Like comets in the sky, Indian feature-length animated movies are a rare sighting. India is a respectable hub for outsourced animation and visual effects. But the number of home-grown films is low.

The modest list includes VG Samant’s Hanuman (2005), the first full-length Indian animation to be released in theatres rather than on television. Before Hanuman, the Indo-Japanese production Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, made by Koichi Sasaki, Yugo Sako and Ram Mohan, was released in a few cinemas in 1997.

More recent efforts include Arnab Chaudhuri’s Arjun: The Warrior Prince (2012), Harry Baweja’s Chaar Sahibzaade (2014), Shilpa Ranade’s Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya (2019), Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose (2019) and movie spin-offs from the popular series Chhota Bheem. The short-form format is more popular – television shows, commercials, promotional videos and short films, such as Adithi Krishnadas’s Kandittund! (2021), produced by animation veteran Suresh Eriyat.

Vaibhav Kumaresh’s 104-minute Return of the Jungle hopes to prove that not only do Indians make feature-length animation, but that such films can score at the box office. The Hindi-language movie is awaiting theatrical distribution

Kumaresh is among India’s leading animation creators. The 49-year-old filmmaker’s credits include numerous commercials and the International Emmy-nominated television show Lamput.

Return of the Jungle (2024). Courtesy Vaibhav Studios.

Kumaresh has designed and directed Return of the Jungle. The voice casting and direction is by Eliza Lewis, Greta Lewis and Ramendra Vasishth.

The plot revolves around a bunch of multi-ethnic Kendriya Vidyalaya students and their adventures. Their elderly mentor Thata uses Panchatantra-like fables to encourage the children whenever their spirits droop. The talking creatures include a wily jackal and a resourceful rat that runs a helpline for distressed animals.

Return of the Jungle is part of the offerings at the Mumbai International Film Festival for documentary, shorts and animation, organised by the National Film Development Corporation. The concerns of the Indian animation industry is one of the big themes at the event’s 18th edition (June 15-21).

Return of the Jungle (2024). Courtesy Vaibhav Studios.

Kumaresh studied fine art at the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts in Mysore and animation at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. His company, Vaibhav Studios, has been making Return of the Jungle for at least 15 years. In an interview with Scroll, Kumaresh explained why the movie took so long to be completed, and why it is important for Indian animation filmmakers to dream big, whatever the challenges.

Why are Indian animation films so hard to spot?

The medium itself is such that every frame needs to be very carefully crafted. Even globally, studios take close to five-six years to produce a feature film. In India, more so.

When Hanuman was released, it showed a profit on paper. Suddenly, everyone thought that animation was a lucrative option. Feature films were made in heavy numbers. But somewhere in the storytelling and distribution, we did not captivate audiences. Within a couple of years, the verdict was entirely against animation.

People wrote off animation saying it was a medium for kids. At the end of the day, it’s about storytelling. We have got some aspect of storytelling consistently wrong.

In India, there’s a lot of outsourced work. Some of the best visual effects films that have won Oscars have been produced in India. We have been telling our own stories for so many years but in the small format, whether it’s ads or episodic work. If we don’t tell longer stories, there will be no growth.

Vaibhav Studios sizzle reel.

Did the concept of Return of the Jungle remain the same over its lengthy production process?

The structure has definitely evolved. But the core and the triggers never changed, and they propelled the team to sustain and finish the film.

The triggers included the stories I have grown up on. My dad was in the Army, and I have grown up all over the country. I studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools. I am also an Amar Chitra Katha kid. And we have all grown up on mythology in some way or the other.

There are such beautiful stories that are not being presented in a mature way to children – they are either too kiddish or too silly. The contemporary, everyday India is not properly depicted in animation.

The film has a fable-like aspect. Thata encourages the children by telling them stories involving talking animals.

This film is an excuse to retell these fables. They are relevant even today. They contain very valuable life lessons. The contemporary world is similar to the jungle – and the jungle is back, hence the film’s title.

Return of the Jungle (2024). Courtesy Vaibhav Studios.

What were the hurdles involved in the production?

When our studio wanted to make its own film, nobody wanted to fund it. We have a small, core team of around 17-18 people. We decided to raise our own funds. Because it’s the same team earning the money and then investing it back into the film, it has taken longer. If we had had a ready budget at the start, we could have done the whole thing in one round. But we weren’t able to do that.

It became a headache to pitch to people rather than to create content. So we went with the flow and finished the film ourselves. The movie is entirely self-funded. We have not compromised and we have made the film we wanted to make.

But this is only half the job. Now I need to become a salesman. I need to ensure that audiences watch the film and pay for it, and we recover the funds to make more films.

Return of the Jungle is the first of three films we have in mind with the same characters. While India is our primary market, we are also looking at global markets.

Tell us about the animation style and the voicework.

I have a very strong style that reflects in all my work. What I drew was built in 3D. The technique is digital 3D animation.

I have been drawing in this way since childhood. I think it’s a little demented. You see people without noses or extra-large noses. When I drew them, they looked good enough to me. Perhaps it’s the way we are built – there is some manufacturing defect. But it shows in our work being unique.

Children were auditioned for the film. One of the biggest challenges was that the film took so long to finish that the voices had changed. That is why almost every child actor has more than one credit.

What I was looking for was good actors. I wanted a natural, convincing effect.

Vaibhav Kumaresh.

One of the film’s standout portions revolves around a qawwali performance, which occurs after one of the boys falls seriously ill. Was it challenging to create?

More than challenging, it was one of the most endearing things. In college, we used to listen to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Certain melodies are so beautiful that they can heal you when you are unwell.

A lot of situations were cooked up so that we could use this particular song. The senior animators were excited to create the sequence since you haven’t seen qawwali in an animated movie.

It wasn’t like we wanted to showcase qawwali for the first time in animation – that wasn’t the motive at all. It can probably be a takeaway later. For us, it was just the music.

Anime has become hugely popular among Indian children and teenagers. Does anime pose a challenge for the reception of Return of the Jungle?

I don’t know – I can’t think of all that. As a content creator, if something excites me, I will make it for my audiences, especially for children.

I observe my own children, the people around me. I have no control over what inspires them. I can only give them something that inspires me within the market sense I have developed over the years. I will try to mould my message in a way that it excites them too. They will hopefully get that little touch that is inside the film.

The film isn’t for kids of any particular age group. At test screenings, adults have really enjoyed the film. The movie is meant for the entire family. There’s something in it for everybody.

Return of the Jungle (2024).