Ancient Indian Tales Inspire a Modern Indian Art In Bangalore, Richard Branson, director Shekhar Kapur and the son of Deepak Choprah are working to make Indian-flavored graphic novels as popular as Japanese manga.
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Ancient Indian Tales Inspire a Modern Indian Art

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Ancient Indian Tales Inspire a Modern Indian Art

Ancient Indian Tales Inspire a Modern Indian Art

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've been hearing all this week how India is becoming an international cultural force, including how Hollywood is turning to India to help animate its movies.

This morning NPR's Laura Sydell looks at a company that is introducing Indian mythology to the rest of the world.

LAURA SYDELL: Bangalore, India. The name alone evokes call centers and colorless office parks, places where American companies export work. But in a building on a quiet residential street downtown, an army of Indian animators is working to export their culture to you. Their source material is the elaborate pantheon of Hindu mythology.

Ms. NEHA BAJAJ (Editor, Virgin Comics): In every state of India we've got, like, about 100 different gods, because everybody believes in a different god. They've got their own idols. Every idol is given its own name in every village. It's vast, and it's amazing.

SYDELL: Neha Bajaj is an editor at the fledgling Virgin Comics, a company less than two years old. They've already published dozens of titles with names like Sadhu, Uma, Kali. The staff here knows these stories from childhood.

Ms. BAJAJ: The most - more popular gods are the ones that we've all heard while we're growing up, from grandparents, the (unintelligible). Basically that's how we usually hear about gods.

SYDELL: The illustrations have colors and shapes that resemble the walls of a Hindu temple - long-haired warriors with narrow hips and robust chests, voluptuous women draped in colorful saris. Mostly the stories are heroic journeys, where good triumphs over evil.

(Soundbite of roar)

SYDELL: The Hindu demon Raktavija is the basis for a comic called "Virulents." Sharad Devarajan, Virgin's CEO, explains that in mythology Raktavija wanted to live forever. The gods wouldn't quite grant him that.

Mr. SHARAD DEVARAJAN (CEO, Virgin Comics): They said to him that in order to stop anyone that may try to kill him, every drop of his blood would turn into another demon. And that would eventually, you know, make it very tough to kill this guy.

SYDELL: A writer at Virgin imagined what would happen if you put Raktavija in the middle of the conflict in Afghanistan and had a group of American and Indian troops discover a nest of the demons.

At NPR we let some of our staff imagine what Virgin's comic might sounds like.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Are you okay?

Unidentified Man #2: Some scratches.

Unidentified Man #1: That blood demon in that story, how did Kali finally kill him?

SYDELL: Kali is the wife of Lord Shiva. Shiva told the other gods that if they asked her to get rid of the demon, there will be long-term consequences.

Mr. GOTHAM CHOPRA (Virgin Comics): He warns them though, if you asked her to take care of this problem for us, you know, you can never quite ask her to come home and do the dishes. I mean, you've made her into something that you can't necessarily control. And the gods say, well, look, we have little choice.

SYDELL: Virgin's Gotham Chopra says the gods made a deal with Kali anyway.

Unidentified Man #1: That blood demon in that story, how did Kali finally kill it?

Unidentified Man #2: She had a giant tongue and she just licked up all of Raktavija's blood just like that.

Unidentified Man #1: So - so what you're saying is that with a single stroke she managed to end the threat completely?

(Soundbite of roar)

Unidentified Man #1: What's that?

(Soundbite of roar)

SYDELL: The demon in "Virulents" piqued the interest of filmmaker John Moore. Moore directed the remake of "The Omen" and now has a deal with Fox to make a movie based on the comic. He saw a modern message in the ancient myth. Every time a terrorist is attacked, 10 more seem to pop up to replace him. Plus, Moore says it's not a story that's been overused by the Hollywood machine.

Mr. JOHN MOORE (Director): What was interesting was the fact that it was based on a mythology that people knew little or nothing about. The movie staples have been well worn by now, you know, whether its vampires or werewolves or, you know, guys running around in capes and tights.

SYDELL: You are definitely not going to find guys in capes and tights in a Virgin Comic. CEO Sharad Devarajan got the idea for Virgin when he was working in India with Marvel Comics. He worked on a version of "Spider-Man" that was rooted in a Hindu myth.

Mr. DEVARAJAN: I think it was very successful, but you know, at the end of the day what we really wanted to do was create our own properties that really could stand at the forefront of the world and really champion a lot of this young, dynamic Indian creativity.

SYDELL: And if you're wondering why it is called Virgin Comics, it's because the main investor is Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records. Then they set out to find the artistic talent in India. Chopra, who happens to be the son of Deepak Chopra, says the country was filled with young people who were used to doing back-end animation for American studios.

Mr. CHOPRA: The way the Indian mind, unfortunately, has been trained in the last two decades is to emulate the best of the West, because it's been built upon an outsourcing model, so we do a tremendous amount of unlearning.

SYDELL: When artists first arrive at Virgin, they are used to repressing their own culture, says illustrator Jeevam Kang. Then it's like an explosion.

Mr. JEEVAM KANG (Illustrator): Initially it's like letting loose a nuke. Suddenly, you know, you've been doing outsourcing, suddenly you are allowed to do anything you want. You can't handle that kind of freedom all of a sudden. So it takes about three to four months of time to adjust.

SYDELL: Virgin has more movies in the works and they are animating a massive online multiplayer video game based on a Hindu myth for Sony. The model for many here is Japanese manga, says editor Bajaj, the comic book form that mixed Western tradition of comics with Japanese cultural traditions.

Ms. BAJAJ: It's a cult now. Japanese comics and manga (unintelligible) I think that's what we want to do with our Indian comics as well - create a niche.

SYDELL: It took the Japanese some 50 years to develop manga into an international sensation. But with help from the Internet, Gotham Chopra believes it may only take a few years for stories and images from India to become well-known all over the world.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Laura Sydell, who's reporting on the entertainment industry in India. First the jobs go there, and now some Indian culture maybe coming back this way.

And Laura, before you go, can you just tell us is there anything else that jumped out at you about pop culture in India?

SYDELL: One of the things that jumped out at me is the fact that most of the music that people love comes from the movies. And in fact as I drove around India with my wonderful local producer, Prachi Bari, and my driver Saddam Kamble(ph), there was a song that he kept playing that comes from a movie about outlaws.

(Soundbite of song)

SYDELL: I'll send you the video. It's a hoot.

INSKEEP: What's it look like?

SYDELL: It's a bunch of guys in a bar. They're all like local gangsters kind of hanging out, and they are asking for more booze.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Okay. And singing about whiskey, okay.

SYDELL: And singing about - singing about booze and singing about girls and wanting more booze. And "Gunpat"(ph), which is the name of the song, is the name of the bartender.

INSKEEP: Laura, it sounds like you've been having too much fun.

SYDELL: I have been having too much fun. It's been great.

INSKEEP: Well, I've enjoyed the reports. Thanks very much.

SYDELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Laura Sydell. And you can find a link to this song's music video by going to npr.org.

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