While both are impossible to be picked by us puny humans, not to mention that one must be worthy- how has Amar Chitra Katha managed to engage children of today’s generation in the stories of Indian superheroes and their marvels? We shall discover that in today’s conversation with Amar Chitra Katha’s CEO, Preeti Vyas.
Making Heroes of the Past Familiar to the Kids of Today
Nostalgia is a revving engine of the time traveling machine, namely, our mind. Familiarity paves a way for nostalgia. Rediscovering a floppy disk hidden under your desk could take you back to an era, while a teenager of today would be completely perplexed by it -not knowing what to do with it.
Although a completely powerful tool, nostalgia relies a lot on introduction. And this is where storytelling becomes an integral part of culture and history preservation. It is the telling and re-telling of the legendary tales, and even more importantly, with pride. So that these stories may never be lost with time, but moves forward with the values of the present and relevancy that exceeds the future.
Dwelling on how Amar Chitra Katha has understood this concept and evolved, Preeti shares her epiphany:
“My son, who’s 14, does not know R.D. Burman. Okay? He does not. I can’t force him and I can’t expect him to love that music. Right? Every generation is also her own music. And similar to how my dad used to listen to K.L. Saigal, and I never listen to him. Right. So no strategy. When it appears only to that particular time and age, it becomes a problem because it’s dated, it’s finite. So if you want the company and the brand and the work we’re doing to remain evergreen, you have to keep on creating. You have to keep on evolving and moving and remaining connected to your core reader. That’s the experience”
But she remains clear that she doesn’t want to brand Amar Chitra Katha as just a part of nostalgia. She adds:
“We are very focused that we do not want to be a nostalgia brand. We want to be a company that is current. So whenever we’re creating comics, we are creating for eight to fourteen years old kids. That is the audience we create for. It’s great if older people and adults also want to read, but we’re not creating for them. This is very important that we are always focused on who is our core reader and we create for them. Otherwise, the nostalgia market is limited.”
From Black Inks to Black Mirrors – Expanding the Experience
Storytelling is not a limited art. Oral recitals to papyrus, we have always strived to become better and better at carrying forward the legends this Earth has witnessed. By breaking out the characters from religious texts, literature and history books and introducing them into the world of children through comics, Amar Chitra Katha has contributed a lot in keeping the Indian heroes and their stories alive – even beyond the grave.
Jumping from one platform of storytelling to another, how has Amar Chitra Katha embraced technology? Has e-book tilted the scales of sales?
“On the contrary, it’s helped us grow.So while we did have a small business, but now, thanks to the digital presence, we are truly big company customers logging in from all over the world, reading our stories. North America is especially very strong for us. So I think we have created many. The digital era has given us many more readers.”
“We have close to 2.2 million users across these apps. Almost 30% of the users are also outside India. So, it truly is a global company in that sense. And the apps are not free. They’re paid apps. So people every day, there are people who are coming on to read. About 15-20,000 people come every single day just to read. And they’re paying for AI transcription. So that shows that we are evolving and the consumers and readers are appreciating it and evolving with us.”
Talking about the current scenario in India, she compares and shares her view:
“There are 67 or 68 crore smartphones in India, right? That is the reach. So you are able to reach the smallest village, the smallest or the smallest of towns, and reach a different audience. And that’s what would make our founder also happy and proud, right, to see that the books are reaching the smallest of audiences. Also, I think we are the number one comic book publisher, definitely on Kindles india. And we are getting more and more users.”
“We are storytellers. We should be agnostic to the platform. Let the consumer, let the reader decide how they want to read it. You focus on creating a good product. You focus on creating a good story.”
East or West, Making Indian Stories the Best
With smartphones comes more accessibility to Western content through platforms like Netflix, DisneyPlus, Amazon Prime and what not. Not only are we competing with the superheroes from the west but also trying to capture the restless attention span of kids. Along with that, how is Amar Chitra Katha trying to bring the Indian voices forward?
“I think that creating this entire portfolio of Indian stories told in the English language and then, of course, translated into multiple languages, enabled an entire generation to feel that connection to their roots and become confident and have a sense of pride and hence move forward.
“I believe we live in a very shrinking world. So I was reading this article that when this Avengers Endgame movie released at the same time, it was some record. I don’t remember the exact number, but almost a billion people watched it in the same 24-hours span. That is insane, right?”
“Because that means, in a way, it’s great that there is unity in the human experience. At the same time, it’s scary as well, because we are all irrespective of where they’re sitting, we’re all glued on to this particular piece of content.”
“And with the millions of marketing dollars that go behind backing these global franchises, the role Amar Chitra Katha plays in ensuring that there is an Indian voice in your head. That’s the most important thing. That Indian narrative remains alive. The Indian voice remains alive.”
“Secondly, themes that we pick, the stories that we tell, the art style, all of that has evolved. So you can’t expect a child growing up in 2022 to connect with something which was created in 1967. They won’t connect with that, right? So the art style has become far more edgy. It’s become far more evolved. It’s more animated.”
“The story arcs have become shorter because the attention span is shorter. Today, the writing style also has changed. So all of these things have evolved, and necessarily they have to.”
The Inevitable Consumption of Entertainment and Education Through the Same Plate
Preeti has a very interesting take on parent’s complaints about their children’s screen time. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, smartphones have become an integral part of children’s education as well as entertainment. The boons and banes are already clear to us.
“I always give this example to think of the screen as a plate. So, what your child is consuming, whether the child is consuming junk food or healthy food or nutritious meal, it’s all up to you what you put on the plate. If a child is eating junk food, don’t blame the plate. The plate is not to blame. The plate is just a platform for you to put stuff on, right?”
“You can’t take the screen away from a child’s life. It’s part of our lives now. None of us can live without the phone. But let’s embrace it and use it in a positive way.”
When No One has got your Back, Find a Book from the Rack
What would Preeti do if she’s stuck in a rut? And the answer may look obvious to us now but the way it manifests to her is simply magical. She shares:
“So in fact, my standard bio has a line that I believe that the solution to any problem in the world can be found somewhere within the pages of a book. So I have a very close friendship, I can say with books. Books are my best friends. It’s almost for me, it’s such a personal relationship that mystically at the right time, the right book appears in front of me whenever I’m challenged with anything in life, whether it’s starting a business, shutting a business, career problems, going through a divorce, shifting houses, letting go of clutter in the house.”
“ I’ve gone through all of these things and I’ve always magically held problems. Magically, always. The right book has come into my lap and has led me. So I almost think it’s some kind of spiritual karmic bond that I have with books.”
Towards the end of the interview, Preeti was inundated with questions, which we call “rapid fire.” It was fun and was a perfect end to an absorbing and interesting session with Preeti Vyas.
What do you prefer, a hard copy or a digital one?
What book character do you wish you were?
The book character I wish I was. I would say it is still a difficult one. Krishna.
Name a book you think everyone should read.
I said the Gita.
What’s your favorite part of your current job?
Who or what was your biggest teacher?
Life’s experiences, especially the challenging ones
What quote resonates with you?
Suffer what there is to suffer and enjoy what there is to enjoy, and treat both suffering and joy as facts of life and keep chanting and keep practicing your faith
Do you think that society is improving
I think it’s a matter of perspective. If you open the newspapers, you think it’s getting from bad to worse, right? But everywhere you look, you will find pockets of kindness. You will find people doing amazing things to make the world a better place. And I think the world is getting better.
When you think of the word “successful,” who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?
The first person that came to my mind was our founder, Mr. Anandpai, also known as Uncle Pi. I think so. It was really interesting because he was the founder of the company, but he was not the owner of the company, he was an employee of the company. But what he created is such a profound impact on an entire country, an entire generation. We all owe such gratitude, a debt of gratitude to him, right? And to me, that’s a successful life
Leaders like Preeti Vyas carry the torch of bringing the Indian narrative upwards and onwards globally. So we hope that the next time someone wonders if it’s a bird, is it a plane, or is it Superman flying up in the sky, we may have someone whisper -It could be Lord Hanuman carrying Sanjivani to Lord Ram and everyone nods in agreement!
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