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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > Indian animation filmmakers feature film to premiere at the Rotterdam Festival

Indian animation filmmaker's feature film to premiere at the Rotterdam Festival

Updated on: 14 January,2024 06:44 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Christalle Fernandes |

Characters in Ishan Shukla’s animated film Schirkoa, set to premiere at the Rotterdam Festival, avoid emotional connections to survive a politically polarised society

Indian animation filmmaker's feature film to premiere at the Rotterdam Festival

The idea for the film was sparked when filmmaker Ishan Shukla observed the “faceless” look of commuters

Throughout history, human beings have always sought to align with political, social, and cultural ideals that they felt was the right moral order of the day. Empires have been birthed, risen, and fallen, in pursuit of some goals, only to give rise to new ones that eventually go through the same cycle of growth and death.

Animation filmmaker Ishan Shukla’s feature film, Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust, takes inspiration from humanity’s history of gravitating towards a ruling code of conduct. The 103-minute film will be premiering at the 2024 International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) in the Bright Future section, and is set in a “faceless” society, the inspiration for which, he says, came to him nearly ten years ago while commuting in Singapore. Shukla, who was working as an animator back then, was dissatisfied with the lack of creativity in his job and wanted to do something different.

 The film was animated after capturing the motions of stage actors, who acted the characters out step by stepThe film was animated after capturing the motions of stage actors, who acted the characters out step by step

“I started using my time in the subway to draw comics in my diary,” he recalls. “I used to observe the faces of the people—very glum, very monotonous—and my own reflection in the window, glued to the screen glumly.” He realised that corporate life was just a large mass of faceless people without individuality travelling to and from from their workplaces, day in and day out. “That was humanity, for me.”

This suggestion of a human devoid of individuality spurred him to draw his own caricature on the page: a person with a paper-bag over his head, concealing his features and thus, his identity. One character soon turned into a full-blown graphic novel, which served as the basis for the film he would make in the future. The name, Schirkoa, harks back to a comic he created when he was nine years old, whose name he retained for nostalgia’s sake.

Ishan ShuklaIshan Shukla

Shukla found the story of Schirkoa taking on a life of its own. First, he created a 14-minute short animated film in 2016, by the same name, which won 33 awards, including the Best Animated Short award at the LA Shorts Festival the same year. It was also long-listed for the Oscars. That was a condensed version of the story, which the new feature-length film seeks to complete. The film is a collaborative effort between Red Cigarette Media (Shukla's Vadodara-based animation studio), Paris-based Dissidenz Films, Germany-based Rapid Eye Movies, Mumbai and London-based Civic Studios, and French Sofica Cofinova 18.

In the world of the 103-minute film, there are only two societies, which are polar opposites of each other. Schirkoa is a supposedly perfect society where opinions don’t clash, and everything is in harmonious agreement—at least on the surface. The citizens go about with paper-bags on their heads, with cut-outs for their eyes and nose, thus avoiding confrontation and emotional connection. The story is about rebellion and finding a way to voice one’s doubts, which to others may appear insane.

“It’s not an Orwellian dystopia, but more of a psychological dystopia,” says Shukla, who’s been interested in history since he was young. “The dystopia is in your head. Everything you say and do is monitored.” In a way, he says, it reflects the world we live in: any society, in fact, that uses oppression to silence dissent and originality. By distilling the world of the film to this black-and-white narrative, he seeks to portray the shades of grey in situations of absolute freedom and absolute oppression.

Animating the film was particularly challenging because no faces were shown. Thus, the onus of expression lay on the treatment of objects, movement of hands, and body language. Shukla worked with French stage actors and had them act out the play like a theatre production, before animating it in 2D. Eminent personalities voiced the characters—Karan Johar, the principal narrator in the role of the “announcer”; Shekhar Kapur, Anurag Kashyap, and auteur filmmaker Gasper Noe, to name a few—who all brought their own personalities to the characters.

For the filmmaker, who’s been drawing comics since he was six years old, viewing the world through an “absurdist lens” helps to craft compelling stories and narratives. “I never liked school. It was a prison to me, and I always wanted to escape,” he recalls. “I came up with this alter-ego, who had wings and could fly away. That character, in a way, translated into the protagonist of Schirkoa.”

“You’ll always find people trying to find a way out of reality, no matter how perfect it seems,” he concludes. “It’s a reflection of humanity, torn between 
two opposites.”

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