‘Drink Milk, Do Homework, Save the World.’ That’s the official slogan of Ashoka the Hero, India’s first animated superhero, who also happens to be a kid. Ashoka ‘stars’ in his first feature-length film, which debuted a week ago today on approximately 30 screens across the country. In the movie, he gains amazing superpowers and has to save his city from villains and destruction. The film is slated to have its TV premiere (cartoon satellite premiere) later this month.
Recently I had the chance to speak to the creator and producer of Ashoka the Hero, Gaurav Jain, who’s currently based in his hometown of Mumbai, about his project.
Jain told me that the original concept for Ashoka came to him and his team a few years ago, when they were ‘looking at doing some sort of genre that wasn’t being done,’ in Indian animation. The result? ‘A kid who goes to school, does homework, has a pet dog, plays cricket’ and…saves the world. According to Jain, Indian animated films up to now have mostly been based on traditional mythological stories pulled from great Indian epics, perhaps because the ‘people that make them think that they’re easier to sell to kids.’ But Jain believes that the character of Ashoka is closer to the lifestyles of real kids in India than what’s been offered up in the past, while at the same time adding that this wasn’t necessary all that the character was meant to be.
He told me: ‘The whole point was to basically come up with something which is positive for kids. So even though we’re talking about action and blowing things up and stuff, the world we’re building around is a positive world for kids for them to be involved in.’
Jain says parents shouldn’t be worried. ‘It’s not mindless action,’ he says.
When asked about why he chose milk in particular for the character and film, Jain told me, ‘Milk? It’s a big thing here in India. Milk is huge—parents expect their kids to drink milk all the time.’
On the question of whether there’s enough good entertainment material in India for kids to be inspired by, Jain says he believes there’s a real problem in the lack of choices available, which is why in Ashoka, the message goes beyond drink milk, do homework and save the world (by simply trying to be good). ‘We explore aspects like anger, getting blinded by things, getting corrupted by power, and things like that—so not a lot of that might be relevant to eight year-olds now, but as they grow older they’ll probably understand a bit more of where that’s coming from.’
So what’s been available to kids in India until now in animation terms? ‘Mostly anime from Japan, because it’s cheaper for broadcasters to pick it up…they just buy stuff off the shelves—you’ll have stuff like Astro Boy and Pokemon, which kids like.’
However, Jain says he believes that Indian children ‘don’t really get anything out of’ such shows because they’re changed so much that they’re not even really Japanese. He notes, for example, that the original dialogue is ‘dumbed down or changed to fit local tastes…so it’s not really Pokemon anymore the way I see it.’
Over all, Jain says in terms of children’s programming in India, ‘you don’t’ have much to go with.’ He does, however, see some hope in the Cartoon Network, which he believes ‘has been doing a lot to try and promote local animation,’ and is trying to ‘push the boundaries of what kind of content actually goes on the air in India.’
I’ll share more of my interview with Jain, including on the state of the animation industry in India and more, next week.