Ashoka the Hero

The animated movie combines the past and the present

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In the third century BC, Emperor Ashoka went down in history as an enlightened ruler who embraced peace over war. The monarch continues to have a presence in our lives – from the Ashoka’s Pillar engraved on rupee coins to the Ashoka Chakra on the Indian flag. Now it is the emperor’s medallion that makes an appearance in Gaurav Jain’s new animation film, Ashoka the Hero.

The film is about a schoolboy, Ashoka, who idolises his father, a brave police officer who dies in a bank robbery. On his deathbed, Ashoka’s father tells his son to be a good person. Easier said than done. The boy wants to be like his father but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. Then, an old man called Masa entrusts him with Emperor Ashoka’s medallion, which confers on its owner great powers. But like all good things, this one comes with a catch – the medallion’s powers go away if they are abused in any way. Of course, there is a nasty villain to be defeated and Ashoka’s the super hero who is called on to help. The film is mainly about Ashoka discovering that a super hero isn’t necessarily one who has great strength and super powers.

“It’s a kids-oriented film,” said Jain, the writer and director of the film. “The story is along the lines of a Western super hero film.” Jain conceptualised the story three years ago and decided to make it a 2D animation film, rather than a 3D one. “Technology moves rapidly,” said Jain. “If you look at Toy Story 1, 2 and 3, there’s a world of difference in terms of the technology.” While Toy Story 1 was a 2D animation film, the third installation was released in 3D. Jain elaborated, “If you look at a Tom and Jerry cartoon [done in 2D animation], it has essentially stayed the same over the years. It’s all about the visual experience that 2D animation offers.”

Ashoka the Hero also breaks through the clutter of mythological animation films that have become staple children’s fare. Movies about Hanuman, Ganesha and the Ramayana have previously catered to kids. Some like Bal Ganesha attempted to give a contemporary spin to mythology but don’t always  capture the audience’s attention. “I wanted to do something that’s different from a mythological film,” said Jain. “InIndia, kids are only watching foreign films or Western shows. I grew up on serials such as Indradhanush [a sci-fi serial on Doordarshan]”. Only a few filmmakers, such as Santosh Sivan who made Halo and Malli and Vishal Bharadwaj who made The Blue Umbrella, have managed to make quality children’s films.

Since Jain is from Mumbai, the city serves as the backdrop for his film. Watch out for a plane that lands in the middle of the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, an action sequence atop the Rajabai Tower and the film climax, which is staged at the Bandra-Worli sea link. When Jain began writing the script, the sea link was still under construction. “We kept hoping that the sea link would be done in time for the film’s release,” said Jain. “Luckily, it did.”

By Bijal Vachharajani on January 06 2011 

Hero worship

When it comes to films and books for children, superheroes rule, finds Time Out

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In the book iBoy, an iPhone falls on 16-year-old Tom Harvey’s head and soon the embedded device gives him the ability to surf the internet at will. He uses this ability to take revenge on his friend’s rapists by accessing their personal information. In Joe Craig’s Jimmy Coates, the 11-year-old protagonist discovers that he is only 38 per cent human while the rest of him is robot. As part-robot, he is expected to aid the state’s dictator. In Gaurav Jain’s movie Ashoka, an eight-year-old boy has to ditch his homework to battle a mad scientist with powers bestowed on him by Emperor Ashoka’s medallion. And this fortnight, child actor Darsheel Safary stars as India’s first flying superhero in the Disney film Zokkomon, which has been directed by Satyajit Bhatkal.

Superhero books and movies have always been popular with children. But whereas in the past, one was more likely to read or see stories about adult superheroes such as Spider-Man and Superman, children are now increasingly donning the capes – metaphorically and literally – to save the world. Zokkomon is an adventure story about Kunal (Safary), an orphaned boy whose uncle [Anupam Kher] abandons him in a large city, said Satyajit Bhatkal. “Kunal is alone and friendless,” Bhatkal said, “In this situation, when he is most down and out, Kunal draws on his inner strength. Despite being small and without resources he manages to discover that you are as strong as you believe you are.”

The latest trend of child superheroes started with Harry Potter, said Sudeshna Shome-Ghose, an editorial director with Puffin, which has got books like iBoy and the Percy Jackson series to India.“Each new series tried to differentiate its hero from the earlier ones in specific ways,” she said, adding, “These books are all commercial fiction and a lot of thought would go in from publishers and authors on creating characters that are unique.”

And they are unique. Tom Harvey of iBoy by Kevin Brooks can pluck information off the web by just thinking about it but his nemesis is a no-network zone. Author Rick Riordan had a bestseller in his hands with the Percy Jackson series, a story about a boy who discovers that he is half-human and half-god. While Riordan’s story is about Greek gods, he sets his story in New York, explaining that with Western civilisation moving to America, Olympus followed suit.

When it comes to creating Indian superheroes, most publishers and filmmakers stick to mythological heroes. However, some are trying to think beyond Hanuman and Bal Ganesha. Kunal in Zokkomon will be India’s first flying superhero, Bhatkal said. Recently, Hachette India published The Fang of Summoning by Giti Chandra. The story intersects between Iceland and Gurgaon, where six cousins discover startling gifts – a toddler can bring her childish doodles to life while her older cousin can play music that causes metal to materialise out of thin air.

Another Hachette India book, the Taranauts series by Roopa Pai, focuses a fictional universe called Mithya, where three kids have to find the 32 stars that light their eight planets. All of them of course have their own set of superpowers. Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, editorial director for children’s and reference books at Hachette India, said, “Both [books] deal with how ordinary young people come to terms with their own extraor-dinary powers, and learn that powers work effectively and with more impact when they work as a team, and for the greater good.”

The Taranauts series stands out as one of the few books with strong female protagonists – Zvala and Zarpa. The lone boy Tufan is the subject of some good-natured ribbing. But Zarpa and Zvala are the exception. Usually, girls use their special powers to help the superhero win. Shome-Ghosh said that it’s a shame that there are few female characters with powers, but pointed out that graphic novels often have strong girl protagonists.

All these books and movies have one common thread – they are about ordinary children who have powers but are still grappling with problems like acne or homework. “The creation of teen superheroes is a result of the popularity cult around these characters,” said Kaul-Banerjee. “What could appeal to a teenager more than reading about a character of a similar age group with similar growing pangs —only blessed with super powers!”

By Bijal Vachharajani on April 14 2011 

Films division

Satyajit Bhatkal talks to Time Out about India’s first flying child superhero in his debut film Zokkomon

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Zokkomon is Satyajit Bhatkal’s directorial debut. He has previously been part of the Lagaan film production unit, written a book called The Spirit of Lagaan and directed a documentary titled Madness in the Desert. Bhatkal spoke to Bijal Vachharajani about India’s first flying child superhero.

What made you decide to make a superhero film?
I didn’t set out to write a superhero film. The larger abstract idea about the film was: “Can you turn your weakness into your strength?” That’s the premise for Kunal’s character. In Zokkomon, Kunal discovers the hero within and begins his journey of adventure and transformation to become a superhero.

Tell us about the decision to cast Darsheel Safary?
Darsheel was a very natural choice. He’s not only one of India’s best child actors but even one of the country’s best actors. He can do drama, action and comedy. It was a joy working with him – he’s quite loveable and spontaneous. And yet, he’s only a child. The moment the shot is done, he will be back to playing his video games.

There has been a spate of superhero books and movies for children. How is Zokkomon different?
These books inhabit a different cultural space. I have enjoyed Harry Potter and [books by] Eoin Colfer [author of the Artemis Fowl series]. Zokkomon, you realise, is based in this country and is about Indian situations. It is not an imitation of Spider-Man or Batman. He is as cool as them, but he is our cool guy.

 By Bijal Vachharajani on April 14 2011 

DVD review

Arthur Christmas All regions. Sony DADC R499

This year, the Google Santa Tracker made Christmas special for all those good children who were excitedly waiting with cookies and milk for Santa Claus to deliver their presents. The Santa Tracker mapped Claus’ journey across the globe, even telling us the number of presents he delivered on Christmas eve. The Santa Tracker might as well have been part of Arthur Christmas, a 2011 animated film. Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the younger son of Santa Claus, who has to get around the world in one night and deliver billions of presents. How in the world does he do it? He’s helped by an elf battalion that takes 18.14 seconds to drop off a gift per household; they have a scanner to check if the kid’s been nice or naughty, and they use the milk and cookies for biofuel. All this is only possible because of the North Pole Mission Control, manned by Arthur’s brother, Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), also Claus’s heir apparent. Arthur, on the other hand, is Koumpounophobic (fear of buttons) and is only “good at worrying”. But he is the one who responds to all the letters sent by children and truly believes in the magic of Christmas.

But despite all the high-tech wizardry at their disposal, the mission control misses out on a child. When none of the Clauses want to go back, Arthur along with Grand Santa and elf Bryony sneaks off to deliver the present. It’s all merry-making and goofy fun from there.

Arthur Christmas is an earnest film about the magic of Christmas. But it’s oodles of fun, with lots of laughs packed in. The movie breaks through the clutter of festive films, just by its sheer peppiness. And though Arthur is endearing, but you can’t help but love Steve, who really is the man who runs the show and ensures that Claus can zip around the world in one night.

The special features are bland compared to the film. There’s “Un-wrapping Arthur Christmas” and “Progression Reels”; both take a behind-the-scenes look at the movie; and an Elf Recruitment video, which is quite clever. But tweens will love Justin Bieber’s song “Santa Claus is coming to town” and they can also hear the pop star talk about the video.

By Bijal Vachharajani on February 01 2013

Mixed signals

What’s the city’s most scholarly film critic doing in a short film?

A traffic signal is often a blind spot for commuters – people sigh exasperatedly waiting for the signal to turn green, they hop out of their vehicle to buy a pack of cigarettes or shop from the many vendors who peddle wares at these junctions. Filmmaker Alan Aranha was at one such crossroads in Mumbai when he found himself surrounded by a group of flower-selling girls. An idea bloomed. He talked to his friends Bharat Mirle and Sudhanva Atri. They made a 1.30 min film called Junction. The action, brief as it is, unfolds at a traffic signal.

The movie tells the story of a girl selling flowers on CMH Road in Indira Nagar, when a car pulls up. When the passenger, a slightly taciturn gent in a blazer, finally notices her, the film’s conceit becomes evident to the viewer.

What’s unusual about the film isn’t the choice of subject – the flowers the girl clutches in her hand is, in a manner of speaking, meant to induce a Chekhovian plot twist. Rather it has to do with a casting decision: that of the actor in the car. The role is played by the incisive, sagacious and often vitriolic film critic MK Raghavendra. “This is the first time I have acted in a film,” Raghavendra said. “Anybody can do a oneand- a-half minute film. They [the filmmakers] put together a context in which certain expressions could be exhibited.” For the filmmakers it was a convenient choice. “We needed someone who was a little elderly, and had his own blazer… he fit the bill,” said Aranha. It helped matters, it would appear, that Raghavendra is Mirle’s father.

This is the first time that the three filmmakers have collaborated on a project.Junction was selected for the Berlin International Directors Lounge last month. The story, it seems, has struck a chord. “Incredible things happen in seemingly ordinary places and situations,” said Aranha. “A traffic junction is a treasure trove of fascinating experiences. Once you get out of the rut of life, you discover that what goes on in ordinary life is in fact extraordinary.
Junction can be viewed on

By Bijal Vachharajani on March 15 2013 5.46am