Years ago, the Angry Young Man of Indian Cinema made headlines as a highly successful television show host. Now, the 74-year-old has reinvented himself on Television - as an animated mythical hero called ‘Astra the Immortal’ in the superhero series ‘Astra Force’ airing on Disney Channel. This is Amitabh Bachchan’s first appearance as an animated character on TV, and perfectionist that he is, he has taken it very seriously indeed. Actually designing the character along with Sharad Devarajan, CEO of Graphic India, he has made sure that the look and feel of Astra is in tune with how he looks now, and the superhero not only has power and strength, but also the wise mind of an elder who can give advice to kids and teach them a few values of life. He has also lent his voice to Astra.
Talking about it, Bachchan says, “Sharad wondered if I would be interested in designing something for them. So we sat together and came up with a structure ‘Astra Force’. It’s the story of a pair of eight-year-old twins, a boy named Neal and a girl called Tara. By accident, they stir up a mythological super-hero who has lived in a past millennium but has now been rejuvenated, made alive again. And he has been given my shape and structure as well as my face. It’s been a year-and-a-half since we began work on this. Once the animation was done, I felt that if the face is going to be mine, then I should give my voice to it as well.”
Here are excerpts from a brief chat with Amitabh Bachchan on his new animation avatar.
I believe you insisted that the look and feel of Astra should be in tune with how you look now. Tell us more about getting into the character.
AB: I said, why can’t Astra be an aged superhero or with the same kind of look as me? And they seemed to agree with that. It would be odd for me to be brought back into my younger-looking face because I am not like that anymore. The only difference would be that he is now a super- hero who has supernatural powers and therefore we can dress him up and give him certain actions to do which are supernatural.
In your view, is the story or the character more important while addressing kids?
AB: The story is important, obviously. There are two kids and then there is the superhero Astra, who is also very amiable to the kids, almost like a friend, philosopher and guide. They come across various obstacles during their journey, and how they deal with them in a fun manner - that’s how the story has been designed.
Do you think there should be more Indian characters in the kids’ animation genre?
Amitabh: Yes. In this series, whoever they meet are all Indian characters with all kinds of peculiar names, like Captain Zukam, Alien Prawn, Gogo Aliens, Daku Daddy, Professor Vigyaani, Ratzilla, and so on. It’s a nice mix between Western objects having Indian names.
How do you view the animation genre overall? How do you see it evolving in India?
Amitabh: Animation has been running for a while in India. Some of them are done quite well. Yes, we are at the moment powered by what comes out of the West, but they had a lead before us. They have been able to master their craft not just in manufacturing it, but also marketing it and pushing it across the entire universe. Animation is new to India and with time, I hope we will be able to compete with them and overtake them. Eventually, your local stuff and local stories matter the most. You and I have all grown up listening to our parents telling us stories from mythology, the Ramayan, Mahabharata…, and that is eventually the source of all our story-telling. Even in cinema, you will always find Ram or Lakshman or Sita, Ravan, Bheem, Krishna, Arjun… these are characters that we identify with, and that’s why they have become so popular.
What is the target audience for this series - are you reaching out to a new generation of young fans or their parents as well?
AB: If one is involved in any kind of a creative process, one hopes that it reaches out to as many people as possible. But now of course the attention is towards kids, because this is going to be aired at a time when they are back from school. I guess that is an insight behind the marketing of the series. But eventually we would like to have many more kids watching animation. And if through this process, your own work is getting noticed, all the better!
What do you think of kids as young consumers of today?
AB: Kids are a lot sharper and lot more intelligent, a lot more aware, terribly mature in their thought process and thinking. You know, if I have a problem with my computer, I go to my 16-year-old grandson and ask him to solve it. And he has been doing this for the last 10 years. So you can imagine how advanced they are! The new generation has been brought up on gadgets, video-games and so much more. I don’t know how to play them, but they do and they are so good at it - they beat me every time I play with them. They are mentally more aware and we know for a fact that India has the largest young population in the entire world. So, whatever they do, whatever they think, one has to look and design stuff which they are going to be able to take forward. Let’s not just fool around and treat them like kids of the past.
Tell us how brand Bachchan has evolved through the years staying relevant in the hearts and minds of audiences across generations. How do you manage it?
AB: I don’t do it. Somebody comes and says you should be doing this, I say ‘Okay, fine’. And I just go ahead and do it. Somebody came to me and said you should be doing television. Everybody in the universe said you are making the biggest mistake of your life. But I just said, ‘Okay I will do it’. Somebody said do animation, I am doing it. Somebody said sing a few songs, I have done that. I don’t know… somebody comes up with an idea, I give it a try; if it works, fine. Most of the time, it doesn’t work… so that’s where I am!
ON designing the series with Amitabh Bachchan
Sharad Devarajan, CEO and Co-Founder, Graphic India elaborated on how the series was planned. “Amitabh Bachchan and I discussed how if Japan could create enduring characters like Pokemon and Doraemon that tap into Japanese culture but capture the imagination of kids all across the world, then certainly India, which has such a rich culture of mythical story-telling, should also be building a thriving local animation industry around new Indian characters and heroes. We zeroed in on the concept of animated hero Astra the Immortal and Astra Force, which we presented to Disney,” he said.
“Bachchan added a lot of creative inputs to ensure that the character remains fun for kids and also stays true to his own values and what he wants to portray,” he added.
Sharing light on the USP of Astra Force as an animation series, Devarajan reveals,
“We wanted to make sure that it is a uniquely Indian story. In fact, the whole concept of astras is a very Indian one, and the hero Astra will have super-weapons like his energy discus, inspired by Indian themes. In addition, the local problems the kids Tara and Neal face and the strange alien villains they encounter are designed to resonate with themes for an Indian audience.”
Vijay Subramaniam, VP - Content & Communications, Media Networks, Disney India expects the show to deliver as promised. “We have been focusing on our localization efforts at Disney India. When Sharad approached us with the idea of Astra Force, we felt an instant connect and that this one had the potential to win the hearts of kids all over. Adding to the engaging storyline is the presence of Amitabh Bachchan, who is a real-life superhero to kids and adults alike
We hope that kids appreciate and celebrate this latest content offering with us,” he said. “Our goal is to constantly provide our fans with locally relevant, high-quality content that is reflective of Disney’s hallmark story-telling heritage, and a show like Astra Force will definitely deliver on this promise,” he added.