Eternal Tales in The Electronic Age

The first act of Amar Chitra Katha’s rescue is over. The brand has survived. But Act Two will be tricky
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The company misses Uncle Pai alright, but Biyani is on the lookout for the next ‘modern storyteller’ who can endear young Indians to their heritage through multiple avenues of engagement. (Illustration: VIVEK THAKKAR)

In 1967, a bunch of Indian kids participating in a quiz competition on Doordarshan could not answer this question: In the Ramayana, who was Rama’s mother? They were, however, well versed enough to answer questions on Greek mythology. Anant Pai, famously, was so shocked that he took it upon himself to re-educate Indians on their mythological heritage. That year, with the support of GL Mirchandani of India Book House (IBH), a distributor of American and British books in India, Pai started an indigenous comic book series called Amar Chitra Katha (literally ‘eternal picture stories’).

Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) is an incontestable part of the childhood of anyone who grew up in India in the 1970s and 1980s. It was only in the 1990s, as children turned to television, that the popularity of ACK comics began to ebb, and by the early 2000s, there was no fighting the appeal of animation shows on channels such as Cartoon Network and Disney.

By then, according to sources, the Mirchandani family had other business interests in focus. ACK’s publishing calendar saw a prolonged lull. Uncle Pai, as ACK’s creator and editor was known to kids, was ageing. He had no equity stake in the business, and IBH’s creative team wasn’t doing anything. While IBH’s children’s publication Tinkle was regular with new issues (Pai was editor of this too), ACK had not come out with a new title for about half a decade by the time IBH decided to divest itself of the brand. After several months of negotiations in 2007, IBH sold it to Samir Patil, a former McKinsey employee who had taken a sabbatical to pursue a career in writing (now a serial entrepreneur), and Shripal Morakhia, an investor better known now as the promoter of SSKI and ShareKhan.

The two bought ACK for an undisclosed sum in the hope of reviving it and using its strengths to explore multiple avenues. Pai passed away in February 2011. His legacy, however, may yet survive him in better shape than observers could have guessed just a few years ago. ACK Media, as the series’ current publishing firm is called, claims to have sold over 3 million copies of ACK comics in 2012. The brand has 454 individual titles, both old and new, and apart from English these are available in six Indian languages: Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali.

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Saving the franchise was not easy. “When we acquired ACK, it was pretty much dead,” says Patil in a telephone interview, “There was no management and IBH was only printing old titles to keep it going in the market. We renamed it ACK Media and the company began as a start-up with assets.”

The opportunity was clear. Patil saw a huge vacuum in the Indian kids’ entertainment market despite the fact that India’s population of children was about 360 million. “India,” he says, “had fewer kids companies than the US [did].” His idea was to create a kids company of the kind seen in the US, and he was sure ACK Media could be one such success. After taking over ACK, Patil and Morakhia bought Tinkle and Karadi Tales, IBH’s audio books division for pre-school kids, as well. Together, the three divisions covered the gamut of comics and audio books across all ages.

The first thing that Patil and his team did at the new company was revive ACK comics by redesigning them and restarting the publishing of new titles. The firm acquired a Bangalore-based creative unit, Quietman Studio, whose team of designers reworked the look and feel of ACK. In 2010, Mother Teresa became the first new title in nearly eight years, the last being Kalpana Chawla in 2002.

Content expansion was crucial to the gameplan. To the established canon of all-time favourites like the stories of Lord Krishna and episodes from the two great Indian epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata—ACK has added several stories from the relatively obscure Puranas, apart from ancient plays and oral folklore from various regions of India. Also published were life stories of modern-day heroes such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, JRD Tata, MS Subbulakshmi, Dr Salim Ali and Tenzing Norgay, to name a few. Even Uncle Pai has been immortalised as a legend of recent times. New comics also covered areas of interest such as environment, sports and modern literature. Says Reena Puri, editor of ACK: “These comics are well researched and written in such a way that they are suitable for the younger reader, but can be read by all.”

The franchise does have adult readers. “What I like about ACK and Tinkle is that the language and graphics go hand-in-hand. The illustrations reveal emotions as well, so it is a pleasure reading [them]. I have grown up with these comics,” says Vikram Shirur, a 27-year-old media professional who remains an ACK fan. “Many less-known facts are brought out in these comics.”

Meanwhile, to gain a distribution network, ACK’s new owners bought the rest of IBH, which distributes over 150 magazine titles in India. “One way to scale up was to have your own distribution,” says Patil. Thanks to this takeover, ACK’s rack visibility has risen sharply. Today, the company reaches over 1,500 wholesalers and retailers across the country.

This move was part of Patil’s original strategy—to first expand ACK Media’s offerings under multiple brands, get control of distribution next, then get into the TV-and-film space and go online with a digital venture. “There are only two big businesses in India when it comes to entertainment: broadcast television and physical distribution of products. Films are largely for brand building. So we decided ‘Let’s get into the broadcast space’,” says Patil. Instead of going solo as a broadcaster, however, ACK Media forged a partnership with Turner International, which runs Cartoon Network and Pogo.

It was what marketers often call a ‘360 degree’ strategy, boosting ACK’s presence all around, and it took about four years for it to show promise. By 2011, the company’s digital expansion was well underway, with its comics available on the internet and on mobile devices. Along the way, Patil raised three rounds of private equity funding from Elephant Capital, an AIM-listed venture capital firm. All in all, sources indicate Patil’s four-year revival project took about Rs 70 crore of investment, including Elephant’s money. But it needed more cash.

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In 2011, ACK Media found another strategic investor in Future Ventures India, part of Kishore Biyani’s Future Group, which picked up a 26-per cent stake for Rs 37.5 crore, valuing the firm at Rs 140 crore—several times its annual sales. In March 2012, Patil and Morakhia jointly sold their stake in ACK Media to the Future Group, effectively turning control over to a retail chain that was keen to own such a business as part of its plan to nurture ‘private labels’ (inhouse brands that usually offer retailers high margins). Patil does not divulge the details of that deal, but sources indicate he and his partner sold their stake for an estimated Rs 80-100 crore. Future now had 56 per cent. Elephant retained its 26 per cent ownership, but Future raised its stake to 66 per cent a month later.

Why would someone as passionate about ACK and convinced of its prospects as Patil sell his stake? He explains that getting the size of a market right is always a challenge in India. At first sight, it may look attractive, with a middle-class potential of about 31.4 million households with annual incomes of between $6,800 and $34,000 (about Rs 3.5 lakh to Rs 17 lakh), according to NCAER figures. That translates into a seemingly vast market of 160 million people. Disappointingly, he says, there is a big disconnect between that top-down view and ground reality. “ACK Media competed in the children’s market, which epitomises that disconnect,” says Patil, “I was struggling to make sense of the vast disparity that existed in the market place.” While he had ACK supplies all reset and ready, he realised that generating demand would prove too costly for him.

Parents may be keen to buy their kids ACK comics to familiarise them with tradition in an easy-to-grasp format, but getting kids of the globalised era of razzle-dazzle interested on their own is a stiff challenge. The new owner, Patil hopes, will be able to do it.

Biyani believes it can be done through a confluence of tradition and modernity. “We want to take storytelling to the digital space and other new forms which will connect with the target audience,” says Biyani, “Amar Chitra Katha as a brand doesn’t perish and it can be extended to as many segments [as possible] to take it to the next level.”

The business has been restructured, with ACK Media operating as one of six subsidiaries of Amar Chitra Katha Pvt Ltd. According to Future Ventures’ annual report, ACK and the six drew combined revenues of nearly Rs 70 crore in 2011-12—almost Rs 49 crore of it from IBH’s good old distribution unit. 

Figures for 2012-13 are not yet available, but according to Vijay Sampath, who took over from Patil as the company’s CEO in November 2011, “ACK Media has grown rapidly in the last one year across its core businesses of publishing, distribution and new media. The primary revenue stream—almost 90 per cent as of now—comes from publishing and the rest from TV, films and new media.” The regular release of new ACK titles, he adds, is paying off. There’s a new story every month. “The challenge,” in his view, “has been to build distribution networks and focus on efficient sales management.”

Manas Mohan, COO of ACK Media claims a roaring circulation for Tinkle. The unit has also launched a new science appreciation magazine called Brainwave. It also puts together and publishes the Indian edition of National Geographic Traveller magazine.

ACK Media also claims a vast catalogue of picture books, DVDs and audio tales. As part of its transition from a publishing brand to a savvier storyteller, it plans to release short films for tablets and other digital formats. An ACK app store is on its way, to be followed by Tinkle and Brainwave apps. Sampath says these will offer “the current generation” what they want: a “new reading experience”.

It’s all part of Biyani’s ‘confluence of tradition and modernity’ approach. “ACK is all about storytelling and now I am on the lookout for all avenues to tell these stories,” he says. On the cinema front, last year ACK Media released an animation film—Sons of Ram: Heroes will Rise—that was co-produced with Cartoon Network. It also released a TV film called Tripura, again with the same partner. Several others are slated to hit screens over the next few years. As for character merchandise, something American film studios make millions off, ACK Media has plans to sell bedsheets, pillow cases, T-shirts and other such items on the popularity of its heroes.

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Adapting the US ‘superhero’ model may prove tricky, say marketing mavens. Harish Bijoor, a marketing consultant who describes ACK as “the ultimate in the storytelling space in India”, acknowledges that “ACK has ensured that Indian heritage and culture is retained” but also cautions the company against recklessly stretching its core franchise without sufficient analysis of the context. “Brand extensions are inevitable but tricky,” he says. “It is difficult to monetise these brand extensions, be it on TV or in films or even merchandise. Disney took decades to make an impact. In the Indian context, it will take much more than a decade.”

Bijoor’s advice: “You need to study the drivers of each category [to which] the concept is to be extended. Success will depend on whether the drivers converge with the core concept or not.”

While ACK waxes bullish on the potential popularity of its characters, Biyani sees the venture as a social mission as well—to transmit traditional Indian stories to children in an interesting manner. “It’s a legendary brand and we do not want to dilute that.”

The company misses Uncle Pai alright, but Biyani is on the lookout for the next ‘modern storyteller’ who can endear young Indians to their heritage through multiple avenues of engagement. Amish Tripathi? Ashwin Sanghi? It could be either. Or someone else. He is looking.