Bollywood goes graphic

Apr 22, 2012, 08:45 IST | Krutika Behrawala

Merchandising in the Hindi film industry has gone beyond caps, keychains and the odd doll. As an explosion of film-based comic books and graphic novels hits the market, sometimes even before the release of the movie, we find out why producers are shelling out big bucks to box SRK and Saif Ali Khan into illustrated panels

IF you recently visited a bookstore, you may have wondered why Saif Ali Khan, in his spy avatar, was conspiratorially peeking from a book cover. The actor has lent his persona (sketched in bright real-colour shadows) to a graphic novel titled Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter. Saif isn’t the only one to turn graphic in recent times. A few months ago, prior to the release of Don 2, producers Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani too had brought out a comic book based on their film. Called Don: The Origin, the graphic novel traced the journey of this character (essayed by Shah Rukh Khan), explaining how he got his famous name. 

Siddharth Jain, co-producer of forthcoming zombie flick Rock The Shaadi, for which he has released a graphic novel, Zombie Talkies: Bloodfest In Bollywood. Pic/ Sunil Tiwari

While SRK was being a bad-boy in the Don comic, he was saving the day as the blue-suit adorned superhero G.One in the Ra.One based comic book — G.One: The Journey Begins. And if superheroes can go graphic, can zombies be far behind? Siddharth Jain, the co-producer of the forthcoming Abhay Deol-Genelia D’Souza zombie flick Rock The Shaadi has already released a successful graphic novel, Zombie Talkies: Bloodfest In Bollywood, that takes the reader into the world of his film’s subject — zombies. Co-directors Luke Kenny and Devaki Singh are in talks with the creative teams to plan out graphic novels for their planned trilogy of zombie-horror films.

Today, film merchandising has gone beyond just bringing out bags, posters, pen-stands and badges. With marketing assuming as much importance as the filmmaking process, producers are leaving no stone unturned to reach out to their audiences in the most innovative ways possible. No wonder films are increasingly taking to graphic novels to give audiences a glimpse into their world.

Why producers want a comic book
In Hollywood, most superheroes have come to life on screen from comic books. But here, the traffic seems to be moving in the other direction.
In the past too, film-based comic books made a few appearances. The makers of the Abhishek Bachchan starrer Drona (2008) tried it. And the animated characters that were a part of Kunal Kohli’s 2004 hit Hum Tum, also found a parallel life as a comic strip published in a newspaper. Aamir Khan’s magnum opus Lagaan (2001) too released a comic book Lagaan: The Story, along with other merchandise.

Zombie Talkies: Bloodfest In Bollywood, a precursor to Rock The Shaadi, is a story about a Hindi movie being shot in Agra and how its crew experiences a sudden outbreak of the undead

But today, bringing out comic books has become serious business for producers. They are now called graphic novels. Jain, the CEO at iRock films, who commissioned 5,000 copies of Zombie Talkies, explains the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel. “A comic book and graphic novel are similar. But as opposed to a comic book, a graphic novel is more art-driven, realistic and gory.”

Jain explains the need for comic books to supplement the hype for his forthcoming film. “In India, when you want to introduce a new genre of films, you need to start feeding it in a 360 degree manner. Our comic book introduces zombies so that by the time the movie releases, people are familiar with the genre.”
Shailja Gupta, creative director of the Ra.One comic book and country head, Red Chillies, USA adds, “Shah Rukh was clear that he wanted to do Ra.One merchandising in a big way. Besides badges and action figures, it was important for us to create a comic book for kids to identify with the character G.One. Instead of providing the information on television or via interviews, this was innovative.”

Don: The Origin chronicles how the character played by Shah Rukh Khan in the film got his name

Gupta reveals that 35 lakh copies of G.One: The Journey Begins were distributed free with a leading daily prior to the release of Ra.One. A 40-page digital version of the comic book created is still available on the film’s official website. Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor at Om Books International, the publishers of Don: The Origin, believes that the choice of a format is significant. Om Books has brought out 10,000 copies of Don: The Origin — 5,000 as a Hindi comic book, 2,500 as an English comic and another 2,500 as a graphic novel — and he avers, “The comic format has been extremely popular with the masses. A novel would have a reduced readership. The comic format lends itself very beautifully as a parallel to cinema, which is purely a visual medium. Things come alive and you get the impression that you are sitting and watching the film.”

A world of their own
Though comic books are a part of the film’s merchandise, their stories are distinctly different from the movie’s story itself. Set in the freezing Alps, Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter is about four mysterious strangers coming together to face their nemesis. Other than Vinod, only two other characters from the movie appear in the book (his colleague Rajan played by Ravi Kishan, and his boss Nawaz played by B P Singh). Illustrator Saumin Patel and the writer Yogesh Chandekar (both worked at Virgin comics earlier), who created this comic book, justify why Kareena Kapoor doesn’t make an appearance. “The story of the book takes place before the events of the movie. In the fictional continuity, Vinod meets Iram (her character) long after the events at Jungfrau. The stories of the film and the book are independent of each other. But they exist in the same fictional universe.”

Saif Ali Khan plays his onscreen character, a suave globetrotting agent, in the graphic novel Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter

Kenny too says that his zombie comic book will not have the same story as his film. He explains, “A film’s story has many branches that you can explore in a comic book. Though we are bringing out a trilogy of zombie movies, all the ideas we have can’t be turned into films. So while Devaki is writing the story, we might come across some spin-offs or back-stories about certain characters; and that is where the comic book comes in.” According to Jain, setting a comic book in a different backdrop from the film means opening up the possibility of adapting it into a film later. Zombie Talkies, a precursor to Rock The Shaadi, is a story about a Bollywood production shooting in Agra, which experiences a sudden outbreak of the undead. Jain intends to adapt this story onscreen soon. He says, “While adapting it, the film’s story can be made edgier and more film-worthy.” With standalone comics, there is also a chance of creating a comic-book series that helps the producers cash in on the established characters. Gupta says, “The shelf life of G.One is much longer than the movie Ra.One.”

Not just for the kids
The target audience of Bollywood film-based comic books extends beyond children. Rajesh V, category manager for books at Landmark, elaborates, “The target audience is graphic novel enthusiasts who are excited about good products in that genre. Also, there are students of design who are not only interested in the story but also in the artwork.” Patel and Chandekar feel, “Anybody who loves a good story or a good film is our target audience. The narrative is driven visually and we’ve kept the language simple so that almost everyone who enjoys a movie can enjoy the book. We want people to have a good time reading it and come back for more.”

A different world helps ensure that the graphic novel’s fate is not based on the film’s box office collections. Agent Vinod: The Jungfrau Encounter was brought out after the release of the film; and its creators claim, “Even though the film got mixed reviews, we believe the character still has the potential to lend itself to a popular franchise, be it the movies or through a series of graphic novels.”

The money and market
Jain believes that creating a comic book is an expensive medium. “The average cost of bringing out around 5,000 copies is about Rs 4-5 lakh. The artiste is the biggest expense, followed by the writing, the printing and marketing costs,” Jain informs. But that doesn’t mean the graphic novels available at retail outlets are setting the cash registers ringing. As Rajesh says, “The books are doing decently. But the sales are not on par with say, Tintin or Asterix comic books.” Sales, however, don’t seem to be the main motivation of the film producers. Jain avers, “People may not buy the book, but they see it in bookstores and it leaves an impression. The idea is not to sell comics but to make people aware of the genre of zombie films. It is limited but effective.”

Yet, producers are treading carefully where money is concerned. While Red Chillies stuck a deal with a consumer electronic brand to sponsor the Ra.One comic book, most of the creative work was done in-house with Gupta as the creative director of the book, and the back-story was written by SRK himself.
Don: The Origin was competitively priced at Rs 50 (for the comic book) and Rs 95 (for the graphic novel). Chaudhuri says, “The books were on every magazine stand and in every remote area, which was an invitation to entertainment. So you have a parallel pitch geared towards promoting the film and the cause of the comic.”

The road ahead
Jain is optimistic about the future prospects of film-based comic books. “We are such a young audience: 60 per cent of the population is under 35. It is all about giving them something new and interesting. Also, as the retail business gets more organised, comic book merchandising will pick up.” Patel and Chandekar, who have been a part of the comic book industry for more than five years, are well aware of the market situation. “The market is almost miniscule and mainly dominated by mythology and superhero monthlies and the occasional art-house graphic novel.

Mainstream publishers are still wary about entering the fray because they perceive it to be a niche market. But Bollywood is almost a religion and a film-based comic book stands a better chance of being accepted by a wider audience, including those who are not really into traditional comic books,” he feels. “If done the right way, the film-based comic book can give a real boost to the Indian comic industry. But for that we need more patrons like Saif who respect the medium and look at comics as an art-form and not just a marketing tool to promote films,” he adds. Recently held comic conventions at Delhi and Mumbai have also helped the cause of the producers. Last year, Zombie Talkies and Don: The Origin comics were promoted at these events. Kenny states, “The comic con is in its second year right now. Hopefully, more audiences will look at comic book as an independent art form and a medium of storytelling as opposed to one meant just for kids.”

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