india anime film karmachakra
A still from Karmachakra. Photo courtesy of Studio Durga

India is Getting Its First Anime-Inspired Film

Four years and thousands of workhours later, the Bengali-language film has won awards at film fests but is struggling to find a release back home.
August 11, 2020, 6:30am

When over 50,000 Indians came together in September 2019 to sign a petition demanding a release of the Japanese anime Weathering with You in Indian theatres, Indian animator and filmmaker Rajorshi Basu knew India was ready for anime. 

Anime—a uniquely stylised form of mostly two-dimensional illustration and painstaking animation often characterised by fantasy-tinged stories—became popular worldwide in 2003 when Spirited Away, an anime movie produced by the renowned Studio Ghibli won the Oscar for the Best Animated Feature. Now, almost 20 years down the lane and with nerd culture going mainstream, the animation style has only gained more viewers. India, too, has seen a fair rise in its popularity, especially with the advent of Netflix in 2016 which took the subculture beyond just the deep cultural appreciation it has received in Japan over decades. Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Pokémon and Death Note are just a few of the shows that have become a household name back at home; two Indian animation movies, Ramayana and Batu Gaiden, have also been produced in collaboration with Japanese studios. 

And now, Studio Durga, a production house based in Delhi and founded by Basu, has taken a step further: They have produced the first entirely made-in-India anime.  

Karmachakra (translates to “the cycle of action and reaction") is a mystery-drama movie set in a fictional present-day India about an orphan girl trying to find her roots. The opening sequence, true to its Japanese roots, is a rock sequence with trippy visuals of the characters. The pilot, out on YouTube, sees a young, lonely girl in an extremely busy city getting wrapped up in the mystery of the death of one of her closest friends when she suddenly gets a message from his phone. A closer look at the show makes it evident that it draws inspiration from Hindu mythology, psychology, and cybertechnology. While this is a story originally told in the language of Bengali, it is also going to be available with Hindi dubbing and English subtitles. After four years of being in the works, Studio Durga is now in talks with streaming platforms to discuss a release.

While the animation style has been birthed by Japan, its global popularity and adaptation by studios in various countries means many argue that it doesn’t solely belong to Japan anymore. There have been debates time and again on whether popular animation productions in the style of anime, by other countries, can be considered anime. But Basu compares the production in this animation style to serving food: "Does serving a recognisably Japanese dish at a restaurant in India make it an Indian dish?” 

In 2013, when Basu went to Japan for a pop culture research programme, he decided he wanted to do something that would facilitate cultural exchange for the two countries further. “I’ve had this idea for more than half my life; I just didn't know that this was what I was going to be eventually doing,” the 29-year-old tells VICE. “It was a challenge finding an Indian studio that could execute what I wanted, and at first I gave up. I then proceeded to research extensively and extend my knowledge of film production and compositing into the realm of anime production, so that I would be able to do everything apart from the character line art, for which I started looking around for Indian artists around me.”

​A still from Karmachakra. Photo courtesy of Studio Durga​

​A still from Karmachakra. Photo courtesy of Studio Durga​

In 2016, Basu got in touch with two Indian manga artists and animators and decided to kickstart the project. After months of conceptualising, animating, colouring, and music and audio recording, the trio released a trailer of what they were going to produce. “This trailer didn’t even have a completed script or proper character design sheets back then,” says Basu. “We just wanted to see if this could be done with a small team, and how people would receive it.”

It was all an experiment which, surprisingly—after the initial shock and rejection from Indian anime watchers, because of the production being something they weren’t used to—Karmachakra slowly started to grow a community around it. By the time Basu finished the final screenplay in 2018, they had been to comic and animation conventions, gained a loyal following on social media, and caught the eye of a prominent group of Bengali film stars who also happened to be anime fans. They offered to dub for Karmachakra, and soon the project also caught the eye of people in Tollywood (the Tamil film industry), who were excited to see the evolution of animation in India. “I flew down to Kolkata and within a week, directed and coordinated the entire dubbing of the movie” says the Delhi-based filmmaker. 

With a small team of roughly seven, the project took off from here. “Each of us in the team had to work 10-12 hours a day non-stop for months at a stretch, and I myself have had to do up to 14-16 hours a day for months on end,” says Basu. “Animation, especially anime production, is an unbelievably long process. But we learned a lot in the process, and with time, we could speed up our workflow and skills.” In February 2020, the motley team would put up their 25-minute pilot episode, or what would be the first 20 minutes of the movie, on YouTube, along with the opening and the closing song sequences. 

​A still from Karmachakra. Photo courtesy of Studio Durga​

​A still from Karmachakra. Photo courtesy of Studio Durga​

Now although they have a great product to pitch, Basu says they are facing rejection from streaming platforms, who are especially hard to approach from and within India. While their production values have been recognised and awarded by organisations such as Independent Short Awards, Indian distributors seem sceptical about anime having an audience large enough for them to take a risk on. 

“So, in October 2019, we let the floodgates open,” says Basu. “We brought out the trailer on our social profiles, and it got an incredible amount of views within the first few weeks.” Though the video has seen over 70k views and thousands of positive comments, their search for a platform to put out the result of months of hard work, continues. With anime production being an expensive affair, a YouTube release or even crowdfunding doesn’t make financial sense for the team. But with news of Japanese entertainment companies like Akatsuki Inc being in talks with streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to create Indian animations, we will hopefully get to see Karmachakra on a screen near us soon.

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