As a child, Ishan Shukla created comics for himself, in which he came up with gibberish words for characters and places. One of the words inspired the title of an animated short film Shukla made in 2016 as well as its feature-length expansion that was completed in 2023.

Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust explores resistance to authoritarian control, the role of propaganda in fomenting war, as well as the choices made by individuals when they pursue freedom. The 103-minute animated drama is set in a futuristic city whose residents have erased their individuality by wearing bags over their heads.

Even as authorities urge conformity to the slogan “Safety, sanity, sanctity”, a member of the establishment meets a rebellious woman and sets off on a journey of political and spiritual discovery. “Schirkoa is a homage to my nine-year-old self,” Shukla told Scroll.

Schirkoa will be premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 25- February 4). In keeping with its imagination of a globalised, multi-ethnic future, the movie has an eclectic voice cast featuring prominent names from international arthouse cinema, including Golshifteh Farahani, Gasper Noe, Lav Diaz and Asia Argento. The Indian talent includes Karan Johar, Shekhar Kapur, Anurag Kashyap, Denzel Smith and Piyush Mishra.

For 39-year-old Shukla, the Rotterdam premiere is a dream come true. Shukla was raised in Bhopal and now lives in Vadodara. While studying for a computer engineering course at BITS Pilani, he explored theatre and animation. He dropped out of BITS Pilani to pursue filmmaking. Following a diploma in animation from the 3dsense Media School in Singapore, Shukla worked there for a few years before returning to India.

The 2016 Schirkoa production – the first Indian animated short to get long-listed for the Academy Awards – encouraged Shukla to embark on a full-length feature. Shukla has also directed the episode The Bandits of Golak in the animated anthology series Star Wars: Visions Volume 2 (2023). In edited excerpts from an interview, Shukla explained how Schirkoa came into being as well as the challenges involved in directing an international voice cast through the coronavirus pandemic.

What is Schirkoa? A Tower of Babel? A metaphor for totalitarianism?
Schirkoa quite literally is a place where different ethnicities live together. It is also your own reflection of your day-today life. We are numbers, replaceable beings, a part of the grind. If you think otherwise and take the bag off your head, you will have to leave this world.

So Schirkoa stands for that mental dystopia. It’s not a villain who has put something over our heads, it’s something we have created for ourselves. If we keep going this way, how far will we go in terms of suppression?

But this isn’t a monolithic world – there are grey areas where people talk about rebellion, where they sense the claustrophobia both literally and thematically. There are protests. There is a place where people can go if they manage to leave the country. There is a lot going on in the undercurrents.

Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust (2024)

How did your experience in commercial animation put you on the path to directing Schirkoa?
While working in Singapore in the TV commercial industry, I became a CG artist, which is like a generalist – we draw, animate characters, do sound design. I learned a bit of everything. I would create animation projects with small teams. That made me learn about the whole arc of a project. I became a jack of all trades.

I wanted to create my own stories, so I came back to my hometown and took a sabbatical to work on my short film Schirkoa. I was shooting in the dark. It was quite a tough time, and my wife supported me a lot. When Schirkoa was long-listed for the Oscars, my journey kicked off.

I pitched the feature project at several film markets. I found my producers at NFDC Film Bazaar in 2019. I couldn’t have done it by myself. That said, there is a lot of stuff that I’ve done in this film – every single shot has actually being touched by me in terms of design, animation and colour. It’s still a film made on a shoestring budget, with a lot of heart and passion. It’s very small in terms of money, but we have tried to make it as big as possible.

It doesn’t seem like a small film because of the international voice cast. How did you get them together?
That credit goes to a couple of my partners. I met my first producer at NFDC Film Bazaar, Bich-Quan Tran from France. Many people had read my script but only a handful of them really understood it.

Bich-Quan understood everything. The second was Stephan Holl from Germany. It was exciting to have partners who were making underground films.

Bich-Quan had worked with Lav Diaz before, she had a very good relationship with him. She threw him the idea of a character who recites poems, as he does in his wonderful style.

Even before Lav Diaz came in, Bich-Quan threw me another idea. She suggested Gaspar Noe for a particular character. I love his work, he’s one of the reasons I make films. Again, she sent him my pitch and he said he had never done anything like this before. From there began a really cool thread of people coming on board.

For one of the characters, we need somebody who wasn’t just a good voice, but could stand for the character. We thought of Golshifteh Farahani. We got Asia Argento too. This film was like a sandbox for all of us from different parts of the world, a project in which anyone could do whatever they wanted. Schirkoa too is a city where cultures and ethnicities have come together.

Soko, who plays the rebel, was also suggested by Bich-Quan. We needed a character who was an underground rock musician. Stephan had met the Canadian-German musician King Khan. He wrote his own songs for his character.

Samir Sarkar, my producer from India, suggested Anurag Kashyap, who plays a funny character in a brothel. Sneha Khanwalkar, who did the music for the film, plays a character alongside Anurag.

Samir and Anurag suggested Karan [Johar] as the voice of a suave host. Karan was a darling, he did so many variations of the character. Samir also suggested Shekhar Kapur for the role of a politician.

The last thread was the character of a Hindi poet. I have been following Piyush Mishra all my life. One of his poems is used properly in the movie. What he loved was the cocktail of it, how anything can happen anywhere in the world.

Behind the scenes of Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust.

How did you coordinate the voice cast scattered across the world, especially during the Covid pandemic?
Covid was a double-edged sword. After the short film in 2016, I took three years to finish the feature script. Once my European producers were on board, the next challenge was to start the film in 2021. But the world was completely shut by then.

We tried to have at least two talents in a single Zoom meeting going to sound studios in their respective countries. We would co-ordinate the timings, and I would direct via Zoom.

It was very challenging. But the voice cast was very accommodating in terms of recording at the same time in different time zones. Once we got the hang of it, we realised that it could be done if we rehearsed properly.

It did go on for very long. In animation, unless you get the voices, you can’t really start the production. So I had to wait for nearly one-and-a-half years for just the voices to get sorted out. The beauty of it was that during that time, I could work on my storyboards. I was fortunate to have this wonderful artist from Iran, Shahab Serwaty, who brought own sensibilities into the film and turned it into a moving picture for me.

What is the animation style explored in the film?
I combined 2D and 3D animation. I love the traditional feel of hand-painted animation, but I also like the cinematographic part of it, in which I can change focus or control the lighting.

In the film, you can see the outlines. That doesn’t happen in the typical Pixar-style 3D animation, which is neat and realistic. I dirty up the images, I add outlines, I smudge the backgrounds so that they look like water-colour paintings. I also play with the colours so that they don’t look real. There is a sense of surrealism in which everything kind of smudges together.

What is new to this field is the game engine [software] in which I have created the film. Game engines are used for making video games. What I have done is entirely create the film with a game engine to give the sense of an experience. The company Epic Games, which created the video game Fortnite, gave me a big grant to use their software for Schirkoa.

Some of the animation was enacted by real people through motion capture. We hired actors who wore suits and were directed by me. The data was transferred to the characters inside the software.

Ishan Shukla.

What distribution plans do you have for Schirkoa?
We have a sales agent in place, New Europe Film Sales. Anonymous Content from USA has also come on board. Our plan is to show at festivals this year. My producers in France and Germany already have grants in place, which makes a theatrical release in these countries certain.

In India, my co-producer is Civic Studios. We are putting up an effort for a release in India as well. We believe that the film needs to be seen on the big screen.

It’s been quite an exhilarating ride – how do you feel?
To be completely honest, I feel exhausted. My wife hasn’t seen me for the longest time. When I started out on the project, my hair was black. Now I look old. My wife and I have decided that I will never try to do something this risky again. I wore so many hats on the film that it took a toll on my body and my mental health.

But I am also super-charged for my next one. I didn’t think it was possible for me to pull off 100 minutes of complete artistic satisfaction. It’s rare that you get exactly what you want. So it was wonderful and gratifying.

Does your next project involve animation too?
There is one script that has no medium right now. Another is a graphic novel and the third is a video game, which I love as a medium. I feel that the video game is the next big thing in art in the coming years.

The original short film Schirkoa (2016).