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Home > Business > Special


Ma, my comics are talking!

Arati Menon Carroll | November 26, 2005

Television breathed life into Chacha Choudhary and his endearing red convertible. Supandi's dippy antics and the legendary times of mythological characters in Amar Chitra Katha will soon be downloadable on your mobile.

And unassuming crime fighters Billoo, Pinki and Chotu-Lambu will present themselves as e-comics. Poor old Professor Adhikari, Supremo and his falcon Shaheen, and Bahadur with side-kick Bela weren't so lucky.

Their super powers couldn't save them from waning readership. The ones that survived had chosen to re-invent themselves to build relevance for the modern context.

Easier said than done. For comic characters born in the 1960s, adjusting to the overwhelming presence of several visual formats, all jostling for blink-and-miss attention spans, was tough.

Says Anant Pai, the legendary genius behind Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, "Monthly circulation of Tinkle is down from 100,000 to 40,000". Gulshan Rai of Diamond comics agrees, "We used to sell about 25 lakh (2.5 million) copies a month before 1995, it's now down to 14-15 lakh (1.4-1.5 million) copies."

But it's not all bad news, assures Padmini Mirchandani, publisher, India Book House, who sees a glint of revived enthusiasm for Indian comics. "Amar Chitra Katha comics, respected for their precision of detail and research accuracy, are being used by government schools as a reference point for English language.

"We've also seen increased demand for it from abroad as supplementary reading for students of culture studies. But in spite of intellectual awareness for Amar Chitra Katha, it has not been doing as well as we would like it to".

So IBH is exploring other avenues to reach out. Besides their newly launched website (http://amarchitrakatha.com) hoping to revitalise the brand with its interactive quizzes and downloads, they've been scouting for animation software companies to develop content for a television series.

Two years ago, Sahara One bought rights to Chacha Choudhary from Delhi-based Diamond Comics.

The antidote to the Western staple of a hero, the short-statured, bald and elderly Choudhary has cut across at least three generations of viewers, according to Purnendu Bose, COO, Sahara One television. "It is 400 episode-strong and we have no plans of phasing it out," he says.

International children's networks in India have been indicating a serious local content acquisition drive. Nickelodeon Asia recently acquired Toonz Animation India's The Adventures of Tenali Raman from the world rights holder. The Indian rights to the same show are with Cartoon Network.

Diamond Comics is working on an animated series on another of its popular characters for Doordarshan, slated for early next year. "For a publishing house to develop a minimum 23-episode series, assuming advertising will come in only after the sixth episode, is too large an investment. We try instead to get a network to commission production, and charge royalty fees on the usage of the brand.

But according to Jyotirmoy Saha, vice president, animation and new media, Hungama Television, "It's a huge cost for children's channels to invest in developing content from scratch, anywhere between Rs 20-40 lakh (Rs 2-4 million) for half an hour of content. Children's channels are not mainline enough to make up those costs. So we will continue to see very little original content development but a lot of territorial acquisition from Indian production houses."

Today, however, there are formats other than television and video that comics can be re-purposed to. Hungama mobile is thrashing out details with IBH before signing on the dotted line to acquire worldwide exclusive digital and mobile rights to Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.

Coruscant Technologies has already bought mobile rights to Birbal, Tenali Raman and Panchatantra from Lalit Media and Anant Pai.

Says Ajay Adiseshann, managing director, Coruscant, "We'd like to believe we're not just about mass content, so we're looking at differentiated 'curry' content. Whether it is Indian folklore, mythology or popular comic traditions, they will all be repurposed for mobile use."

Slated to be up and running by December, the comics will be available in strip, mini-video, and audio format -- allowing a subscriber to call in and listen to stories (parents wanting a reprieve from a daily story-telling routine will find that useful).

Adiseshann adds, "We use the Lowest Common Denominator approach. We don't want to reach out to a sliver of consumers with fancy phones, so everything that we develop suits entry level GPRS or CDMA phones".

Diamond Comics is taking inclusion one step further and is developing e-comics for its most popular characters, in conjunction with a digital media company.

"By next month, our readers will be treated to voice over comics, animated cartoons, and read-only comic strips, all available on the web for a subscription fee," says Rai, noticeably excited. Mirchandani is not as enthused, "It is fairly easy to scan and reproduce comics available on the web so I have to protect my brands from the possibility of violation."

"We're looking at other ways to update our comics, like our language which is sometimes archaic. We cannot possibly expect children to relate to something like 'Three sons were begotten to him'," laughs Mirchandani. IBH has also been developing fresh comic titles on contemporary legends like JRD Tata, Mother Teresa and Kalpana Chawla (which sold out in three months).

Pran, creator of Chacha Choudhary and several other Diamond staples, is known to have said that for a comic story to sustain reader interest, themes have to be continually re-visited.

So, if decades ago Chacha Choudhary was fighting against cheating and lying, today the issues are more complex and relevant like terrorism and match-fixing.

Says Pai, "It's up to us to think of ways to make what we're trying to teach them fun and exciting. Kids haven't changed that much, they still send me story ideas by the dozen that we use in Tinkle," he says (patting a large pile of unread letters on his table).

Optimism aside, comic distributors today have little choice but to acquiesce to changing times. Says Rai, "Print and visual formats by-and-large have different audiences, so we don't think the visual format will replace our readership, one will supplement the other".

Like they say, if the mountain won't come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain.


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