Origins of Indian Animation: The tribulations and enduring social consciousness of Kireet Khurana

Born to Bhimsain Khurana, one of the fathers of Indian animation, Kireet Khurana drew animated figures as a young child, and by the time he was a teenager, he was already making films. Always striving to improve, Kireet made the personal decision in his early twenties to diversify his craft by attending the best animation institution in the world, Sheridan College, Canada. For his graduation, Kireet created the film O, which conveys the power of living a simple life with minimal worries. In the late 1990s, working with his father Bhimsain, Kireet made two films for the National Film Board of Canada: Locked and Trade. Both movies show a distinctly Indian background, using classical Indian music and Indian folk tale-style art and setting.
‘Komal’
Trade tells the tale of a young girl sold into prostitution by her father. The film uses vibrant, upbeat colours to symbolise the young girl’s innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude. As she is shown stripping down to wear a prostitute’s attire, the tattoo on the girl’s hand is all that is left of her innocent past. Following this tragic scene, Kireet shows a train spontaneously flying off-track into mid-air and breaking into multiple pieces. The film’s dramatic yet dismal ending illustrates that although it is important to strive for a happy and successful life, sometimes we fall short of our goals. Locked is a poignant film depicting the cruel treatment of Indian urban children from poor families that are captured and made to work in often dangerous and inhuman conditions. The ending scene almost resembles a graveyard, as the lock boxes in the background are reminiscent of tombstones of children abused in child labour. Yet, the ending scene also seems to depart from the rest of the film by showing a clear blue sky with a butterfly instead of a dark black background, perhaps signifying the Indian beliefs in life after death and freedom from life’s cruelty in death. The symbolism in these two movies illustrates that besides learning animation skills and different styles of animation at Sheridan, Kireet also learned the art of storytelling from a fresh vantage point. He knew that the Indian style of filmmaking featured melodramatic and often unrealistic storylines. Indian films typically have a happy ending or upending. Due to Kireet’s international exposure, he has created animation work with open ended, down ended and ironical up ended conclusions. As opposed to the early Indian animation films coming out of the Films Division of the Indian government, Kireet’s movies are involved in many social but not political themes. Due to his clear social consciousness, he is part of the Aspire Circle, a group in India comprised of the top Indian social leaders. He is the only filmmaker in this group, an achievement made greater after realising that India has largest live action film industry in the world.
‘Like Sisters’
Kireet is among the world’s foremost champions of children’s rights, consistently making movies on children’s social problems in India. His movies Komal, Rose and Education Counts are on the same delicate subjects of child exploitation. Komal – an internationally acclaimed movie on the horrific problem of child sexual abuse – is a narrative of a young girl who was molested by a family friend. Despite the film’s serious topic, Komal’s narration makes the film relatable and watchable for younger audiences, while still having educational value. Like Sisters is geared towards educating rural Indian people who marry girls off in their teens. The film shows scenes of children stealing mangoes from a tree while skipping school, the message being that: just as the mango turns raw and cannot be savoured, the story’s protagonist is too young to savour her marriage. Regardless of his connections with the Canadian Film Board and Sheridan College, Kireet holds a deep knowledge of Indian volumes and customs, which shines through his early works like Mahagiri as well as his more recent works like Toonpur Ka Superhero. Mahagiri (1996) is a hand-drawn cell animation feature, and the animation style uses simplistic 2D shapes with some deformities to create the characters. Its main character is an elephant, an animal that has been historically associated with India. The film’s central message of benevolence is also distinctly Indian. Kireet’s time at Sheridan and his work for the Canadian National Film Board exposed him to the Toronto Animated Image Society (TAIS). Having grown accustomed to Indian artists’ secretiveness about their animation techniques, the format at TAIS enthralled him. At TAIS, the award-winning animators would showcase their films to students and then break down the technique, form, and genesis of their animation for everyone’s benefit. When he returned to India, he longed for a TAIS-like atmosphere where animation knowledge is generously shared between teachers and students. Not one to sit idle, he communicated with animation studios around the country and convinced the initially sceptical Indian animators to join together. The result of these discussions was TASI (The Indian Society of Animation), a hugely successful society today with over 5,000 members and the largest annual conference in the Asian continent. In his typically unselfish manner, after ensuring the success of the organisation, Kireet handed over TASI’s reins to other aspiring animators. (Dartmouth College’s Biomedical Engineering Sciences student Kevin Kang has composed the following article centering on the life and work of Kireet Khurana, a small part of his research work on the Indian animator.) Also read: The Origins of Indian Animation: From Ram Mohan and Bhimsain Khurana to Kireet