Monthly Archives: June 2010

CHITRAKATHA- a documentary on Indian comics by Alok Sharma

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Originally appeared in the New Indian Express on June 19, 2010.

UNMASKING THE CREATORS BEHIND OUR FAVOURITE COMICS

There’s a podcast of Aabid Surti online. A legendary artist, painter and creator of the much beloved comic, Bahadur, Surti hides a smile behind his beard as he flips through his new book, Dr. Chinchoo ke Karname. Later, still hiding that smile, he lets it drop that there’s talk of reviving Bahadur, but this time as a web comic. Somewhere across India, a thousand fans are holding their breath.

The podcast is the first of many to be released by Alok Sharma- an artist, writer, director and now producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary Chitrakatha: Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels. The documentary, the first of its kind, attempts to showcase the rich history of Indian sequential art- from cave paintings in Hampi to modern day graphic novels. Switching seamlessly from Hindi to English, Alok narrates the documentary and interviews some of India’s most renowned comic artists. Produced in collaboration with noted artist Saumin Patel (Devi, Mumbai MacGuffin) and cinematographer Neeshank Mathure (Well Done Abba), the documentary is an attempt also to unmask the creators of India’s most beloved comic characters and afford the public a peek into the everyday lives of the artists and creators who brought them to life.

“Creators in India don’t have the same fan following like those in Japan or America,” Alok says, outlining one of his reasons for making the documentary. Besides that, he’d also harboured the life-long dream of meeting his childhood heroes; the documentary was a perfect excuse.

He spent five years researching the story and tracking down artists and creators scattered across India. “You could say I travelled from Meerut to Kerala, Kolkata to Mumbai,” he laughs as he reminisces about traversing the country in second class non-A/C coaches and shooting in trains. The documentary, now in its final stages of post production, features such legendary creators as Anant Pai (Tinkle,Indrajal Comics), Aabid Surti (Bahadur), and Pran (Chacha Chaudhari, Billoo), as well as the creative young minds of today like Mukesh Singh (Devi,18 Days) and Abhishek Singh (Ramayana 3392 AD, Kali: India Authentic). For the most part, the creators were happy to talk to Alok, but the most memorable interview for him was with the Late Govind Brahmania. “He didn’t even want to do it,” Alok says of the man who illustrated Bahadur; but eventually Brahmania consented. It was to be his first and last video interview as the renowned illustrator passed away shortly afterwards on December 9, 2009.

Alok Sharma with Mr. Brahmania

Apart from gathering sound bytes from industry veterans, the documentary also explores the history of Indian art. “Sequential art is not foreign to India. It’s 100% Indian,” Alok says referring to pillar and cave paintings across India. While the art work there is rather ancient, they still tell stories about the human experience using pictures and images that occur sequentially in time. Indian or not, the comics culture in India has, however, largely emulated the west.

Historically, the popularity of comics began with the publication of syndicated western comics such as Mandrake and The Phantom as far back as in pre-independent India. As the medium itself gained popularity, Indrajal Comics, India’s first comics company, was established in the mid-sixties. In 1967, indigenous comics were popularised by Anant Pai with the establishment of Amar Chitra Katha and with it, Pai came to be known as the ‘Father of Indian Comics.’ From the sixties through to the 21st century, the medium has gone through a lot of changes as each generation of artists had more material to draw from. “The third generation of artists working today are the luckiest,” Alok says because they have a potentially limitless pool of work, foreign and Indian, to learn from.

The documentary is sure to be a treat for comic buffs but Alok insists that “there’s a lot of masala in it for non-comic fans also.” Chitrakatha: Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels will be released by the end of 2010, Alok hopes.

 

Below is a rough-cut preview of his documentary.

 

 

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JUMP, a comic magazine from Level 10

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Originally appeared in The New Indian Express on June 05, 2010

JUMP into a Comic Democracy

For Suhas Sundar and Shreyas Srinivas, the corporate world just didn’t cut it anymore. Four years in the lucrative IT industry in America had left Suhas dissatisfied. “I wanted to do something new…and soon. I just couldn’t imagine explaining to my wife and kids when I’m 35 that money is gonna be sparse for the next few years ‘coz daddy wants to print comics,” he says and laughs; sentiments echoed by his college buddy Shreyas who had been equally successful in the FMCG industry. The two friends had drifted apart geographically and career-wise but their common passion for comics and graphic novels kept them together. So when Suhas decided to nix his techie lifestyle for a career in comics, he knew Shreyas would be his perfect partner-in-crime (comically speaking, of course).

In August 2009, the duo started Level 10 Studios with the intention of creating “the very best genre fiction and visual / sequential narratives.” Since then, they’ve come a long way and their fledgling magazine, JUMP – an 84 page, full colour comic magazine- hit the stands on May 25 and will be available at all major bookstores and magazine outlets.. The monthly magazine, priced at Rs.60, will be the first of its kind featuring three series which will run for a period of five months. As the stories unfold, month by month and episode by episode, readers get the unique opportunity to vote for their favourite series. At the end of the season, the series with the least votes is nixed and replaced with a new series. This interesting approach to a magazine is all part of their business mantra: “Level 10 is a comics studio run by comics fans for comics fans.” A comic democracy, if you will, where Suhas Sundar and Shreyas Srinivas are more than just comics fans; they are self professed “comic geeks.”

Despite their lack of formal arts training, the duo had no qualms about entering the comics industry. In true entrepreneurial spirit, they recognised the demand for indigenous comics and the corresponding lack of supply. In early 2009, they met several artists through their network of friends. “We got together and talked about comics. Really geeky stuff; but that evolved into a kind of informal club,” says Suhas and the rest is history. Today, Level 10 houses four artists- Vivek Goel, Santosh Pillewar, Harsho Mohan Chattoraj and Deepak Sharma, along with Vijayendra Mohanty-a journalist and blogger who is also currently writing the graphic novel Ravanayan with Vivek Goel. Apart from these studio staples, they also work with an extensive network of freelancers across the country. “Oh, and there’s Keshav-the tea guy,” Suhas adds. “Keshav”, an amorphous entity, gets a credit in every issue.

Like his peers in the industry, Suhas isn’t keen on re-telling mythologies. This is a trend most visible amongst the young, upwardly mobile Indian who wants to look forward rather than backward. “There are so many more stories to tell,” Suhas says. “So we tried to come up with three stories that were diverse and unconnected to one another and then try to develop them as a series.” The process of creative collaboration led to three concepts: The Rabhas Incident, a dark noir-ish story about zombies, set in Bangalore; Northern Song which follows a demon hunter through lands inspired by Indian mythology and finally, Shaurya, a tale of five teenagers with super powers set in Mumbai. While The Rabhas Incident and Northern Song deal with villains that are supernatural, the antagonists in Shaurya are much more real: terrorists.

The voting system will be a good indicator of stories that work and those that don’t and the team at Level 10 plan on issuing each series as a graphic novel at the season’s end. “The way we see it is that the magazine is like a quick fix on a monthly basis but the graphic novel has more shelf life.” The graphic novel at the end of the seasons works like a special edition DVD set: it come with extra features: an inside look at the series’ creation, thumbnails, sketches, bios etc.

 More importantly, the voting system allows for fresh ideas to become part of the magazine.

We’re open to receiving pitches from anyone for new series,” Suhas says but cautions that he’s “not really interested in mythologies because we feel we can do so much more. As for pitches, we want complete pitches, a one or two page treatment and some character sketches. Send it to submissions@level10comics.com.” Suhas is open to the idea of pairing writers with in-house artists if the team likes a pitch and unlike most fledgling comics, Jump Magazine does pay its contributors.

Level 10 will also be the first comics company in India to give creator credits. The Rabhas Incident is a good example. Although the story was written by Suhas, it was illustrated by Harsho who created the visual word as seen in the comics. For his input, Harsho gets co-creator credit. This is true of all three stories where artists and writers share credits. “We don’t have a manga situation where the writer also draws the story,” Suhas says. “So each story is broken into writers, artists and colourists.” They are, however, willing to print ‘creator-owned’ titles. In this case, the creator is not paid but is remunerated through profit-sharing. The creator also gets to keep copyrights and royalties from reprints.

At 27, Suhas Sundar and Shreyas Srinivas may be young but they’re certainly not green. Leading a team of young entrepreneurs, all under the age of 30, Level 10 Comics is poised to take the comics world by storm.

(Check out their facebook page at www.facebook.com/level10comics and their website at www.level10comics.com)