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Ram Mohan: Interview

Series on design masters in India:

“The Japanese have
the right attitude
towards Animation”

Question: How did Ramayana work out as a Japanese collaboration?

Answer: As early as 1984, the Japanese gentleman called the Yugo Sako was interested in producing and making Ramayana. He is a documentary film-maker, he is not an animator. So he began to read about Ramayana and while he was reading it, he realized that there is a lot potential with this for animation. And he decided to make an animation for it. But he didn’t wanted to do it independently, he wanted to do it as a co-production with Indian involvement because he wanted things to be authentic. He came here and met many people and was guided to me and that’s how we meet and we decided to work together. We started off with scripting, Pt. Narendra Sharma was there a very good scholar. He started writing the script for us and by the time we were setting up this co-production. The government of India told that Ramayana is a very sensitive subject and cannot be depicted as a cartoon character. We tried to insist them but they didn't understand. We went on trying and trying for about 4 years but in vain. So Mr. Sako give up the idea of a co-production and decided to do as a complete Japanese production. But he wanted me to co-direct and supervise it. So I had to go to Tokyo several times where his office is there. But it took us 2 yrs. From 1992 to 1994 and we completed it. And then again after completion we had to market them in India. No one knew about it and it kept lying on the racks. Couple of times it was showed on Doordarshan. Good thing that happened to it was when Cartoon Network decided to take it over. Last year and the year before it was shown on the television between Dasherra and Diwali and the response was tremendous. Then suddenly came the trend of Vcd’s, DVD and cassettes etc as a big boom. But as a theatrical release nothing happened. In Tokya I used to go and supervise on the Designs, Gestures and performances. For example they didn’t quite know how the dhoti was worn. They used to draw it like pajamas. So one we had one gentleman actually demonstrating how to wear a dhoti. And then for example when Ram seeks blessings from kaushalya and folds his hands, she also does this in their animation- (folding hands). So we had to tell them something about our culture and our gestures. But it was interesting because it was a new experience and they were willing to learn. But language was a problem. I always had to speak through an interpreter. But it was easier to make them understand by drawings. It was easier to tell that this is right and that is wrong through drawing.

The Japanese have the right attitude towards animation. They are very meticulous, very fine work and very disciplined. The studio hours very from to, everyone used to be on their desk at 10. They used to take their brief and start the work, break for lunch and again work till six. During they day there used to be no Gappa and chatting. So we used to know by the end of the day how much could be done, by the end of the month how much could be done and by the year how much could be completed. In India there is one major problem that we just don't have that ‘Work Culture’. And that's why I think we haven’t been able to do as well in outsourced work as much as China. I think China has went far ahead of us. Even Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Philippines are going ahead of us. We just don't have that work culture. They also have even gone ahead and thought people English language, in their studios. That I think should be a part of one’s education, not just how to draw or animate. But how to work in a group, how to communicate and how to work with discipline. That I think seriously lacks in India.

Question: What do you think - is it a Japanese Ramayana or Indian Ramayana?

Answer: It is a sort of general Ramayana. We had to take care that the Indian audience is not offended. We didn't do anything that was not looking right like Ram should have not looked like this or Sita should have been like this that we took care of. But the telling of the story was simplified to a great extent. Because we also wanted even the international audience to understand and appreciate what has happened. So it was generalized. And because ultimately it was animation by a Japanese animator it didn't come out the way it would have been done by an Indian Animator. Because we know about the subtleties of expressions of our gestures, our emotions how we express, because that the Japanese were not very familiar with. They went more by the general story telling rather than the deeper connotations.

“Meena became so popular that there isn't any child in Bangladesh who
doesn’t know Meena”

Question: How did the ‘Meena’ Series unfold and did ‘Sara’ evolve from the same?

Answer: UNICEF an organization in Bangladesh was working on social problems in the country. Their chief Roche Carneige had visited India and wanted to make films based on social issues and problems faced in the country. The main issue in Bangladesh was 'Gender Equality'- the distinction between the girl child and the boy child born in the same family. How the girl was ill-treated by not being sent to school and not fed enough healthy food. So when Roche was in India, she approached me for making animation films on those issues. At that time around 1992, I was with my own company RMB with a staff of 10 to 15 artists. I immediately agreed and started to create characters for Meena and her family like her brother, parents and her parrot Meetoo etc.

UNICEF being an international organization for Asian countries, these films were suppose to address countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives. Hence 'Meena' had to look like a general girl which would be identified with these countries. So I did the character designing and made the storyboards. But at that time I had very limited staff and not enough infrastructures. Thus I joined hands with Fil- Cartoons Manila and did the animation series for Meena which became very successful. The first Film I made was 'Count Your Chickens' in 1992 which was shown at Disney Film Festival and it won lots of awards. Then the second film was made 'Diving the Mango' which was based on the issue that the girl child was given stale and not enough food as compared to the boy. Hence we did a series of 14 episodes for Meena films. Eventually Meena became so popular that there is not a single person in Bangladesh who doesn't know Meena. But there were not enough funds with Fil Cartoons to continue with the series. So I decided to complete the rest of the Meena series using other means like Flash for example. Thus I worked with ‘Future Thoughts’ in Bombay which was mainly working for Greeting cards in Flash. I used to give them character drawings and those people concerted them into film drawings in Flash. The way Future Thoughts handled the Meena episodes in flash was very good. Initially it was a little difficult but later it became absolutely amazing. I guided them on the animation and storyboards and they worked out backgrounds in flash. Thus the remaining episodes of Meena were completed with Future Thoughts using flash. Flash as a software has its own intricacies and limitations. But when used in different way, it helps to create beautiful results.

At the same time I was introduced to UNICEF South Africa which were also facing problems on other issues like Teenage girl problems. Thus I designed ‘Sara’ for the south African country. Sara dealt with problems of Adolescent girl in South Africa. A few series were done for the same, some were done here while some were done with Fil Cartoons Manila. Thus is the story behind ‘Meena’ and ‘Sara’.

Question: How do you develop characters? How do you arrive at a general 'Meena'? How do you boil down to characters?

Answer: Yes definitely! When I made the character for Meena, We also drew Meena in many different costumes like salwar kameez and lehenga or skirt blouse and shirt, duppata etc. And these alternatives were taken to field and researched and shown. And this particular costume which came to use later she was sort of generally accepted everywhere. They said yes that the girl from any of our village would look like this. So it was accepted right away everywhere across all the countries. Infact in all the Meena Films there is a very strong element of research. Every story was researched. Once the concept was developed it was taken to the field and there were focus groups of all kinds. Mixed groups of Boys, girls, little children and parents and all this feedback was brought back and it was incorporated into the script. And even after we did the storyboard it was again tested to see whether the way we drew the characters, their costumes even the environment, the housing background. Everything was shown to the people by the focused groups in all the countries and then we finalized it. So when the film was finally made there was no problem.

We had to keep the details minimal. It was the most difficult when it came to the women to wear. For men it was easy, we had to show a shirt and a lungi. But when it came to women it
became difficult because if we show wearing a saree she would look Indian or a salwar kameez then she would look Bangladeshi. So what we did was the women always had a scarf like duppata and most of the times sitting down with legs folded. Or if the mother had to stand up, we would show children standing before her in order to cover the lower part of the body. So that it was not understood if it was a saree or a skirt etc. We didn't want anyone to comment on whether he or she belongs to a particular country.

We had Pt Narendra Sharma who was a kind of an authority. We used to show him the characters and drawings. With Ram, Laxman, Hanuman and Sita we were careful because we didn't want people to get offensive because these characters were held in reverence. But for showing these demons and Rakshas we let the Japanese use their own style because there was liberty there.

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Ram Mohan - Home




    Deciding to become an animator:

    Starting the career in Animation with Clair Weeks:

    Experiences at Films Division:

    Working with Norman Mc Laren:

    Starting on his own:

    Ramayana and the collaboration with the Japanese:

    Unfolding of ‘Meena’ Series and evolution of ‘Sara’:

    CG, Classical and Experimental works:

    Training of Animators in India:

    Future of animation in India:

Design in India

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