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Toy story

New money is changing the old house of stories. Its future may lie in the hands of a fictional square-headed bumpkin writes Paramita Ghosh.

entertainment Updated: Jul 10, 2010 23:12 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Two dinky little toys take their place by the side of Samir Patil, the 39-year-old CEO of ACK Media, at the company’s headquarters in in Mumbai. One is of Suppandi, a square-headed country bumpkin bustling with initiative for things that were bound to fail; the other is of Shikari Shambhu, a hunter whose jungle-time is spent running away from animals. The three-dimensional avatars of the two-dimensional characters from Tinkle comics are Patil’s frontline warriors in his bid to capture a bigger slice of the country’s growing ‘edu-tainment’ market.

Under Patil, ACK Media — owner of decades-old brands such as Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and Karadi Tales — has scaled up its ambition. Comics will still be its core business, but there will now be a toy story, too. Fuelling this new venture is an investment by Elephant Capital, a private equity fund floated by Dabur group promoter Gaurav Burman that has acquired a 30 per cent stake in the Rs 75-crore business. ACK’s chief operating officer Ashish Goel says, “The target for this financial year is Rs 125-150 crore.”

Patil’s ambitions go much farther and higher: “I want to be the Walt Disney of India and create the largest family entertainment company. There are three places kids today go to — malls, schools and television. We will be there in all three.”

There’s a coordinated plan to execute this vision. Since March, ACK mythologies have been aired every Sunday 11 am on Cartoon Network. “By August, 13 more programmes will be on air. These include Bal Hanuman, Young Bhim, Kartikeya,” says Savita Pai, vice-president, product management.

Anil Sanjivan, who handles the school-contact business, is ready with ‘Why School’, a programme on ACK heroes to be conducted for 10-13 year-olds. “Every child wants to be a hero. Our programme helps children discover the hero within,” he says.

The concept seems to be line with an earlier ‘Heroes’ programme for younger children, where the act of returning or snatching tiffin-boxes made a kid “20 per cent Gandhi or 20 per cent Akbar/Aurangzeb”.

The publishing wing of ACK is also ready with 200 new titles. What’s striking about its heroes of 2010 is their imagery. The ACK habit of making man in god’s image is absent. In Drona and the Ball Game, an ACK Junior title, for instance, the Pandavas look like a cross between good-looking apes and Krrish’s Hrithik Roshan with long hair.

Says Reena Puri, editor, Amar Chitra Katha: “For six-year-olds, the Pandavas are made to look like little boys of today. Older kids get a mix of the cartoons angle and traditional ACK treatment.”

ACK illustrators have learnt well a lesson from the 1990s, when India’s two major comic book publishers — Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha — suffered big dips in sales. In 2010, ACK is willing to privilege the power of straight-on humour over the power of intricately worked-out mythologies.

Nandini Chandra, author of The Classic Popular Amar Chitra Katha, 1967-2007, says the different tales of intrigue, competition and sly wit are meant to emphasise “street savvyness from the view that the child needs to outgrow his/her childhood really fast”.

Illustrator Arijit Dutta Chowdhury brings to the fore a pragmatic point. “In the 80s people were afraid of gods. In 2010, Shiva can look funny. If he is shown to pull faces and fear asuras, it makes a kid laugh.”

All of which makes Suppandi the future of Amar Chitra Katha. He is the ideal comic book character. He falls down an elevator. When asked by his employer to get curtains from his windows he gets one for the computer.

A few hundred limited-edition Suppandi dolls have already been sold at Rs 750 apiece on the Net. Patil says they can be part of a package: home videos, animation, comic books, dolls and coffee table books that can all help him move into the mall. But, he’s not telling when. A silly thing called business strategy comes in the way.