Giving a new life to comic books as TV cartoons

 New life to comics
Made up of Indian-style Aesop’s fables, religious parables and biographies of historical figures, they taught him about the great, and lesser-known, stories of India in a didactic format meant for young audiences.

Now, Patil, a 38-year-old former McKinsey consultant who acquired the publisher two years ago, is betting that he can do the same for a new generation of Indian children who have been raised watching TV, sending text messages and surfing the web.
He plans to broadcast animated versions of his comics on Indian television starting early next year. He expects the shows to appear first on the Cartoon Network in India, and he is negotiating deals with the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.
In a decline similar to what happened to the Western comic giants like Marvel, the sales and wide popularity of Amar Chitra Katha comics had fallen sharply in the years before Patil and a partner, Shripal Morakhia, acquired the publisher. Patil would not say how much they had paid.

Now, Patil hopes to take advantage of a vacuum in children’s entertainment in India’s otherwise bountiful media market. Most television shows that cater to children, for instance, are imported from the US, Japan and other countries and dubbed into local languages, even though the vast majority of adult programming is produced locally to suit Indian tastes.

Most foreign and local companies have focused their attention on general entertainment, partly because most Indian homes have only one television, so most children often watch whatever their parents and grandparents watch.
But that is starting to change. Businesses are eager to tap into India’s growing youth market; more than 30 per cent of the country’s population is 14 or younger. “Advertisers are demanding local content, and they are willing to pay a premium for it,” Patil said.
Amar Chitra Katha — which translates as Immortal Illustrated Stories — has something of a natural advantage because it enjoys wide name recognition across India and among people of Indian origin overseas. The company, which employs 150 people, sells about three million comic books a year, in English and more than 20 Indian languages. It has sold about 100 million copies since it was founded in 1967 by a newspaper executive, Anant Pai.
An opportunity
L Subramanyan, the chief executive of ‘Chandamama’, a children’s magazine publisher based in Chennai, said electronic media provide a ‘fantastic opportunity’ for Indian publishers, but it may take a few years for them to break through.

“Everything requires time, and that time, unfortunately, is expensive,” he said. “A normal animation takes over two years. In those two or three years, nothing comes out except a two- or three-minute promo.” Patil said production was well on its way for his first made-for-TV animations, and he expected a limited release in theatres for some of his projects next year.

“I realised that if I don’t take a risk now, I risk forever thinking about the kind of things that we could have done,” he said. “My experience at McKinsey around media and technology convinced me that there is an opportunity to take some of these brands that have been locked into their old worlds and truly rediscover them in other forms.”

His early efforts, which have included a renewed marketing push and an expansion of retail distribution of comic books in bookstores and online, appear to be paying off. Sales were up 40 per cent in the last fiscal year and are up about 80 per cent in the first three months of the current year, Patil said.

Half the purchases from the company’s website are shipped abroad. In years past, many Indian immigrants to the US, Europe and elsewhere loaded up suitcases with Amar Chitra Katha comics during summer vacations back home, hoping the books would help connect their children to their cultural roots.

Given that Amar Chitra Katha is a hallowed brand for many in India and abroad, Patil does not plan to overhaul the comic books based on historical and mythological tales, but ‘Tinkle’, a monthly children’s magazine that ACK publishes, has been introducing new stories.

One is based on the adventures of a 12-year-old girl, Nina, who travels around the world with her father, a mapmaker, in the 1950s. She is one of only a few young female characters in Indian media.

Pai, the 80-year-old founder of Amar Chitra Katha, who still comes into the office most days, expresses amazement at Patil’s energy. He said he does not wholeheartedly agree with every change and initiative, but he broadly endorses Patil’s ambitious plans for the publishing house. “The moving finger writes,” he said recently. “What is really important is providing role models,” said Pai, whom many Indians, including prime ministers, affectionately call “Uncle Pai”. “A nation marches ahead, provided it has role models.”

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