Monkey philosophy and spirally thinking boys

Feb 18, 2012, 10:17 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Paploo and Ali are unlike typical characters you'd find in a children's storybook. Film maker-artist Devashish Makhija has created two fascinating heroes with the hope that today's kids will think differently. And it's okay to be distracted with its delightful artworks, as Fiona Fernandez discovered

Paploo and Ali are unlike typical characters you'd find in a children's storybook. Film maker-artist Devashish Makhija has created two fascinating heroes with the hope that today's kids will think differently. And it's okay to be distracted with its delightful artworks, as Fiona Fernandez discovered

Were both titles conceived around the same time? What was the inspiration behind these? How were Paploo and Ali born?
Not at all. I was working on an animation film for Walt Disney India, for three years. It was a riot of Indian animals and traditional folk art set in a 'dehaati' (rural) Indian jungle. When the film got shelved three years ago, the characters kept squirming and wriggling about inside me refusing to die quiet deaths! A few sprang out onto the pages of When Ali Became Bajrangbali.

Artwork by Priya Kuriyan for When Ali Became Bajranbali

My publishers loved the idea. Just as it went to Priya (Kuriyan) for the drawing, I sent them a poem about a boy who asks spiraling questions -- the kind that adults have no set answers for. They loved the intent behind it and worked tirelessly to give it form; it became Why Paploo Was Perplexed. That Paploo and Ali took birth on the same day had nothing to do with either of us. It's destiny !

Artwork by Priya Kuriyan for When Ali Became Bajranbali

I'm one of those clich �d Bombay cinema struggle stories. I've seen several films that I've written or was directing bite the dust. So to keep myself from losing hope I try to keep my characters alive, sometimes by asking them how else they would like to come out into this world. Ali and Paploo came out through children's books. Others live with me at home. They sit on my head, my shoulders, in my lap, loll about on my bed, jump up and down in the kitchen, waiting not-so-quietly for their turn to come to life.

Tiya James' Artwork for Why Paploo was Perplexed

While the approach is simple and filled with a riot of imagery, the messages in both cases are deep; will kids be able to gauge this?

It would be typical to say that kids are smart and will get it. But I had (and have) no clue if kids would be able to really gauge the subtext and the deeper questions we intended in the books. These questions are something we feel (and when I say 'we' I'm taking the liberty to include the people at Tulika too) kids will slowly discover, once they've gotten past the fun and riotousness of it all. So, like Paploo and Ali, we too are proceeding on HOPE. We hope children return to these books, again and again. We hope that if not today then some day they see what we are trying to tell them. We hope that they ask questions, an insane profusion of them, of their parents, the world they inhabit of everything that's supposed to be a 'rule' -- of all that 'is' and instead ask 'why not'? Just like Ali and Paploo did.
What challenge is it to play with illustrations and verse? How did you work with illustrators Tiya (James) and Priya (Kuriyan) to ensure things go according to the way it was imagined inside your head?
Tulika did the work with Tiya and Priya. All I did was write my vision of it, and sent them some references to give them a starting point. They seem to have leapt so high and so magnificently with Ali and Paploo that I cannot take any credit for how the books turned out visually. Somewhere both caught the 'cinematic' heart of both stories in their own unique ways. The art of Paploo dances like a magic-realist animation film on paper unlike any I've ever seen, without once losing the 'Indian'ness of Paploo (or 'Hiroo' his counterpart in the Hindi version 'Kyon Hiroo Hua Hairaan'). And in the art of Ali-B (as Tulika likes to call it!) folk art, a suburban cityscape, an Indian circus of beasts, mythological palettes seem to be playing out all at once, like a visual symphony.

As a kid, what books did you read? Did these choices impact your work?
The answer to this question is scattered. Though I didn't intend it, but when I recall what might have influenced these works, these had to be some of my favourite preoccupations -- quizzing, subversion, the
concept of religion and Tintin.

When Ali Became Bajrangbali
Here, a monkey is portrayed as being a god on the one hand while on the other side, the reader is reminded of how monkeys in general can be so shamelessly deprived of their basic rights. Using an typical urban Indian landscape as the backdrop, it questions whether 'development' means anything outside of the needs of human beings.

Why Paploo Was Perplexed
Paploo makes us question that all-pervading cornerstone of mankind - RULES! His fascinating mindset throws up queries range from why men cannot be pregnant to his ability to fly in his dreams. Finally, he is content with his extraordinary mind and the wonderful things it eggs him on to do.

1} I was an avid quizzer until I decided to stop cramming trivia and start asking questions. I wanted to know and understand more and almost no one had the answers. I researched a lot. All that curiosity wriggled its way into my stories and characters.

2} I get a kick out of subversion. From Alice in Wonderland being a mathematical treatise disguised as a children's book the Brothers Grimm fairy tales being bleak historical reportage in childish disguise � ideas that have found a socially acceptable form to narrate a socially unacceptable piece of information finds a salivating audience in me.

3} In retrospect, my stories (mostly my film scripts) seem to be obsessed at some level with understanding religion and the concept of 'god'. Most religions seem to have conflicting opinions on our origins and reasons for being. And fight and kill over that. Yet, people of all these religions seem to wield a smug authority over nature. Heroes are those who can tear a lion open with their bare hands. Gods are those who sit astride peacocks. Have you thought about the lion being torn open or that the peacock would rather be dancing than slaving as a throne? I revel in these preoccupations.

Tintin is the most genius piece of children's writing, ever. Herg � has used several intricate narrative devices, including complex characterisation, such epic tale telling. The Tintin series are an encyclopaedia of 'how-to-tell-stories', if you begin to deconstruct them. Every Tintin story straddles multiple genres � like the masala Hindi film - adventure, drama and comedy (situational and slapstick), fantasy, politics, revenge, heroism, the whole shebang.

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