‘Schirkoa' reflects the current state of our world: Ishan Shukla on his debut animation feature

Ishan Shukla on Schirkoa, which recently premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival, on his star-studded voice cast that includes Anurag Kashyap, Gasper Noe, Karan Johar, and more...

CHENNAI : At first glance, the most striking aspect of Ishan Shukla’s debut animation feature film, Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust, would be the star voice cast. These include acclaimed Indian and international film personalities such as Shekhar Kapur, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Piyush Mishra, Golshifteh Farahani, Asia Argento, Lav Diaz, Gasper Noe, among others. But the most remarkable is the big leap forward that the film marks for Indian animation. 

The nation of Schirkoa, the stuff of Shukla’s imagination, is a modern melting pot of eclectic nationalities, languages and cultures. However, it’s also a dystopian universe where the individuals have had to give up their identities to become just a disciplined mass of paper bag heads. The Indo-French co-production had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) where it won the NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema) award.  The film is based on Shukla’s own 2016 short Schirkoa, which played in more than 120 international film festivals, won over 30 awards and was on the long list of the Academy Awards. His studio Red Cigarette Media is focused on making animation films for adults.

Cinema Express spoke to Shukla on the eve of his film’s first-ever screening in IFFR. 


Tell us about the origin story of the film

I started my career in a small studio in Singapore, where I worked as a designer, editor, and animator. That is where I learnt a lot of my skills. I used to scribble and draw a lot on my daily commute. I was drawing a man with a box over his head every day. That was the inception of the protagonist called 197A, which was, in a way, my own reflection. I started writing it as a graphic novel. I left the job, came back to India and took a sabbatical to turn my graphic novel into a feature film. But it is very hard to get funding or support for an animation feature film. I met two of my producers at the NFDC Film Bazaar in 2019. The gruelling but beautiful journey of making the feature film started from there and took around five to six years.

Where did most of the work get done?

The majority of the animation work happened in India, in my own studio. I’ve worked with two other partners. One is Platform Animation in Ghaziabad and then there was Debjyoti Saha’s 2D animation studio in Mumbai. Schirkoa is not cartoony animation. I wanted believable acting in it. So, we cast a lot of real actors from France, recorded their actions and used it as a reference for the motion capture. Also, I realised I’d have to come up with something radical in terms of the techniques I was using. So, one of the first things I decided was to use a video game engine to create this film. I used the Unreal Engine. It is being used for creating a lot of popular video games like Fortnight. I also got a grant from the company because they thought it was a really good use of the software.

Ishan Shukla
Ishan Shukla

Talking of the global span of the film, it is not just in terms of the people but even in the setting, sound and imagery—the blue light area is so Amsterdam, the newspaper delivery is quintessentially Indian, there’s Pakistani truck art…

Schirkoa was always intended to be a multicultural city. If you go to the subway in Schirkoa, the train announcements are happening in Japanese, there are people speaking Bengali, singing in Iranian, a poet reciting in Tagalog, and there is Piyush Mishra speaking in Hindi. I am trying to talk about humanity as a whole. When you go macro, then you can really talk about bigger things. Schirkoa is nothing but a reflection of what is happening to the world right now. Something anyone anywhere can relate to.

And so, the eclectic voiceovers—from Karan Johar to Gasper Noe…

The intention was to get people from different races, cultures and languages. It was not supposed to be that star-studded initially. I was trying to cast good actors, but not stars. I didn’t have that kind of a reach. For that I must really thank my producers—for getting me in touch with all these people, and getting them on board. None of them said no. They all felt close to it. 

The situation shown in the film permeates across the world—the post-truth world, the trust in lies, mind management, immigration, and the facelessness of people. How did politics align with the aesthetics?

I have been an avid writer since my early childhood, thanks to my father, who was a theatre artist, and my mother, who’s also a writer. I was exposed to Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha, but we had all kinds of books lurking in the house. Gorky, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, you name it, we had it. And I was also aware of global politics. So, through the film, I was trying to see the world holistically. The faceless people in the film, it’s basically about how we are just becoming datasets. We may think we have individuality because we have an Instagram page but we’re just a part of the data in a big server somewhere in Arizona. And it’s going to be more blatant in the future.

The dystopian element is not traditionally associated with animation. It’s fun family films in the West, mythological in India…

I was always into more mature animation. Animation for kids is so popular and makes so much money that the other forms don’t get their due. But it’s changing. It has changed in Japan in a very big way. India is catching up now because we have so many manga followers, manga readers, and anime aficionados. I think we will come out of the shell of just mythological to more philosophical films.

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The New Indian Express