âI think Dadasaheb Phalke should be considered the father of Indian animation,â Ram Mohan told me when interviewing him for my college magazine. He explained how DG Phalke made the first animated clips when he used matches and time-lapse techniques to film the growth of a pea plant. These clips helped Phalke secure funding for his projects.
It was in 1994. I was 15 years old and I was already part of the Ram Mohan Biographics studio. I was fortunate to be accepted into his training program – the first time classical animation was taught in a studio environment.
Ajit Rao, the course designer and director, convinced Ram Mohan to sign me up. Soon I was married to the art of animation and RMB. Soon after, I realized that my boss – that seemingly benign but wickedly witty Yodaesque figure who always drew and scribbled – was considered the âfather of Indian animationâ.
Ram Mohan (August 26, 1931 – October 11, 2019) graduated in chemistry. He abandoned his postgraduate studies in 1956 to join the Animated Films Unit of the Films Division, created as part of a technical assistance program in the United States. There had been animated films before independence – mostly experiments with varying degrees of success. The Cartoon Film Unit was the first structured animation studio. His team was formed by the animator of Disney studios Clair Weeks.
Ram Mohan was self-taught and already a cartoonist published in the Illustrated Weekly from India magazine. Under Weeks – a Disney animation veteran who had worked on films such as White as snow, Bambi and Peter Pan – Mohan soaked up the Disney style and produced Banyan deer. This account of a Jataka story featured an interesting blend of the Disney style and the aesthetics of Ajanta murals in Aurangabad.
Ram Mohan’s later work shows a wide range of influences, including United Production of America’s flat-character approach and European animation, particularly Zagreb. While Films Division was seen as a propaganda tool, its films also educated and unified a young republic.
The Cartoon Film Unit’s productions have done more to promote the idea of âââunity in diversityâ among generations of Indians than any politician could with his speeches. The animated films that have appeared on Doordarshan – Ek Anek (by Bhimsain) or The tree of unity (by VG Samant) still remind us of our innate goodness and our Indianness.
In addition to representing the first generation of the animated film, Ram Mohan also served as a mentor to future artists, as evidenced by Bhimsain and dozens of veterans of the Films division. This was especially because Ram Mohan was versatile, working across multiple departments, from screenwriting and design, animation and directing. HomoSaps won the National Film Award for Best Experimental Film in 1967. chaos won an award at the Leipzig Short Film Festival in 1968.
In 1968, Mohan left the Films division to head the animation division of Prasad Productions. In 1972 he founded his own production company, Ram Mohan Biographics, with technical genius SG Naik-Satam and decorator MR Parulekar, amazing artists in their own right. They were joined by Bhimsain for a while.
Together they have created award-winning shorts such as Baap Re Baap, You said it!, Fire games, the Down to earth series, Swar Sangam, Taru (1989) and The white elephant (1994) for UNESCO.
The company has also animated footage and titles for films such as Sai Paranjpye’s. Chashme Buddoor and Katha, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, BR Chopra’s Pati, Patni aur Woh, from Gulzar Angoor and that of Mrinal Sen Bhouvan Shome.
RMB played a vital role in the growth of animated commercials from the 1960s through the 1990s. Those over 40 will remember commercials for Strepsils, Natraj Pencils, Eveready Battery, Amul, Bata Bubblegummers, Cadbury’s Gems, Parry’s Lacto King, Maggi, Kellogg’s Chocos & Frosties, Essar, Top Ramen and too many others to list here.
All these ads were hosted by either Ram Mohan or Ram Mohans, as RMB was known in advertising circles. The studio was also a meeting place for future filmmakers such as Govind Nihalani and Prahlad Kakkar.
In 1992, Mohan co-directed with Koichi Sasaki Ramayana: the legend of prince Rama for the Japanese producer Yugo Sako, who made this film a lifelong mission. Although considered to be one of the best animated adaptations of the Indian epic, the film’s release has been repeatedly delayed in India due to protests from Hindutva groups and bureaucratic feuds.
It was heartbreaking to be present at the premiere of the film in Mumbai with less than 40 people, from RMB or from the Japanese consulate, present. It was a missed opportunity to set the right kind of benchmark for Indian animated storytelling, from which India still has not fully recovered.
Especially considering the galaxy of incredible artists involved in the production, including Nachiket and Jayoo Patwardhan as artistic director, lyricist Narendra Sharma, music composer Vanraj Bhatia and an impressive vocal cast with Arun Govil as Ram and Amrish Puri as Ravana. On a happier note, the film celebrated its 25 anniversary in Japan with year-long screenings.
As a co-director, Ram Mohan has kept and built on Indian sensibilities, whether in the costumes or the gestures of the characters, especially Sita. His choreography of a flashback in which Sita remembers Rama during Hanuman’s song Janani Hum Ram Doot Hanuman in the forest is a prime example of what Ram Mohan was capable of.
Throughout the 1990s, Ram Mohan brought the world of Meena to life for UNICEF. The courageous Meena, who transforms her village by advocating for gender equality, girls’ education, cleanliness and sanitation and many other important issues, has been featured in a dozen episodes.
The Mena The series has been shown not only in India but also in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The campaign was so successful that UNICEF asked Ram Mohan to create a similar character for the African continent. Her name was Sara.
Ram Mohan was involved in the early episodes of Sara, alongside the conduct of training programs in Africa. RMB also became a temporary home for several artists from different parts of Africa who participated in the production.
In 1997, RMB merged with UTV to create RM-USL studio, a way to capitalize on the growing global animation market. It was believed at the time that the animation industry would follow in the footsteps of the IT industry and achieve the same level of financial success.
This happened in the visual effects stream, where several major international studios have used Indian talent for their blockbusters. However, in 2D animation, independent projects have proven elusive.
Ram Mohan also took charge of Graphiti Multimedia, a computer graphics studio he had previously co-founded. He also worked on establishing an animation school and mentoring the younger generation in a series of films based on folk art styles for the Children’s Film Society of India titled Krish Trish and Batliboy.
When I first met Ram Mohan, he was already 62 years old. Many of his adventures took place during a time when most people were retired. Ram Mohan fully utilized his formidable faculties until he was 80 years old, when he made a final film for Films Division.
Although he is 84 and suffered a stroke, he managed to supervise The legacy of the pea plant. The 2015 production pays homage to DG Phalke’s early animation experiences. The film plays with colors and uses different styles of animation such as 2D, 3D, stop-motion and timelapse. While he could have benefited from a stronger team to support his idea, the effort and context are commendable.
Even though Ram Mohan acknowledged Phalke’s pioneering efforts, his own persistence led to the setting of standards in Indian animation.
Indeed, the industry is teeming with artists who either started their careers with Ram Mohan or admired his art. This impressive list includes Rani Burra Day, Shilpa Ranade, Shrirang Sathaye, Ajit Rao, Kireet Khurana, Sanjiv Waeerkar, Gayatri Rao, Phani Tetali, Sumant Rao, Prakash Moorthy, Nilima, and E Suresh, Gitanjali Rao, Tiltam Pal Singh, Munak Shiett Shroff, Simi Nallaseth, Tony Singh, voice over genius Chetan Sashital and Mohammed Shihabuddin from Bangladesh. This living legacy is even more important than his films, in my opinion.
His films, of course, tell us the story of Indian animation itself. This medium has somehow managed to keep itself alive over the decades, from selling toothpaste to stinging conscience.
Ram Mohan kept the torch burning for 59 years. That he has drawn and scribbled in his own way every day of his long career is my dearest and most inspiring image of him.
Chetan Sharma is an award-winning animation filmmaker, writer and illustrator. He is the director of Animagic, one of India’s most reputable independent animation studios.
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