from The Better India, Sohini Dey April 18, 2017
Cartoons may have been traditionally meant for children, but the global success of animated movies show that their audience is diverse and not limited only to children. Today, Indian animators are highly prized in the global film industry, lending their expertise to movies like How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek and even live-action movies like Life of Pi and Maleficent. But not many know that the country’s first tryst with animated movies goes back to the early decades of the 20th century.
India witnessed the release of its first animated movie in colour titled The Banyan Deer in the year 1957.
Though the movie is often hailed as the country’s very first animated movie, it’s only partly true. Hand-drawn, black and white movies had been made using elementary animation techniques in the earlier decades, such as The Pea Brothers by Gunamoy Banerjee and Jambu Kaka by Raghunath K Kelkar both released in 1934, Superman’s Myth (1939) by renowned animator and filmmaker GK Gokhale and Jumbo the Fox (1951) by Ranjit Movietone.
The Banyan Deer was the first major initiative undertaken by the Films Division of India to produce a full-fledged animated movie in colour format. FDI was established in 1948 to capture the stories of India on celluloid; less than a decade later, it began setting up its Cartoon Film Unit. Animation was considered a great medium to instruct children, and according to Year of Freedom: Vol 11, the unit was “set up to produce short films for children, instructional and educational films and films involving animation sequences.”
In setting up a quality cartoon unit, the Films Division hoped to present animated movies that would match up to international standards. The organisation sought the help of Clair Weeks, a Disney animator with deep ties to India. Clair was born in India in a missionary priest’s family, and went on to work for close to two decades on iconic Disney movies like Bambi and Peter Pan.
Clair arrived in Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, in 1956 on invitation from FDI to train those employed in the cartoon unit. He stayed on for close to 18 months, training the team that worked together to produce what is today acknowledged as India’s first serious foray in world-class, colour animation.
Produced in Eastman Color, The Banyan Deer was based on a popular tale from the Buddhist Jatakas.
The Jatakas are ancient tales, narrated to present the teachings of Gautam Buddha in a simplified manner. It is believed that the Buddha himself narrated these teachings to his disciples who, in turn, narrated them to the common people they encountered on their travels.
In this particular story, the banyan deer is a golden deer and the leader of his herd who steps into the execution altar to save a mother deer from being sacrificed for a human king who loves to hunt. His compassion pleases the king, who not only lets the banyan deer go, but also spares the lives of all the deer.
The FDI chose this particular story of the movie, perhaps in keeping with the moral values inherent in the story. Besides, Buddhism was after all rooted in India and the country boasted a long-standing legacy of exquisite art and heritage, which offered a wealth of inspiration for the team. Continue reading