MEET ISHA MANGALMURTI: Indigenous Indian Storytelling and DIY Adventures in 2D Animation Directing
Meet Isha Mangalmurti, Head of Story, 2D Animation Director, and Story Artist based in Pune, India. Read on to hear about Isha's animation origin story and discuss REPRESENT-ASIAN from her point of view!
Read the full, unedited conversation on the Asians in Animation website for more advice on independent filmmaking, tips as you move forward in the industry, and her full animation journey.
Any advice for how to give a 60 second response when asked to talk about yourself?
A: It's got a three act structure, the spiel. So it starts with an introduction, which
usually goes all the way back from where you started. Sometimes you might want to
go into your childhood, or sometimes start somewhere around college time, wherever
your story sort of began, and that whole little spark happened. And then you sort of go
into the middle of the journey, and you go through different difficulties or different
obstacles and how you overcame those, and what were some of the most challenging
bits in your entire journey? Then you very quickly wrap it up with whatever you're
currently working on and where do you see yourself going from here. You can gauge
from your initial few minutes of conversation with a person and figure out what
they're more interested in. So sometimes you can just cut back on the journey part of
the story, but focus on the current and what you're doing at present.
What is your 60 second spiel?
I was born in a small town in India, and I started sketching at a very young age, and
we were traveling around a lot moving up. So that was my way of respite from all the
shifting and also comforting things, sketching and drawing. I'd usually draw people
and their way of speaking to every new place that we went. And it was my way of
getting to know that place and making myself familiar with it. That sort of grew over
the years and being tagged as a creative kid, everyone was like, clearly you have to go
do design. But product design is more mainstream. And that's what I did when I went
to college. But then once I went to college, I completely fell in love with animation. We
had a little film festival happening in college, and it was just so mind blowing. And I
was like, this is what I've been doing all my life telling stories. I can do it
professionally, so might as well and I jumped into it, did my five year course and
studied traditional animation and figured that India has no industry for animation.
But fortunately had some wonderful colleagues and friends and we all came together
and started our own studio, right out of college. That was the start of this entire
journey and it's just been amazing ever since. I've worn many caps where I've been a
background artist, concept artist, character designer, animator, and producer. Now
I'm shifting more towards becoming a director so in the recent past I have been
directing more and handling the front end part of things.
What about that film festival in college made you fall in love with animation?
So basically, this film festival is a celebration of independent filmmaking, which
was something very new to me. And that particular year, there were a lot of people
there from such different parts of the world: there was a team from Japan, Brazil,
Peru, Canada, France, and there were these amazing artists from Bhutan. It was just
such a wonderful mix of people and at the core of it was telling stories from your land.
Everyone's stories were true to who they were or where they were. And that was just so
fascinating. I just couldn't look back afterwards.
How did your family react when you decided you wanted to pursue a career in animation?
Firstly, so there's this very funny notion that animation is a part of the film
industry. And there are these taboos around film, like being a part of the film
industry, where everyone has this strange idea that everyone is constantly partying
and the other notion is that you don't get paid much. It's a difficult industry for
women to be in. So when I told my family they were like what are you talking about?
How are you going to do this? Mainly because they also didn't know much about the
whole thing. And soon after once, I think it was a journey for all of us exploring what
this meant. Because even I was really new to it. So they would panic, and then I would
panic, but then we figured out a way. Fortunately, early on, I met friends in college,
who I started collaborating with, and they were a couple of seniors and even my
batchmates. And we would work on their projects and that just teaches you so much.
And when that sort of began, I started understanding what this whole thing was
about and what I was really getting into, and then I could communicate that to my
family. They understood like 10% of it, but at least they were a little calmer. Then I got
my first internship working on a Cartoon Network show and that's when they're like,
okay, now you have a real job.
You mentioned that you are more interested in directing now. How did that happen?
I think it has grown organically over the years because I never thought that I
wanted to be a director. It was always that I wanted to make films or tell stories. And
it started with just doing animation. So even in my free time, you'd always find me in
front of my laptop, trying something new. And yeah, nibbling and just making up a
new character doing a little animation tests for the character, or storyboarding little
scenes for the character. And I feel like that's what I enjoy the most. Now, I've been
working for the last almost four and a half, five years and in these four and a half, five
years, I have done I think almost everything possible. But I enjoy having that vision
more to sort of get it all done. This was my question throughout the CAPE residency: how do you control that temptation to do everything yourself? So I think it happened
Any advice for people wanting to try animation directing?
It's good to start somewhere small instead of jumping directly into doing
everything, because I feel like directing is a huge responsibility. So I made a short
film two years back, and that was my first directorial debut where I was making my
own short film. But I had a small team of interns, like four interns working on the
production, and I was handling the compositing, I was doing the storyboards. But
even then, I wasn't completely equipped with directing. I was more comfortable
animating. And I think that's why that urge to do everything yourself comes from,
because it's hard to communicate what you're thinking. And I think that grows over
time. So I feel like it's better to start somewhere smaller, maybe work on other
people's films, and see how they direct you. Work on commercials, work on longer
format projects, and just sort of get a grasp of what works and what doesn't for you
as a director, and then slowly get into it . I'm still very new to this so I'm also learning
constantly. I feel like gaining experience in all the other parts of the whole process is
helpful because then you have a much clearer idea of how to give direction as well.
Why do you want to do 2D Animation specifically?
It goes back to my childhood because that was the kind of animation I was
watching growing up. There was Heidi and SWAT cats, and Land Before Time, and
these amazing traditional animation shows, which had so much heart. Those are the
shows that I remember the most, that's what stayed with me. And I want to take that
forward. There was an Indian animator called Rammohan, he worked on the
collaboration between Japan and India, where they made an anime film. I mean, it
was animated by Japanese people and directed by Japanese people about Ramayana,
which is this Indian mythology, mythological story. It was a collaboration between
Ram Mohan, who was a leading Indian animator at the time, and Japanese animators.
And there was such a brilliant film, and it just like so there were these small things
that sort of really stayed with me. And I felt that that's what draws my true calling.
And I really wanted to continue doing that. I don't have anything against the Disney
Pixar aesthetic. But yeah, somewhere, I feel like that doesn't connect with Indian
audiences so much. Or maybe somewhere, I don't want it to connect. I want to see
more representation. I want to see more characters who look like us. And yeah, try to
make that instead of going the Disney Pixar way.
Why is it important for people like you to have representation in the industry?
Because I think at the end of the day, we're creating media that is going to get
mass consumed. It's a very subconscious way of changing how someone thinks, and
especially say, kids, when they want something, it leaves a huge impact on them. And
if you see the current trends in animation, or even more specifically, Indian
animation, the content that's created is there'll be an Indian character, which is
Indian in the way that it's taken from Indian mythology, or with like, draped clothing.
But then the storylines are all very western where aliens come in, or some monster
comes in. There's an apocalypse. And somewhere, I feel like that's a huge disconnect
again, and it leaves very shallow storytelling at the end of the day. I don't mean to
hate on anything. But I feel like there are so many stories from our surroundings
which are so much more engaging. Even if it was to be monsters, there are so many
fictional characters in Indian storytelling. At least for the Indian subcontinent, a lot of
storytelling for many years has happened verbally. For centuries, storytelling in
general was all verbal and it wasn't recorded anywhere. But there are so many stories
in there that just don't get noticed and I feel like there aren't enough people telling
those stories. But I'm very happy because now there's a lot of Indian animators who
are telling Indian stories. And in general, I feel like the Asian community is growing
and wants to tell Asian stories, instead of wanting to work on Western projects, which
What are the different ways that you tell indigenous stories?
It's usually illustrations and comics, and then sometimes short animations. I think
social media has reduced even my attention span xo I try to make short format
things. If I see something when I'm walking around, or just cross something, I always
have this urge to document it, and then that can turn into some story. So it's usually
like smaller comics. And then sometimes I turn it into an animation or turn it into a
longer narrative. And that's how it has grown, from smaller tidbits that I gather,
documenting in my sketchbooks, or documenting in small animations to actually
collating it all and putting it into a long format. I feel like, at least the first film that I
made, that was an animated documentary, it was more of an exercise in trying to
make an animated documentary. But somewhere, I learned a lot in that process. And I
kind of want to apply all of that into this, this current project that I'm developing, but
at the same time, keeping the story more personal and closer to me. Local,
indigenous stories play a huge part, the stories become more personal to me.
Was there a common thread you saw in the four short films you made with Ghost Animation?
If I had to find a thematic commonality, it would be that all of them were really
bleak. Someone in the audience actually said this, when they got up, they were like,
why are all your films so sad and bleak. One film talks about climate change and the
dystopian future we are headed towards. My film is about a humanitarian doctor
working in war zones. Mother is about a fictional story of a mother who has to take a
very difficult decision when she wants to protect her son. And then the fourth film is
again about a dystopian future where asteroids have destroyed Earth. That was really
funny because they never thought about it that way. And now they're a reflection of
the times that we're living in. But otherwise, I think, a running theme was also very
current topics and dealing with what is happening around us at the moment, none of
them took inspiration from my theology, or about old stories or anything. They were
about what's happening right now.
You are currently developing a series exploring Indian women's soccer. How did this idea come to fruition?
Football was the first sport that I was ever introduced to and I was super invested in it, and I really love playing and watching football. And then, at some point when I turned I think 14 or 15 in our school there wasn't a girls football team at the time and the coach had pulled me aside, one day, saying hey girls here don't play football. You're at that age where there's that whole tension between girls and and then all the girls start bullying you saying hey, why are you playing with the boys. It's just a strange time in life and somehow I just lost connection with football for years. Then I graduated from college and I found this amazing community of girls in Calcutta who I started playing football with, and became a girls football club. And that was just so amazing and in the last 10 years this has happened, everywhere. Cities have seen a rapid growth in women's football and it's a wonderful community. Almost parallel to animation like when I think about it, because everyone is just so supportive of each other and growing so fast. Everyone comes with their own stories and once you're on that ground you forget everything and you're one team. Everyone comes from such drastically different backgrounds and football is what unifies you once you're on the field. It's definitely a very, very personal story, and what I did with the protagonist was give her characteristics from my own personality.
What are your goals with the project in terms of social impact?
Through the whole series one, of course, is demystifying the sport. Second, is also
addressing a lot of adolescent issues. Because it's about girls who are around 15
years of age, it talks about the changes that are happening in the society, and there
are certain occupations that are caste based in India. That's changing now slowly, but what happens is in such situations, the boys are encouraged to pursue jobs outside
their communities. And the solution for girls is to marry outside the community. It
also talks about climate change and global warming, so the entire show addresses a
lot of different subjects through this one girl's journey.
Is there anything you would’ve changed about your path if you could?
I would have applied for jobs outside the country more. But I don't know how that
would have panned out and then maybe I would have regretted not working in the
Indian scene. There's always win some and lose some but when I look at all these
internships, I'm like man, I could have done them. But again I don't have any regrets.
This is just like a parallel universe, where I try something different.
Do you ever take the time to rest in your laurels or are you always grinding?
I'm guilty! I'm always constantly working. I will give you a small example: my laptop
battery has been screwed for a year and I've been getting that little service
recommendation. I need to take a break for three days and just give this laptop for
repair but haven’t found the time. And so next month, I’m planning to take a break for
real. And this time I mean it because you need that time to sort of recalibrate and just
reflect a little bit on what you've been doing and sometimes it's good to slow down a
bit, because then you can speed up after that. Those brakes are really important, and I
know we have this very competitive community in a way, where people put out
amazing work all the time and it puts a lot of pressure on you, but it's important to
remember that no one's running away anywhere and whenever you put your work out
there, it will do its magic and there's no urgency. You can take that one day off or you
can even take that one month. I'm really telling this to myself, it's hypocritical if I give
other people this advice and then I don't.
What do you do to decompress?
I watch a lot of movies and shows. I’m currently watching Cowboy Bebop at the
moment. I'm a big outdoor person, so I like hiking and playing football and also
reading, so all of these other things from just sitting in front of a laptop. Then again
it's a cycle. I'll do these things, and then some little insect in my brain will start
wiggling and be like you need to draw this. But you need those breaks to even get that
inspiration to draw something.
Any parting words of advice?
Not to succumb to that pressure of having to constantly create and please people.
It’s good to just take a breather and recalibrate for yourself and not get too
pressurized by social media or the competition in general. Go at your own pace.
A big thank you to CAPE for partnering with us with this series and to Isha for all her wisdom and inspiration! Isha, we are so excited to see what you do next in 2D animation and hope we get to see your series on a screen soon!
Be on the look out for a few more interviews to come with the other participants of the inaugural CAPE Animation Directors Accelerator (CADA), a first-of-its-kind program to identify and uplift the next generation of storytellers and leaders in animation.
Interview Conducted by Jeremy Hsing @jeremyhsing
Post Compiled by Kristian Bansil @kristian.bansil and Lexie Chu
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