Utpal Borpujari

January 11, 2010

A screenplay lab for quality children’s cinema

By Utpal Borpujari

Children’s films as a genre is much neglected in India, though the country’s film industry probably has the dubious distinction of churning out the maximum number of childish films every year in the name of ‘entertainment’. The Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), a government body mandated to produce children’s cinema in various languages, has not been effectively able to develop the genre despite routinely producing films aimed at children. Most of CFSI’s films, including quite a few lovely ones (Santosh Sivan’s Malli, for example), have never been released in theatres, since the distribution network, notwithstanding the so-called multiplex revolution that apparently has allowed various cinematic voices to be heard, would not touch these films.

The only outlet for these films has been state and district-level festivals and screenings that CFSI organises for school children, even though quite a few of these films deserve a platform bigger than that. CFSI in recent years has also made a large number of its films available in CDs, but these can be bought only directly from CFSI, and are hardly available with retailers (though one can hope that things will change for the better now that an earnest Nandita Das has taken over as the new CFSI chairperson).

In contrast, mainstream cinema occasionally dabbles with films that actually have children’s subjects at their core, though they are packaged as “family entertainers”. A recent case in point is Hrithik Roshan-starrer Krrish. The mainstream is visibly cagey about labelling such films as children’s films since they believe that would ensure a Box Office doom for them.

Seen with this backdrop, what comes as a whiff of fresh air is the country’s first-ever screenplay mentoring lab targeted specifically at developing quality children’s films. Something like this actually happened recently at Matheran, the famous hill station in Maharashtra, thanks to a collaboration between Performing Arts Labs Ltd, UK, and Eleeanora Images, India, with support from organisations like European Union’s Media International, the British Council, the Goethe Institute, London-based Eon Productions, Munich-based Prix Jeunesse Foundation, Cinekid, an international organisation that develops activities for children in the areas of film, television and the new media, UK-government-backed Skillset, and CFSI.

Out of the nearly 50 proposals the lab received, seven – Sehba Imam’s The Imperfect Musical, Jyothi Kapur Das’ Extra Class, Bridget Lawless’ Jikkijandi, Sajita Majumder’sI Fireflies, Jagadish Metla’s The Curse of the Rat-eaters, Ajaz Rashid’s Shejaar, and Mukul Srivastra’s Atom – were selected for mentoring by a team of experts comprising German writer-director Arend Agthe, Indian scriptwriter Sanjay Chauhan and actor Vipin Sharma. What is heartening is that the crop that came for further development comprises some really interesting ideas, proof enough that given the scope and platform there are innovative children’s films waiting to be made by talented filmmakers, provided they get the funding.

In fact, development of a proper mechanism for making of good children’s films in India has been the fulcrum around which the whole idea of the screenplay lab got developed. As the lab’s co-director Nila Madhab Panda puts it, “India is the world’s biggest film producer and Indian films are increasingly finding a place for themselves on the world stage. But the film industry has always neglected children’s films even though over 35 per cent of India’s population is under 15. Today, Indian cinema is more focused on current issues, underworld criminals, sex, accidents and murders. It has no time for children. This is surprising for a country which has no dearth of folk tales, mythology, magic, fantasy and, moreover, great technical expertise, especially in animation.”

A filmmaker who has been working in the area of children’s film and television content for quite some time now, Panda says that even though films are a great medium to raise issues about society, “for quick money, like fast food”, producers have chosen “action, emotion and sentiment”. “Though we all know there is a great commercial potential for children’s entertainment we have failed to exploit it. Whatever attempts have been there have failed because of the quality of the films, their content and also their small budgets,” he says. Riding on these thoughts, and drawing lessons from how countries like the Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, are making some of the best children’s films, the idea for the screenplay lab got developed. Jenny Thomson of PAL agrees, and says that there is great potential for production for films for young people in India using Indian stories and reflecting the real lives and concerns of children growing up in India today. “At the same time our ambition is to develop stories with a greater potential for international co-production and distribution so that Indian films can reach across cultures to wider young international audiences,” she says. The lab this year, according to both Panda and Thomson, was a pilot project, and the intention is to expand the programme with support from Indian producers and international co-productions over the next three years.

The design of the Indian Children’s Film Lab was based on Pygmalion, a very successful specialised development programme being run since six years by PAL for talented European writers and producers of film, TV and cross-media product for children. “The lab was not designed as a ‘training programme’. It is more of a process for rigorous creative and practical professional and project development,” says Panda.

The Lab saw active peer mentoring, with groups guided by Agthe and Chouhan allowing the selected writers to discuss and analyse each other’s work without competition or rivalry. “By analyzing reactions to the work of others, participants begin to see common problems that may also apply to their own work. Exposure to the solutions and the work of other writers is also positively stimulating,” explains Panda. Five actors –

An ensemble of five actors, led by Vipin Sharma, helped out the Lab participants in visualising their ideas, while guest mentors like Leontine Petit, CEO at Lemming Film of the Netherlands, Sannette Naeyé, director of the Cinekid Children’s Film Festival in Amsterdam, John Newbigin, creative consultant in media and the arts, and screenwriter/director Paromita Vohra, specially came to offer expert advice. “By the end of the process the aim is to have developed projects to a point at which their creators will feel confident to present them to potential producers to seek further funding,” says Panda.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-01-2010)


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