Back in 1930s when animation giant Disney made its first ever full-length feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or even more recently in 1995 when Pixar took the world by storm with the first computer-animated film Toy Story, they perhaps weren’t aware that their ‘creative fidgeting’, or simply put technology, will go on to become a multi-billion dollar industry in the field of cinema. But it did. According to Forbes, 12 out of 13 highest grossing Hollywood films of the year thus far have been 3D animated, making well over $7.5 billion at the worldwide box-office.
Move over to the east and anybody who ventures into animation is a ‘brave soul’ – testing waters in an unproven and unpredictable market. As much as the world, including India and Pakistan, has grown to love animation and CGI, locally-produced animated films haven’t been quite a success story in the Indo-Pak region (Read: Roadside Romeo, Delhi Safari, etc).
Despite the fact that Indian audiences have a voracious appetite for feature films, the state of animated features smells more like trouble in paradise for any aspiring entrepreneur looking to delve into animation. An article by IANS, credited this to mythological story-telling – it may be an industry with great potential pegged at $350 million but it suffers from the lack of direction and creative content that rarely goes beyond Indian mythology. But then that is what sells. Hanuman, Ramayan and Arjun have still fared better than Thoda Magic Thoda Pyaar or Roadside Romeo.
In Pakistan, however, animation is a developing infant, abandoned and stuck within a capsule for the longest time and now finally being nurtured by a few willing creative minds – Burka Avenger being the break-through in on-screen 3D sequential art winning a myriad of awards for its underlying social agenda.
A television series about an inspirational educator Jiya whose alter-ego is a burka clad super woman avenging corrupt politicians and mercenaries, Burka Avenger is an emerging ray of hope in the animation industry within Pakistan but is there a potential for success given the results close to home appear very bleak?
“World-wide animated feature films are the among most successful movies box office wise. The scope for an animated film in Pakistan is potentially huge but only if it is well made,” says Haroon Rashid, the man behind Burka Avenger.
Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy also seems to agree. “There is huge potential for animated films in Pakistan – it is a gap waiting to be filled,” she tells Instep. “In a country of 180 million people, the resurgence of cinema is occurring at a rapid rate. Pakistan has one of the youngest populations in the world with about 42 percent of people under the age of 14, yet there is virtually no original children’s programming in theatres or television in the country.”
However, is animation really an area meant just for kids? Perhaps, that is what has been the underlying cause of stunted growth and a potential risk for future success – perception; that of the maker and the audience.
The general mindset regarding an animated film in this region is that it is an exclusive domain for kids where gleeful entertainment comes packaged in the form of princesses, wonderlands, a flurry of mystical creatures and a spoonful of fluff.
“All animated movies such as Frozen, Toy Story, Ice Age are family oriented with a focus on kids and Burka Avenger is no different. Our main target audiences are children between 6 to 12 but we have found children as young as 3 who are hard core fans and also adults in their 20′s, 30′s 40′s and beyond who enjoy watching it too,” asserts Haroon.
“Animated movies purely for adults are not something that has been successful in the west so it is unlikely that it will be successful here,” adds Haroon. “Animation has always had a family entertainment aspect to it.”
But that really isn’t the case. Animated TV shows like South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons are far from family entertainers yet have been witness to immense success in ratings and viewership globally. Similarly feature films like Beowulf, Up, Ted, Ratatouille or even Shrek which have been specifically labeled as ‘not for children’ by many a critic, have found an adult audience. These may be adults with a child lurking inside them but they have statistically been over 18.
Perhaps then the audience on this side of the world isn’t yet perceived as evolved enough to be enchanted by the animated imagery of substantial story-telling and hence the makers are only treading carefully with subtle touches.
“The great thing about animation is that on the surface your story may be about princesses and mystical creatures but there is always room for subtle messages and themes to run in parallel which are targeted towards both children and adults,” states Sharmeen. “I think that for now we should capitalize on it and the progress made by Burka Avenger to expand the industry and work towards producing more original animated content.”
“The groundwork for animated films is just being laid in Pakistan. We have all the ingredients to one day be a nation that produces multiple animated films every year,” she further adds.
Having earned multiple awards for her heart-wrenching documentaries, Sharmeen is now on her way to be a pioneer in the animation industry – making Pakistan’s first-ever animated feature film, 3 Bahadur.
“3 Bahadur is first and foremost an animated film that must be enjoyed; it is replete with all of the makings of a blockbuster entertainment piece – menacing villains, unlikely heroes, fumbling sidekicks and a solid dose of humour, triumph and tragedy. It is the story of three children, Amna, Saadi and Kamil who fight for justice against evil forces in their community,” reveals Sharmeen.
This is indeed a milestone achievement for Pakistan that comes late compared to the rest of the world but with great potential to grow. Graphics has always been an uncelebrated talent within the country, with Fast alumni like Novaira Masood and Mir Zafar Ali creating content for Hollywood films like Maleficent and Frozen respectively but finding no avenues within Pakistan.
It’s a known fact that one of the main reasons behind growth has always been the lack of funds and time constraints. Despite having a highly-skilled talent pool, the reason why filmmakers have refrained from supporting such content is mostly to do with high cost to budget ratio. But now that people like Sharmeen and Haroon have decided to exploit this opportunity, the fact remains that success hinges solely on audience perception.
“The growth of the animation industry will depend on how content like 3 Bahadur is received by audiences,” asserts Sharmeen. “If we can sustain the interest being created now, we can achieve exponential growth over the next five years. The talent is there, the skill is there, and the passion is palatable – we just need to make sure that our audience responds as positively to animation as we did.”
For now, given that animation in Pakistan is still in infancy, starting from the original kids/family-oriented genre can be taken as a smart move but if steady growth is the ultimate aim then it is the maker’s job to push the boundaries and make content that is rich in narrative and connects with an audience beyond the age of 12. It is easy to say that the audience is not quite ready for adult animation but if Hollywood’s Ted can find an audience in Pakistan then so can a local animated film. The idea is to make appealing content.