produced in less than a year.
I showed the pilot in international film markets, and went around seeking funds, but was turned down because I had no Indian co-producer. Few filmmakers in India know how important it is for a film to have an Indian backer, even if it can be made only with extensive foreign funding.
No matter how interested a foreign producer is, he cannot convince people to invest in an Indian film without an Indian producer. Collaborative projects are usually made with 30 percent to 40 percent of the funds coming from Indian investors. If this is not provided, the film won't get made.
I did not know this until I found it out while looking for foreign backers. And neither do the many people who are interested in filmmaking in India. If you ask me, such details should be taught in film schools.
Could you tell us a bit more about your next film, 'True Love Story'?
It's a frame by frame painted 19-minute film about love, told from the eyes of two migrants who come to Mumbai and fall in love with each other. The boy in the film is hugely influenced by Bollywood and he falls in love with the girl across the street. Who will teach him how to woo her? This is a boy-meets-girl story, from the perspective of people who find themselves adrift in the big city.
Did you make any changes to your approach in this film based your previous efforts?
'True Love Story' was a huge change for me. For one, it is my first collaborative exercise. Second, I do have plans to try and monetise it. And third, I want to give Indian animation a distinctive flavour and identity of its own.
What do you mean by collaborative exercise? Isn't that a big shift from your other films, where you worked on them yourself?
'True Love Story' is the first film in which I can say that its success is the fruit of my collaborators' efforts. The film started as an idea that I discussed with my friends -- talented contemporaries from the animation field who agreed to work out of love for the project rather than money. They had also worked with me on Girgit before it went south. 'True Love Story' is as much their film as it is mine.
What do you mean by giving animation a distinct Indian identity?
The animation industry in India is still very nascent and undefined. This is in sharp contrast with our regional film industries and Bollywood, which have strong identities and a rich history that filmmakers can draw upon while they create their own works.
That sort of identity is just not there with animation. We just end up imitating Disney. The thing is, Bollywood copies from Hollywood, but it doesn't imitate it. 'True Love Story' is an attempt to create a unique visual effect that is Indian in its aesthetic.
How will you recover the investment you and your friends have made in 'True Love Story'?
I am very optimistic about the crowdfunding revolution. I think that is the best way forward for Indian animation, which has no distributor networks or any real way of recovering costs.
I think that with crowdfunding, in maybe one or two years, Indian artists and creatives can have a fighting chance of making their own work, through the support of several individuals rather than a producer who might go bankrupt.
I will be exploring such avenues for 'True Love Story'. I think we will be able to find people who will willingly pay for a DVD to watch the work if we promote it vigorously.
(Gitanjali Rao is working on promoting her latest film. For more details about her work and previous projects, you can visit her site here.)