For the past 11 years, animation producer Studio Eeksaurus has been posting its advertising work on its YouTube channel – micro-shorts that reveal the medium’s commercial possibilities. Since January, Suresh Eriyat’s company began adding creative projects, including his award-winning Fisherwoman and Tuk Tuk and Tokri.
While Eriyat hasn’t directed the most recent upload, he serves as creative producer. The connection runs far deeper: Adithi Krishnadas’s Kandittund! is based on stories by Eriyat’s father, PNK Panicker. The 91-year-old raconteur also provides the matter-of-fact voiceover for tales as tall as they appear to be true.
Kandittund! (Seen It!) consists of anecdotes about friendly and mean spirits that Panicker says he has encountered over his long life in Kerala. These include a ghost that attacks pregnant women and another that takes care of your enemies for you.
Filled with whimsy and wit, the beautifully directed black-and-white film is based on hand-drawn animation. The folk-based background score is by Nandhu Kartha and the sound design by Resul Pookutty. The film is self-funded, like all of Suresh Eriyat’s independent projects.
The significant number of views Kandittund! has racked up on YouTube is proof for Eriyat that there is a huge audience for original animated stories in India. Yet, local animated features are scarce. The short list includes VG Samant’s Hanuman, Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya and Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose.
Eriyat too has been working on a feature idea for some time, he said during an interview at his studio, which he set up in 2009. The 48-year-old National Institute of Design graduate cut his teeth at the animation division at Mumbai’s Famous Studio.
At the Famous House of Animation, Eriyat and his team created some of the best-known animated commercials, all along working on his own projects on the side. “Fisherwoman and Tuk Tuk took six years – whenever any paying project came, we would put it on the backburner,” Eriyat said. “Tokri took eight years and was finished only in 2017.” Vast patience is only one of the things that animation in India needs to succeed, Eriyat told Scroll.in.
Tell us about the inspiration for ‘Kandittund!’, which has made your father a celebrity in Kerala. Is he a professional writer?
No, he’s a government servant who worked for the warehousing corporation. I attribute his storytelling skills to the women in his family. His father passed away very early. I feel he heard many such stories from the women around him [who raised him].
He has been the subject of huge media attention. We are trying to keep his anonymity intact so that he can function normally.
My father’s stories were pretty believable, and I was convinced about them when I first heard them. They were always at the back of my mind and I felt that they were gems that had to be documented. I recorded these stories on my iPhone in 2015. I kept the recording all these years, thinking that I would make a short film series. I did some sketches too, but it didn’t fly.
Adithi Krishnandas, who is also an NID graduate, joined Studio Eeksaurus for this film. She is extremely talented and, being Malayali, could relate to these stories. She was 22 when we began the project in 2019.
Adithi drew her storyboards, and I saw my father in her sketches. She came with a style that is a derivative of a graphic novel. There was initially colour, but I felt that black and white was enough.
This is backward analysis, of course. Most of these creatures come into existence in the dark. A shadow becomes something, a plantain tree look likes something else.
Why didn’t you make the film yourself?
I didn’t because it’s somebody who is very close to me. A sense of objectivity and distance was needed to look at the film creatively. I saw an honest and sincere drive in Adithi to take it on. So I decided to give the film my energy and resources.
I wanted the film to be like an instruction manual for ghosts – the dos and don’ts and troubleshooting. I also wanted to create a soundscape of Kerala from over 30 years ago. The sound alone took three-four months.
By doing Kandittund! in Malayalam, I am also giving wing to the language to fly beyond Kerala. Otherwise it becomes generic. That is the beauty of animation. It doesn’t stick to the boundaries of language.
Will you be making any more films on the subject?
I don’t want to limit myself to my father’s stories. I am thinking of expanding it to other languages and cultures, going to people who are non-stars, in that sense, get them to talk about their stories.
There may be interesting voice textures, narrators. My father is speaking in his own voice, it’s a father telling his son. There’s a bit of mockery in the way I talk to him, but he isn’t bothered. There may be such relationships where we can find a dialogue between people.
I am planning another feature on a different subject. I am very interested in looking at the deep local.
Your films are self-financed with the money you earn from advertising. What are the challenges for animation filmmakers in India?
We work with a lean team but it is still expensive. All my films are self-funded because that is the only way. You can’t wait for somebody or some organisation to come and support you. That is anyway non-existent in this country.
When I set up Famous House of Animation, we had these young people joining us, people like Vaibhav Kumaresh and Gitanjali Rao. We wanted to make a difference. I was young and naive, which was good. I wasn’t struck by the realities of the place.
But there was bubbles. People would come to us, then go to Hyderabad, then that bubble would go bust, then they would go to Bangalore, then Kerala and Delhi and then come back to Bombay. The cloud of people kept moving. They were extremely talented but storytelling wasn’t their prerogative. Even people who are trained to tell stories from NID cannot sustain after a point.
If you have to work with an established network and distributors, your film is already diluted. It’s important to find like-minded people.
The Hindi film industry, for all its money power, has paid scant attention to animation. Yet, Indian animators provide crucial visual effects services to Hollywood productions.
Animation is always seen as a cheaper way to make films – that itself is a bad starting point. The Hindi film industry isn’t servicing Hollywood, so it has to sustain itself and keep making stuff. But in terms of animation, the easy way out is to serve the West and you make more money that way rather than struggling to make your own film.
If I didn’t have advertising and a personal standing, it would have been difficult. Nobody is asking you to make a film, this is demand that we are creating. For instance, we funded the signature film used for the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2018 ourselves. It wasn’t commissioned.
If more animators make Indian stories, the perception will change. We put out some good work on YouTube and it changed. How else are we getting all these views? The viewers are there. We need more people to tell stories. Only then will there be more interest in animation.
For instance, none of our studio’s films are for children. The perception is that animation equals cartoons for children, but we make films for all age groups.
A feature would make a huge impact, but funding is difficult. Tomorrow if I get the chance, I will make a feature. But I don’t want people who don’t know anything about animation telling me what to do.
People in Bollywood have tried and failed miserably because they still view animation as a technique and not a different medium for storytelling. If you’re not specialised in that medium, you can’t just animate a live-action story. You need to think of animation to write a story. That kind of writing is largely non-existent. If you make something that looks like Bollywood, what’s the point of it? You might as well shoot a film.
When we release films on our YouTube channel, there is no monetisation. It’s just that our value goes up in the other work we do. In the advertising industry, people value our work. One has to admit that advertising films have been far ahead of any other filmmaking medium.