Friday, December 4, 2009

International Comics: Pran's comics of India

Above: Pran Kumar Sharma.

Pran Kumar Sharma, a beloved cartoonist from India (or as his curious Stan Lee inspired byline from his comics states: 'the heart throb of millions of comic strip lovers!') and creator of the popular 'Chacha Chaudhary' character, was in Auckland recently, making a public appearance at the Auckland City Library to talk about his unique perspective and experiences in the comics industry in India.

Above: A page from a 'Chacha Chaudhary' comics digest #20, featuring Pran's biography. Copyright Pran's Features 2009.

Pran began by discussing the start of his comics career, creating his own local comic-strip as a response to the imported American comic-strips that were popular at the time. As Pran explains, 'when I started my career in 1960, India was importing all it's comics from America, like the Phantom, Batman, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Superman etc. I thought why not create our own indigenous comics? So with that in mind I created a short, little old man named Chacha Chaudhary. Chacha means 'uncle' and Chaudhary is a community name. He solves problems with his sharp brain and common sense'.

Once he had created his own local comic-strip, marketing and distributing it was Pran's next challenge. 'Creating a comic is quite easy, but how do you sell them? At that time there was no syndication in my country, so I had to distribute my own comics myself. Initially, three newspapers agreed to subscribe to the comic, but I had to keep the price of my comics very low to compete with the American syndicated comics that were available. As the time passed, from three to five, five to eight, eight to fifteen, the number of newspapers who subscribed to my comics feature increased. Now after 45 years we have 35 newspapers who regularly subscribe to my features'.

Pran firmly believes that the popularity of his characters is due to the fact their lives and interests reflect those of his core audience of readers: the middle class. 'In my comics I do not believe in showing unnatural things, strange things; like a man flying in the sky or walking up the walls. My subject matter is taken from the common life of the middle class. And as you know, the middle class is the backbone of society. You can sell anything which belongs to the middle class'.

Above: A page of stickers featuring a selection of Pran's characters. Copyright Pran's Features 2009.

It's no accident that his cast of characters and comics are built around the atomic family structure. As mentioned earlier, his most popular character Chacha Chaudhary directly translates to 'Uncle from Chaudhary' in Hindi. Here are some other examples of Pran's comics based around other members of the family dynamic:
'Raman': Follows the misadventures of an office worker who hates his boss and daydreams of taking over his company.
Shrimatiji'- which translates to 'House Wife' : About a middle-class house wife who's stories revolve around balancing the finances and the daily challenges of her limited income family.
'Billoo': About a teenager, who doesn't like going to school and is obsessed with cricket.
'Pinki': Following the great comics tradition of annoying kids, Pinki is a 5yr old girl who gets up to mischief in her neighbourhood, often bothering her elderly neighbour (possibly made to put a local spin on one of those American imports, perhaps?).

After twenty years of success with his comic-strips, In 1980 he was approached by a local comics publisher, 'Diamond Comics' to compile the comic strips into a digest comic format, similar to Archie comics from the US (interestingly, Diamond Comics also publishes 'Comics World', a monthly comics digest featuring Chacha Chaudhary sharing the title with other international licenced characters including Archie, Masters of the Universe and Disney characters).

As well as providing entertainment, Pran believes that the humourous nature of comic-strips can play a vital part in relieving tensions in the daily lives of readers from countries caught up in civil unrest and terrorism.

As Pran explains, 'The kinds of stories the newspapers now publish are of war in Afghanistan, bomb blasts by terrorist groups in different parts of the world killing innocent people or tsunami's killing and displacing hundreds of people. They also cover stories of the ups and downs of life on the streets. These types of stories raise tensions in the brain of the reader. Light and humourous comics provide relief, thus acting as a safety release to relieve the tensions (on the reader's mind) and make them relax.'

Curiously, Pran believes that cartoonists should ideally reflect a strong sense of social responsibility in their work, 'the cartoonist should provide society with honest work. By commenting on an incident, they should be unbiased or impartial. They should not ridicule a person or a community. Because if they do, it may boomerang on themselves'. He went on to illustrate this with a story of an Arab and a Jew insulting each other in escalating terms (that they end up recycling on each other).

This would seem to be a soft-handed approach in our society of free speech, but in other parts of the world satirical cartoons (especially aimed at politics and religion) can be a very serious business indeed. One of the best example of this being the 'Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons' controversy of 2005: the publication of 12 editorial cartoons created to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship, which lead to mass protests and rioting across the Muslim world resulting in over 100 deaths.

With an eye to the future, Pran has embraced the changing nature of the comics business over time, and like many cartoonists he's profited by franchising his characters for development deals in multi-media outlets. Chacha Chaudhary was made into a long-running TV show (over 600 episodes have aired), with a movie on the way. His comics are also being adapted for cell-phone reading platforms.

Once again he suggested that the popularity of his comics characters across these different multi-media platforms was all made possible by their acceptance as part of the popular culture of the middle class. While there's no denying this makes good business sense, this telling comment did leave me with a sour aftertaste for the rest of the evening.

I couldn't decide if this was a classic example of appealing to the common interests of his audience in the great tradition of comics entertainment, or just pandering to them to make a health profit.

For Pran to be a successful cartoonist for over 45 years does speak to his genuine skill, dedication and accomplishments. I guess a similar argument could be made for any cartoonist who is equal parts creator and businessman, like Will Eisner for example. As cartoonists we can hope to be remembered for our comics and not the TV show or film it inspired that at one point in history that reached a larger audience.

As Pran himself commented at one point, the most successful cartoonists often have a tendency to live in the shadow of their own success. 'One of the (major) drawbacks in our profession is: while a character becomes popular, it's creator always remains in the dark. If you ask a person walking down the street: 'do you know who is Superman, who is Batman, who is Blondie, who is Dennis the Menace?'. They will immediately say 'yes, these are comics characters. But if you ask the same person: 'do you know who created Batman?'...Nobody knows'.

This may be true, but Bob Kane certainly lived a comfortable life of anonymity, while the sound effects POW! WHAM! BIFF! continue to echo in eternity.


For information on Pran's comics you can visit Pran's website and the website of his publisher, Diamond Comics.

Above: Another page from 'Chacha Chaudhary'. Copyright Pran's Features 2009.

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