Plugging The Void Of Indian Adult Animation With Bakarmax
Adult animation is one of the fastest growing genres when it comes to TV shows. Viewers everywhere are hungry for stories that take them along for a ride, where they can suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the richly rendered universe of these shows.
However, the scene in India looks kind of sad. Mainstream production houses don't bother with animation, and the few who have dipped their toes in the field have made one off movies catering to kids.
Those of us who love good animated media exploring adult characters and themes are left empty-handed. Bakarmax, an animation and comics studio based out of New Delhi, is trying to change that.
Their webcomics are aimed at mature audiences, and are made by diverse artists and storytellers who always add a touch of humor. Bakarmax won the title of Best Webcomic Of The Year at 2019’s Comic-Con.
They also work with clients all over India and the world to make comic strips, mascots, animated films, wall murals, and more.
In a conversation with Mukund Sharma, who heads operations, sales and marketing at Bakarmax and also makes quite a few comics of his own. He tells me that bakar means bullshit, and max is maximum, so Bakarmax literally means bullshit maximum. The company was started in 2014 by Sumit Kumar, who ditched his tech job to pursue his cartoonist dreams. He’s been making comics for the past 10-15 years. Sumit is the brain behind for Newslaundry, as well as the graphic novel .
Every Bakarmax comic stands out because of its distinctively desi flavour. Speaking of this relatability, Mukund says, “In most of the comics we read that are set in India, the way they write dialogues is not how we speak.” This is what Bakarmax does differently- the cartoonists are free to take complete control of how their comics look and sound, drawing from life experiences and letting their individuality shine through.
Comics can be made by anybody, and are meant for everybody. Democratising the medium is at the core of Bakarmax. When the studio was started, Sumit introduced an internship programme. This involves a workshop called Daily Doodle, where the history of comics is covered, among other things. At the end of the workshop, everybody makes their own comic spanning four or five panels.
Understandably, some feel underconfident about their drawing skills. “Here I said, “okay, but there is a simple exercise. You can legit just make a stick figure.” For example, if you see the comics called Sanitary Panels, all her cartoons are stick figures, right? But the storytelling part of it is so great it surpasses the visuals,” says Mukund. Reducing barriers to entry is essential to this process, where everyone regardless of skill level is encouraged to express themselves through comics. “Usually what we focus on is that your story should come out good and it should resonate with the audience,” Mukund tells me.
As a studio that makes funnies for adults, Bakarmax is acutely aware of the gap in homegrown adult animation for ages 16 and above.
On the other hand, there is no dearth of English language adult animated shows. The Simpsons and South Park are long-running classics. American cable network Adult Swim is synonymous with adult-oriented nighttime programming. With the rise of streaming services, shows such as Bojack Horseman and Big Mouth (Netflix Originals) and Rick & Morty (which Netflix acquired from Adult Swim) have captured the imagination of a new generation of viewers.
Speaking of their success, Mukund says, “The first thing is that they know that there is an audience for adult animation. Shows like Rick & Morty, Bojack and even South Park don't feel the need to dumb down their content. They tackle complex and dark topics with wit. For example, Bojack talks deeply about mental health issues. And even with Rick & Morty, it has this very absurdist humour and also has a certain kind of message going on. So, what they do is they believe there is an audience and they know they have great animators.”
As Mukund points out, we may relate to these shows on a mental level, but not on a cultural basis. Their lifestyle, values and everyday problems may not be so familiar to us.
“We have great animators who can do a lot of things in India as well, but here what people think is that animation is for kids,” he says, and this seems to be the root of the issue here.
Nonetheless, I know that the audience is there in India- it’s people like Mukund and me who are going to love watching homegrown adult animated shows. Granted, older Indians think animation is only for children, but they aren’t the target audience anyway. So what are we missing here?
“One is the commerce part of it. There’s a saying in the industry that animation is a harsh mistress. For example, the first time I tried doing a whiteboard animation, I would work the whole day and only get 10 to 15 seconds of animation out of it. Somebody just has to take a leap of faith that this will work. If there is one good breakthrough, tomorrow if one show comes out which is a hit, next year you will see 10 new shows coming out. Hopefully this will happen soon. Bakarmax is also trying different things. Animation is pretty time-consuming but of course it gives you a lot of scope. You can expand your horizons and create a whole universe sitting in one room,” opines Mukund.
Much like all things entertainment in India, Bollywood has also tried its hand a few times at animated films.
“I wouldn't say that people here haven’t tried doing animation for adults. They are trying in their own ways to make it happen. For example, the Hanuman movie directed by Anurag Kashyap wouldn't be considered adult animation but you can see that there is this humour to it- even an adult person can watch and enjoy it. The folks at Vaibhav Studios also make animation that is not just for kids,” says Mukund.
Youtube and Instagram, of course, have made the public media platform accessible to a much wider base of creators, who can now show the world their work without having to worry about distribution or publicity.
However, animation, cartoons and art as a whole being undervalued in India might be leading to brain drain. Many talented creatives choose to work for Western studios that already have an established niche, and compensate their creators fairly. “American production houses do all the pre-production work. They will make the storyboard, finalise the script and the characterization. But when it comes to the production part of animation they outsource it to different countries, including India. We (at Bakarmax) had a member who had animated one of the episodes of Rick & Morty. So people are doing it, but it’s very time-consuming and when money is involved, it's always a risk,” Mukund elaborates.
There is also a huge element of right place, right time to the prospect of Indian adult animation getting picked up by international OTT platforms. Bakarmax created the pilot for animated shorts called Aapki Poojita, satirising the plight of child actors on Indian TV shows. Once it was up, somebody from a major OTT streaming service got in touch with Sumit, and the project got greenlit. But then the pandemic came along and all the plans had to be scrapped.
Refusing to let budgeting issues come in the way, the studio is taking things into its own hands via Bakarmax Originals. “Currently we are working on a pilot based on one of our top performing comics. It is an Indian political drama and has all the flavour and the absurdity,” Mukund shares. The point here is to not just push their own content but to encourage the making of such animation on a whole. “Even if we don’t get a lot of traction, somebody will watch it and it will give them the confidence or inspiration that they can also make something like this,” he says.
While there's still a lot of ground to be covered, independent creators and studios like Bakarmax are cultivating an authentic culture for the appreciation and consumption of adult animation in India.
I, personally, can't wait for the future where homegrown shows run well into 33 seasons à la The Simpsons.