|Move over, Spide-Man: A character from
Virgin Comics' Devi comics
summer of 2007 will witness three big Hollywood superhero releases-Spider-Man
3, Fantastic Four 2 and the Nicholas Cage-starrer Ghost Rider.
But this time around, the lycra-clad web-crawler and The Thing
may have to face off with competition of a celestial kind. The
pantheon of Indian mythological gods, including Ganesha, Hanuman,
Buddha and Krishna, are all set to engage in battle with the masked
supermen from Hollywood-all for a piece of the entertainment action
The gods are likely to grace the silver screen,
the idiot box, comic books and merchandise like T-shirts, coffee
mugs, and key chains like never before. On the anvil are entertainment
projects worth nearly Rs 1,000 crore-from a $120-million epic
Hollywood biopic on Gautam Buddha, to ambitious mega-budget Bollywood
movies and comics based on the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other
timeless Indian tales (see Limelight Gods).
Hindu mythology has it that when Rama's scouts
were feeling disheartened at the impossible prospect of crossing
the vast ocean, Hanuman leapt across to Lanka in a single jump.
The movie Hanuman did something similar for the Indian mythological
genre (see Box Office Devotion). The 100-minute movie was a leap
of faith and revived the mythological movie genre, which was as
defunct as the silent movie. "Hanuman was a milestone for
Indian cinema," says Mahesh Ramanathan, Chief Operating Officer,
Percept Picture Company, which co-produced the movie with Sahara
One Motion Picture. "The movie played across 200 screens
in the country-a record of sorts for any animation movie in India,"
says Ramanathan. The movie was produced at a paltry budget of
Rs 6 crore with 2D animation, but raked in more than Rs 15 crore
at the box office. The movie garnered Rs 1.5 crore in the first
three days of its release, the first animation movie to do so
in India. By its third week, box office collections had swelled
to Rs 7 crore-Mumbai alone clocked Rs 3.5 crore.
The success of Hanuman has inspired others
to make animation movies that deal with mythological themes. A
sequel to Hanuman is slated for release during Diwali next year.
Krishna, India's first full-length 3D animation movie, was released
last month. Produced by Shethia Audio Video, Krishna opened to
tepid responses across the country. But that has not dissuaded
film-makers who are coming up with at least two more animated
versions of Krishna, including a sequel to the recently released
| LIMELIGHT GODS
It's time out with the gods as the mythological entertainment
market swells to nearly Rs 1,000 crore. Mega budget movies,
animation films and comics based on Indian mythology are all
on the anvil.
| FEATURE FILMS
Market size: Rs 750 crore
Trailblazer: Raja Harischandra (1913), India's first
film by Dada Saheb Phalke
On the anvil: B.K. Modi's $120-million (Rs 552-crore)
Hollywood epic Buddha, Raj Kumar Santoshi's Rs 100-crore Ramayan
Bobby Bedi's Rs 120-crore Mahabharata (unconfirmed)
MOVIES AND TV SERIALS
Market size: Rs 100 crore
Trailblazer: Japanese film-maker Yugo Sako's Ramayana:
The Legend of Prince Rama (1992),
On the anvil: Hanuman 2, B.R. Chopra's Krishna, Om
Ganesha, Krishna 2 and Lava Kusha. Sahara One is likely
to announce projects based on mythological themes
TV SERIALS (CARTOON/ FEATURE)
Market size: Rs 60 crore
Trailblazer: Sagar Arts' Vikram Aur Vetal, Ramayan
On the anvil: Geet Mahabharat (Cartoon series from
Market size: Rs 60 crore
Trailblazer: Chandamama (1947), Amar Chitra Katha
On the anvil: Virgin Comics launch of Ramayana, Devi
Producers say that the demand for mythology-based
animation movies is on the upswing. "Initially, we were planning
to release 40-50 prints of Krishna across a few centres. But after
seeing the demand from the distributors, we scaled up the prints
to 150, despite the demand being there for 250 prints," says
Amit Chedda, Director, Shethia Audio Video. The booming market
in mythological animation movies has also caught the eye of Kuala
Lumpur-based NRI film-makers Sharad and Renu Sharan, who plan
to make a jumbo-sized 3D animation movie called Om Ganesha. The
90-minute movie, budgeted at Rs 20 crore (including marketing
expenses), will be dubbed in 12 languages and 500 prints will
be released across the country in late 2007.
It's not just animation movies that are adapting
Indian mythological themes for storytelling. Mythological stories
are also being embraced by companies to make new-age comics, feature
films and video games. US-based Virgin Comics has roped in filmmaker
Shekhar Kapur and self-help guru Deepak Chopra to produce Indian
mythology-based comics for worldwide audiences. "To date,
we have released four comics in the us-Shekhar Kapur's Devi, The
Sadhu, Snake Woman and Deepak Chopra and Shekhar Kapur's Ramayan
3392AD," says Sharad Devarajan, CEO, Virgin Comics. Virgin
plans to extend mythological themes beyond just the comic book
format. Says Devarajan: "We look at comics as our 'R&D'
laboratory where we can incubate the concept, story and characters
and then, like other character entertainment companies such as
Marvel Comics, we intend to aggressively move our characters into
the realm of games, feature films, animations and merchandising."
Virgin has also just announced an animation project called Secret
of the Seven Sounds, a full-length animated feature for kids,
inspired by the Ramayana. "We also have a mobile gaming relationship
with a leading Indian mobile game developer to create and launch
a series of games based on our comics," adds Devarajan.
Parlez-vous Anglais, Ravana?
Despite all the interest in Indian mythology,
would grandma stories about the exploits of Indian gods interest
western audiences used to action-oriented caped crusaders like
Spider-Man, Batman? Here's an interesting statistic to chew on-Hanuman
had an unimpressive two-week box office run in the UK. But 20,000
DVDs of Hanuman were sold in the UK. "We released Hanuman
in the UK only to prime up the UK home video market and that worked
because of the large NRI population, which wants to buy these
DVDs as gifts for their children," says Percept's Ramanathan.
Another pointer towards the marketability of mythological content
is the extraordinary success of serials like Ramanand Sagar's
Ramayan. The 78-episode long television serial was telecast across
five continents, including countries like the US, the UK, Canada,
Trinidad, Surinam, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, South Africa and
Kenya-countries with sizeable Indian diaspora.
| HOW THE MOVIE HANUMAN WAS MARKETED
a short quiz. Which movie clocked maximum VCDs sales in
India last year? It was not Rang De Basanti or Dus. The
answer-Hanuman, which clocked about 250,000 VCDs. Rang De
Basanti recently overtook Hanuman with sales of more than
300,000 VCDs, but Hanuman's achievement is still extraordinary
for an animation movie in India.
A lot of this success can be attributed to nifty marketing
ploys that its producers used. The producers decided to
weave their marketing strategy around one focal point-Baby
Hanuman. "We decided to reach out to our primary audience-kids-with
somebody as old as them. That's how Baby Hanuman came about.
After that, we flooded the market with merchandise like
tee shirts and soft toys," says Sharang Sharma, Business
Head, Sahara One Motion Pictures, which co-produced Hanuman.
The producers also roped in Broadmind Entertainment to drum
up ground level promotions for the movie.
"We also connected with 500 schools across the 17
key markets where we organised games with trivia about Hanuman
for kids. Kids who won got Hanuman tee shits, masks, gadas
and other merchandise," says Navin Shah, former head
of Broadmind Entertainment. He now heads P9 Integrated,
which will handle promotions for Hanuman2. Hanuman sold
Rs 2.5 crore worth of merchandise. "We beat Spider-Man's
merchandise sales record in India. Yet, we have a long way
to go because in Hollywood, 30-35 per cent of total receipts
is from merchandising," adds Shah.
The merchandising and other opportunities are not lost
on Prem Sagar, who heads Sagar Arts and is son of late Ramanand
Sagar-the maker of Ramayan. Sagar says he is spending nearly
Rs 4 crore on digitising and re-editing Ramayan. "A
shorter and crisper version of the original is being made
for the Colaba guy," quips Sagar, referring to the
up-market area in Mumbai. From making blockbuster movies
like Charas (1976) to serials about immortal bliss, the
Sagars have come a long way. According to the Limca Book
of Records, the 78-episode TV serial Ramayan, with repeat
telecasts on 20 different channels in 17 countries on all
five continents, has been aired for over 2,000 hours. The
serial has been viewed by over 650 million people worldwide,
according to BBC.
The Sagars are also working on a theme park based on Hindu
mythology called Sagar World. "When ready, the park
will feature scenes from the Ramayana. There will be touch-screen
quizzes for kids and rides based on mythology," says
Sagar. Work has already begun on the park, which will be
located at Haridwar.
Padmini Mirchandani, the publishing director
of India Book House, which publishes Amar Chitra Katha comics,
says that about 10 per cent of the comics' total sales of 30 lakh
copies happen overseas. "We have got distributors in countries
like the US, the UK, Malaysia, Indonesia and are receiving strong
enquiries from new markets like Australia, where there is a sizeable
NRI population," says Mirchandani.
The moot question is, 'Is there a market
beyond NRI audience for Indian mythological content?' "Absolutely,"
contends Devarajan. "I think the American audience has an
appetite for something new and different. If you told a parent
10 years ago their child would know Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! over
a Spider-Man, they would have thought you were crazy. Yet today,
an estimated 30 per cent of animated programming in the us is
based on Japanese and Asian content." Virgin also plans to
push their comics with an Asian launch in Singapore, Malaysia,
Indonesia and Thailand later this year. The comics will also be
translated into French, Italian, Spanish and launched in Europe
and Latin America by early 2007.
| BOX OFFICE DEVOTION
|Old film in new avatar: Ramanathan
is hopeful of fecovering the production cost
Is mythology losing audience
in urban India? 1975 was a defining year for Hindi cinema.
It was the year India's blockbuster epic Sholay was released.
But it did not set the box office on fire immediately. For
nearly a month after that, Sholay trailed an unlikely contender
called Jai Santoshi Maa.
Tackily made with oodles of melodrama, Jai Santoshi Maa
ended up grossing Rs 62 crore-a phenomenal box office collection
those days. Jai Santoshi Ma was definitely not the first
movie which got its audience down on the floors. In fact,
rural audiences of India's first movie Raja Harischandra
(April 1913) too prostrated. The movie based on a fable
from the Mahabharata was directed by Dadasaheb Phalke, the
father of Indian cinema.
Dadasaheb Phalke went on to make nearly a hundred more
movies, most of which were based on Hindu mythology, over
the next two decades. These included Kaalia Mardhan (1919),
Lanka Dahan (1919), Birth of Shree Krishna (1918), Shishupal
Vadha (1923), Ashwatthama (1924), Guru Dronacharya (1924)
and Ram Ravan Yuddha (1924). The genre started losing steam
by the late 40's as movies based on 'social' themes began
to gain ground. By the late 50's, movies based on religious
themes were almost dead and gone.
So when Percept Pictures Company decided to remake Jai
Santoshi Maa, industry watchers scoffed. "The failure
of movies like Jai Santoshi Maa proves one thing-content
is king. People are tired of watching mythological themes
because there is too much of it on TV," says trade
analyst Taran Adarash. But Percept Pictures COO Mahesh Ramanathan
says that the movie is fulfilling its objectives. "As
we expected Jai Santoshi Ma is not doing well in urban multiplex
centres. But we did a simultaneous release in 150 screens
across the country of which 80 per cent are in small towns.
The movie has done well in small towns like Narpur, Udgir,
Panipat, which receive prints of latest Bollywood releases
only after 2-3 weeks," says Ramanathan, even as he
adds that film analysts do not track towns like these.
Others believe that the very appeal of Indian
mythology lies in its universality. "Buddha was the first
globally renowned Indian. Buddha's message of universal love will
appeal to one and all," says Beverly Hills-based veteran
industrialist and Chairman of MCorp Global B.K. Modi, who is planning
to make a biopic on Gautam Buddha. Modi plans to shell out $20
million of the proposed $120-million budget, and the rest will
come from distributors and banks.
"We want to make it on an epic scale
like Ben Hur, Gladiator, and Ten Commandments. At this point of
time, we are looking at a global release by 2008. That's not just
about making the movie. It's about releasing the movie across
8,000 theaters in the world," adds Modi, who has roped in
Hollywood producer Michel Shane, the executive Producer of Hollywood
blockbusters like the sci-fi hit I, Robot and Catch Me If You
God's Own Country
Back home, mythology and entertainment go
back a long way (see Box Office Devotion). India's first movie,
Raja Harischandra (1913), was based on a fable from the Mahabharata.
India's most viewed serial ever was a mythological (Sagar Arts'
Ramayan). The Mahatma (Gandhi) himself, who was known to despise
cinema, saw portions of a movie, Rama Rajya. But over the past
decade, mythological themes have not been very popular either
on television or on the silver screen. "Mythology-based serials
have always been popular in India. But over the past couple of
years, there has been an overdose of religious programming. The
audience is getting saturated," says Ashish Kaul, Senior
VP, Zee Networks.
As a result, with the exception of top-rated
mythological programme, Sagar Arts' Sai Baba, none of the other
serials has been able to gain any great momentum (see Who's Watching?).
On the other hand, animated mythological content has been doing
well on television. According to Cartoon Network, which has aired
nearly a dozen mythological movies and serials, movies like Ramayan:
The Legend of Prince Ram have rated an average of 2.5 tvrs (television
rating) in all its airings in All Kids and a 3.0 TVR in SEC AB
(over 2004 and 2005).
The Indian comic industry is also making
a comeback after the bloodbaths of the 80's when publications
like Indrajaal fell by the wayside. According to industry watchers,
Indian comics industry is worth Rs 90-100 crore. Of this, nearly
Rs 55-60 crore worth of comics are of mythological content. Says
Amar Chitra Katha's Padmini Mirchandani: "Our sales are growing
at 20 per cent annually. The growth is so much that we are finding
it difficult to keep abreast of the demand. We sell about 2.5
lakh copies a month." IBH has a market share of about 30-35
per cent and has published 450 Amar Chitra Katha titles, of which
approximately 60 per cent are based on mythology.
|Screen devotion: Amit Chedda, director,
Shethia Audio Video, sees a booming market for mythological
Virgin Comics, too, sees a good business opportunity
in the Indian market and plans to launch its comics in late October
at a price range of Rs 15-35, a tad below Amar Chitra Katha titles,
which are priced at Rs 35. "In India, unfortunately, the
level of art and story remained in the past and did not evolve
to cater to today's kids, who were being exposed to international
levels of production quality," says Virgin Comics' Devarajan.
"In fact, Amar Chitra Katha and others are just reprints
of the same Indian comics from decades ago and they expect them
to appeal to today's kids...even timeless characters such as Spider-Man
and Superman evolve every year for a new generation," says
Devarajan. Virgin has set up a centre in Bangalore that employs
a hundred artists who are churning out comics.
That's another big question Indian content
creators are trying to address. "The key thing about animating
mythological content is to keep the storyline as simple as possible.
Our mythological stories tend to be very complex," says P.
Jayakumar, CEO, Toonz Animation. "The cultural and local
sensitivities also have to be taken into account while adapting
mythological stories. This proves to be a drawback when we try
to sell the show in the overseas market. We constantly walk a
tightrope trying to create a universal product," he adds.
Bollywood is also planning to jump into the
fray by making Indian mythology's greatest epics-Ramayana and
Mahabharata-into films. Veteran film-maker Rajkumar Santoshi has
plans to make a Rs 100-crore Ramayana, while Bobby Bedi (of Bandit
Queen fame) is reportedly exploring the idea of making a movie
based on the Mahabharata for another Rs 120 crore. Clearly, one
is going to hear and see a lot more of Indian gods and goddesses
in the near future. The million dollar question is, will these
big-budget projects work? Fittingly enough, that's a question
only the gods can answer.