Thursday, June 23, 2016

How Amar Chitra Katha is going back to the future

                                Jasodhara Banerjee
 Forbes India Staff
                                                                     Deputy Head of Desk

ne of the most enduring tales within the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) family is that of founder Anant Pai, sitting among children, reading from one of the much-loved comic books, and enthralling his young audiences. It is, therefore, fitting that as ACK prepares to celebrate its golden jubilee next year, it is in the process of retracing its steps to what Pai held close to his heart, and was so good at—old-fashioned story-telling.

Coming up over the next year will be a series of events held across several malls in different cities, which will seek to recreate Uncle Pai’s (as the comic’s creator is fondly known) story-telling sessions. Malls may seem like an unlikely venue for Pai’s gathering of schoolchildren, but not only are they the modern-day spaces for community activities, ACK also has the backing of one of India’s largest retailers: Kishore Biyani’s Future Group bought a minority stake in ACK Media in March 2011, followed by a majority stake in July 2011. (Elephant Capital holds the minority stake.)

Those within the company point to Biyani’s attempts at producing films—Na Tum Jaano Na Hum (2002), starring Hrithik Roshan, Saif Ali Khan and Esha Deol—as indicative of his inclination towards creative ventures. But, creativity apart, the founder and group CEO of Future Group, which owns hypermarket chain Big Bazaar, is also said to have a deep love for everything Indian. And what can be more Indian than Amar Chitra Katha, which has also been published in more than 36 languages and distributed in 12 countries.

“We are thinking of a big mela where we create an environment of fun and storytelling,” says Anuraag Agarwal, head of strategy, mergers and acquisitions at Future Group, who has been the interim CEO at ACK for the past six months. “We plan to have workshops with parents and children; there will be a character parade, ACK selfies and the trademark ACK Quiz.”

The event is representative of ACK’s efforts to go back to the basics—tell stories and engage with their readers—after having meandered for a bit in its quest to stay relevant. “Over the last few years, there were some efforts to enter the animation sector, and go on to digital platforms,” says Agarwal, speaking of the two films—Tripura(2011, premiered on Cartoon Network) and Sons of Ram (2012, released in theatres)—the YouTube channel and the app launched by ACK Media. “But there was not enough push within the company to make these a success. We also learnt some things along the way: Such as, a lot of children don’t really have access to apps, and a lot of parents would rather have their children read books than sit with an electronic device. So we are focusing on our books once again.”

It would be interesting to see what this renewed focus does to a product that, without any marketing push, has managed to sell an average of 5 lakh copies every month since 2013-2014. This shift in approach, however, has meant a rejig within the Future Group departments that have been trimmed—many of ACK’s old-timers are no longer with the company—to make them more agile, to flatten the hierarchy within teams and increase interactivity between them. Agarwal himself divides his time between handling mergers and acquisitions, and managing ACK, a job that he seems to thoroughly enjoy. “Where else can you read comic books as part of your job?” he laughs.

Agarwal says there is a “contra-trend” among readers who want their children to read more of Indian content rather than Western. “People want their children to be familiar with their roots,” he says.

This is exactly what had prompted Uncle Pai to start Amar Chitra Katha in the first place. The legend goes that Pai, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 81, and his wife Lalita were walking along Delhi’s Karol Bagh area when they came across a shop where a quiz show was being telecast on TV, still a novelty in India. As they joined the small crowd gathered outside the shop to watch the programme, the quizmaster asked: “Who is the Greek god of the seas?” One of the teams answered, “Poseidon.” However, the next question—“Who is Ram’s mother?”—stumped the participants.

Pai saw such uncertainty about India’s mythology in his nephews and nieces too. He realised that youngsters in India were growing up on a diet of Western culture and information, and remained oblivious to the riches of India’s mythology, heroes and legends. Thus began his lifelong endeavour to tell the country’s greatest stories to its children.

“Whatever ACK is, is because of the vision of Uncle Pai,” says Reena I Puri, executive editor of ACK Media, and a 25-year veteran of the company. “He did not start it as a money-making enterprise. He wanted to reach out to the children of the country through our story-telling heritage.”

Pai had worked with the books division of Bennett Coleman & Co, when they had launched Mandrake and Phantom under the Indrajal Comics series in 1964. With the urge to start a series on Indian comics, he approached the Mirchandanis of India Book House (publishers and distributors of books and magazines since 1952), who agreed to become distributors of Pai’s comic books. Thus, Amar Chitra Katha was born in Mumbai in 1967. “They agreed to give Uncle Pai a space to work in and also promised to print what he created, although, at that time, they did not pay him a salary,” says Puri. The first title to be published—scripted by Pai, and illustrated by another much-revered name, Ram Waeerkar—was Krishna, in 1970.

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