Monday, January 25, 2010

india's comics boom: the pao collective

It may not be Savita Bhabhi, but a group of Indian artists is reinventing the medium.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
January 19, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Fifteen years ago, when artist Orijit Sen produced India's first graphic novel — a story about the Narmada valley dam protest movement — he was only able to print the book with the help of government funding, and distribution meant carrying copies of the book to stores and trying to explain why it didn't belong in the children's section.

“No publisher would consider publishing something like a comic book,” Sen said. “We were only able to publish it with the help of a small grant from the government, and the government didn't know what we were using it for, obviously.”

The scene is different now.

Amid a boom in publishing and contemporary art, India's comic book scene is undergoing a renaissance of its own. Once known only for the beloved Amar Chitra Katha series, which focused on Hindu mythology, today India's comic book industry includes homegrown superhero sagas, modernized versions of classic myths and even postmodern tales of urban angst.

Courting the global audience, self-help guru Deepak Chopra and Oscar winner Shekhar Kapur have teamed up to develop a library of India-inspired heroes for Liquid Comics, from which several potential Hollywood film projects have emerged. And domestically, upstarts like the Kolkata-based Kriyetic Comics and the Google group Project C are moving in on the territory of longtime leader Raj Comics. This is fomenting a much-needed revolution in a kids-only oriented industry that has become excessively formulaic over the past two decades.

“In the earlier part of the decade, in India, comics were still perceived as 'kids products,' whereas in the last five years a new generation of world-class Indian creators have begun expanding the boundaries of the medium and transforming its perception within India as a viable foundation to create compelling stories that are not defined by age or genre, just like other visual storytelling mediums such as film and television,” said Sharad Devarajan, co-founder and CEO of Liquid Comics.

The latest buzz is literary. Following in the footsteps of genre-pioneer Art Spiegelman (Maus) and recent sensation Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), a new group of Indian comic book artists who call themselves “the Pao Collective” are fighting to make the Indian graphic novel a publishing phenomenon to rival so-called “Indian writing in English” — a virtual factory for Booker Prize winners.

“We are like the older guys who are somewhat known, who have been doing this for awhile, so publishers will listen to us,” said Sen. “We want to use our influence there to help bring out young people and their work.”

The Pao Collective joined forces about a year ago, inspired by painter and comic book scholar Amitabh Kumar, who was researching Indian popular culture at the Delhi-based Sarai Media Lab. Recognizing that the commercial houses were evolving on a studio model that to some degree stifled creativity, Kumar approached the country's small set of successful graphic novelists to form a group that could nurture young artists, promote the comic book medium, and further blur the lines between art, literature, and the comic book.

“We decided that we needed some kind of platform, or some kind of organized setup, that can promote comic book culture in India and bring out various different kinds of stories to look at the visual narrative device in the Indian context,” said Kumar.

Along with Kumar, the Pao (or “bread”) Collective comprises Sarnath Banerjee, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Orijit Sen and Parismita Singh — each of whom has emerged as a pioneer of the Indian literary graphic novel. Sen, whose 1994 “River of Stories” was a compelling comic about a young activist confronting the tragedy of the Narmada Dam Project, is often credited with introducing the graphic novel in India.

The winner of a $33,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Banerjee in 2004 produced the first graphic novel, Corridor, to attract the attention of India's literary publishing industry — as well as the country's first graphic best seller. Ghosh has produced a number of works for international anthologies, and last year Singh's "The Hotel at the End of the World" reignited the interest of India's literati.

“Art is a vehicle for understanding ourselves, and for young people a medium like this could be a really strong creator of identity, a mirror for what we are, and a means of questioning our values,” said Sen.

The Pao Collective has embarked on an ambitious plan to promote interest in the Indian graphic novel by mentoring new artists, publishing compelling work and bringing the comic book form into spaces traditionally reserved for art and theater.
Already Pao is making a splash in the country's literary and art circles by writing reviews of graphic novels for daily newspapers like the Times of India, presenting its work at dramatic readings or “storytelling sessions” in cultural venues, and exhibiting comic book pages in art galleries. The launch of a Pao Collective blog featuring online editions of the members' work is imminent. And down the road, Pao plans comic book workshops across the country, which the members hope will inspire similar organizations in other cities and towns, and eventually a comic book convention.

“It's on the fringe of art and the fringe of literature, which is great,” said Banerjee. “Who wants to be in art, and who wants to be in literature? The time has come for the graphic novel to be looked into from outside the parameters of literature and outside the parameters of art.”

To start that process, Pao will soon bring out an anthology of new and veteran Indian comic book artists in conjunction with a major international publishing house. Though all the material has not yet been selected, the depth and variety of the work that has been chosen so far sounds promising.

In one story, for instance, a young Indian writer has collaborated with a Japanese expatriate to produce a sort of spoof of the epic Mahabharata — in Japan's much-admired “manga” style. In another, a medical doctor has collaborated with a graphic artist on a non-fiction comic, almost like an academic study, on the meat-eating habits of northern India. And in a third, a filmmaker has collaborated with a illustrator/animator on a gothic story set in 18th century Lucknow that obliquely addresses conflicts between women's self-realization and the bounds of tradition.

“It's fantastic to see these types of stories being told,” said Devarajan. “It further enhances the opportunity for Indian audiences to reassess what they perceived as a comic book and start taking the medium seriously.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

the secret behind "avatar" and twilight's "new moon"

Can you hear the Indian accent behind Hollywood's biggest hits?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
January 12, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — When 33-year-old Namit Malhotra started out in the special effects business with three of his buddies back in 1997, there was every reason to believe that these back-of-a-cocktail-napkin entrepreneurs would crash and burn.

Though his father was a successful cinematographer, Malhotra was just 19 years old. He and his pals didn't have an MBA or a year of experience between the bunch. And Malhotra himself had to enroll in a technical school to learn the basics of computer graphics.

“On the technology side, we were totally fresh, so it meant that we had to learn as a matter of survival,” Malhotra said.

Fifteen years later, Prime Focus Ltd., the company that Malhotra started with his friends, is more than surviving. The firm is steadily climbing the ladder to the top of the visual effects industry. Malhotra's staff has increased from four college-age kids to more than 1,200 post-production pros. After selling equity to a couple of top Indian entertainment firms to finance acquisitions, the company now boasts four studios in India, another in London, and two more in the U.S. And last year, the firm earned 3.67 billion rupees ($80 million) in revenue. But Malhotra's biggest strides have been creative.

Prime Focus played an essential behind-the-scenes role in two of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of 2009 — Chris Weitz's "New Moon" and James Cameron's "Avatar." The company established itself as one of the cutting-edge firms in the visual effects business by producing about 10 percent of James Cameron's path-breaking 3D superhit and a whopping 80 percent of the shots for the second installment of the Twilight franchise.

“'Avatar' obviously is the biggest of all,” Malhotra said. “We've done some exemplary work in 'GI Joe' and 'New Moon' as well. But when you're working on 'Avatar' as one of the top five vendors you have got to a lot more credible space than working on just any movie.”

The London Stock Exchange-listed company's portfolio of work runs the gambit from "Avatar" to top Bollywood hits like the Amir Khan starrer "3 Idiots" to Splinter Films' DVD release of a live performance by Beyonce. The company already owns the lion's share of the Indian post-production and visual effects market, and the international business is expanding rapidly.

The future looks even more promising. Capitalizing on India's low cost base, Prime Focus aims to use its so-called “worldsourcing” model to grab an ever larger slice of the international visual effects market, as Hollywood simultaneously ramps up its use of computer-generated imagery to boost the global box office and tries to slash production costs to boost profits.

“We've gone out and set up the base for operating in all these developed markets, so now we find ourselves in the zone where we can push for building scale through our global operation,” Malhotra said.

While other entertainment sectors suffered a rough year, India's animation and visual effects industry grew more than 20 percent last year for the second year in a row. And according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, that growth is slated to continue. The consultancy's most recent report on the global entertainment industry forecasts that India's animation and visual effects industry will grow 22.2 percent a year between now and 2013, to reach Rs. 42.5 billion ($925 million) from a base of Rs. 13.0 billion ($283 million) in 2007.

“India has a talent pool for getting into these technology intensive businesses, and of course the cost is low,” said Smita Jha, associate director of the entertainment and media practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “That's one basic factor that's propelled the growth.”

Of the two fields, animation has received the lion's share of media attention because the number of video games and animated features produced every year makes it much larger than the VFX business. But VFX is growing in importance. Today, a host of Indian companies like Prime Focus, VCL, Crest and Rhythm & Hues are working on major Hollywood projects, and as much as 60 percent of animation and VFX revenues come from international projects. And while the biggest reason remains the conventional outsourcing model — whereby filmmakers slash costs by sending the grunt work of the special effects trade to Indian animators — Prime Focus' pioneering work on "Avatar" shows that's changing, too.

“Gradually over time, people have learned the ropes and they're not just operating on a low-cost, high-scale model, but they're actually creating IP [intellectual property] work,” said Jha.

Prime Focus created the holographic table on the Earth invasion force's mother ship, with which the main characters bring up a three-dimensional display of the planet's alien natives' “Home Tree.” Prime Focus also created computer-generated helicopters, buildings and natural terrain for several important sequences. About 90 designers from the company's Los Angeles, Vancouver and Winnipeg offices worked on the project, under the direction of top producers in the L.A. office.

Similarly, for "New Moon" Prime Focus contributed key visual effects, including various elements of the scenery and atmosphere and the "Diamond Skin" effect on Edward and the other vampire characters. About 45 designers from the Vancouver and L.A. studios worked on "New Moon," with Vancouver doing the heavy lifting to create the Forks High School, the cliffs and other computer-generated elements of the Washington State locale.

“We never wanted to be a low-end outsourcing company,” Malhotra said. “We haven't tried to be a low-cost supplier. We are working at the highest creative end of the business.”

Friday, January 08, 2010

raped by the law

A controversial case shakes India's faith in the rule of law.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
January 8, 2010

NEW DELHI, India — Nearly 20 years after he was accused of using his position of power to molest a teenage girl, and 16 years after his victim's suicide, a high-ranking Indian police official was last month finally brought to justice.

Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore, a state police inspector general, was convicted of molesting Ruchika Girhotra, a rising tennis star, in 1990. On Dec. 21, the court handed down a sentence of just six months jail time and a $25 fine.

What many in India feel is a miscarriage of justice has prompted a re-evaluation of the widely held belief that India, while it lags behind China by many other parameters, remains morally superior to its economic rival not only because it is a functioning democracy but also because it sees itself as a society governed by the rule of law.

The trial follows close on the heels of a similar breakdown of the legal system involving the murder of fashion model Jessica Lal.

Her killer, the son of a prominent politician, was acquitted in 2006, only to be retried and sentenced to life imprisonment after intense public pressure. The Ruchika case has been splashed across the front pages here since the first verdict was delivered on Dec. 21.

“It shows deep infirmities in our system, which is supposed to bring justice to victims,” said member of parliament Brinda Karat, who is vice president of the All India Democratic Women's Association. “It highlights a systemic failure.”

Under intense public pressure, this week the state of Haryana, where the original incident occurred, registered fresh charges against Rathore that allege he abused his power to scuttle the original investigation, delay his prosecution and harass the victim's family, eventually driving Ruchika herself to commit suicide. But as television channels and newspapers continue to throw light onto more and more incidents in which police, politicians and other powerful people allegedly used money and influence to subvert justice, the citizenry's faith in the country's brilliantly penned, but poorly enforced, laws is at an all-time low.

Molested by Rathore, who was both the inspector general of the Haryana state police and the head of the state tennis association at the time, 14-year-old tennis player Ruchika Girhotra sought to punish him by lodging an official complaint.

Investigations stagnated for years after the complaint was filed, during which time Girhotra's family allegedly suffered constant police harassment, according to new charges leveled by the family on Jan. 5. Rathore allegedly hired goons to vandalize the Girhotras' home, pressured Ruchika's school to have her expelled, and got his police cronies to arrest her brother for car theft, according to Pankaj Bhardwaj, the Girhotras' lawyer. After just three years of this treatment, Ruchika killed herself. She was 17 years old.

“[Rathore] was the person who was driving everybody,” Bhardwaj told GlobalPost. “He was the mastermind behind the total conspiracy.”

But the punishment wasn't over for the victim's family. Rathore apparently suffered no difficulties because of the criminal charges pending against him. Though technically under investigation for molesting a minor, Rathore was promoted to director general of police in 1994. And over the next 15 years, the Girhotras alleged that Rathore used his position to corrupt the inquest into Ruchika's death and attempted to bribe the country's main investigative agency.

In what Bhardwaj says is a first for India, a former joint director in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has publicly accused Rathore of trying to corrupt the probe into the crime. "He used to come to my chamber and even call up at my residence. He used to offer me favors at various joints. He also tried to influence my investigation team," R. M. Singh, who headed the probe, told reporters at a recent press conference.

When Rathore was convicted, the victim's family, and the whole country, was outraged by the short duration of the sentence — and Rathore's beaming smile as he exited the court. But the worst tragedy is that Ruchika's fate is stunningly common — and the problem appears to be growing worse.

A 19-year delay is nothing to India's supposed rule of law. At last count, there were nearly 4 million cases pending in India's 21 high courts, a backlog that means thousands of perpetrators roam free for years and others who are denied bail rot away behind bars — sometimes for longer than the maximum sentence possible for their alleged crimes.

For the fairer sex, it's even less fair. According to official statistics, crimes against women are rising faster than other offenses, while police continue to go slow in investigating them. “There is 100 percent negligence by the police in cases where women go to them to report an abuse,” said Yasmeen Abrar, a member of India's National Commission for Women. “The law is strong, but the implementation is weak and ultimately because of the lengthy procedure the law is misused.”

Official records show that it takes the police more than a year to begin investigating nine out of 10 sexual harassment cases, eight out of 10 cases of molestation or cruelty by husbands and relatives, and seven out of 10 rapes and dowry deaths. According to supreme court lawyer Mayank Misra, these delays often give the accused the opportunity to intimidate witnesses, harass his accuser, call in political favors and eventually quash the case entirely. Especially, when the perpetrator occupies a position of power.

“There is a nexus between criminals, politicians and the police and bureaucrats,” said Ashok Agarwal, president of the Delhi unit of the All India Lawyers' Union. “It is very easy for the people in positions to manipulate the legal process through abuse of their position.”

In many instances, the police refuse to register cases against politicians, police officials and even powerful criminals, says Agarwal, a prominent public interest litigator. Complainants and witnesses are threatened. Medical evidence is tampered with. Statements of witnesses are wrongly recorded. Cases are delayed in courts, and relevant witnesses are prevented from appearing. All this in the name of the supposed rule of law.

Thanks to a crusading media and an outraged public, Ruchika may, in the end, get justice of sorts. The fresh case filed against Rathore on Jan. 5 reintroduces the charge that Rathore abetted Ruchika's suicide by harassing her and her family — an offense that carries a much more serious penalty than molestation. But even if he has been convicted of molestation, Rathore — who says his accusers are using the media to harass him — has rights, too. And this arbitrary solution is as much an indictment of the system as the court's original judgment. It is not the rule of law, but rather another subversion of the legal process — this time by the media, the voters, and politicians.

The shame is that the last ditch move to render justice at the expense of the law may just convince India's outraged citizens that they can continue to muddle along.