Interview

 

Interview with Studio Kokaachi: Talking Indie Publishing, Visual Storytelling, and Grounded Stories

by Anjali Alappat

Tina and Pratheek Thomas, the co-founders of Studio Kokaachi, are still surprised by the reception they received at the recent Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters in February in Trivandrum. Their panel, which centred on creative partnerships, was towards the end of the day, and ended up being standing room only. A truly satisfying experience. After all, on the most basic level, what most writers (and all creatives, really) want is for their work to connect with people.

Keeping that in mind, it’s unsurprising that Studio Kokaachi was born out of connection. Pratheek and Tina met on an overnight train, in a scenario straight out of one of the movies that they are so fond of. He noticed a woman in the opposite berth, seriously writing in a notebook with a red pen, and when he realised she didn’t have change to buy dinner, he stepped in to help. The two ended up chatting late into the night. They swapped emails before going their separate ways, but ended up losing touch. In another twist of fate, they share a birthday (though a few years apart) and a year later, Pratheek emailed her with birthday wishes and the news that his first comic, Hush would soon be published. They met again at the book signing, and the rest, as they say, is history. Spoilers: they are now partners in both life and work.

Studio Kokaachi is best-known perhaps for their thoughtful alternative comics and graphic novels. Their anthology comics, Mixtape (volumes one to three), were their flagship offering. But they’ve built on that success with intriguing books like 405 and The Visitor. In recent years, they have branched out into animated title sequences for big budget films like OK Kanmani, Lust Stories, and Gully Boy. They’ve also worked on web series and TV shows. These days, they consider themselves visual storytellers who are excited about telling stories regardless of format.

The creatives behind Studio Kokaachi, Pratheek and Tina Thomas, captured with their four dogs. Photo by Vivek Thomas.

I sat down with them to talk about their personal journeys, their love of comics, storytelling influences, finding new ways to tell tales, and the realities of independent publishing. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

1. How did you both get started in comics? Can you tell us a bit about your journey?

Pratheek: Both of us had read comics as children. I grew up in Kochi, and had memberships to libraries. I had more international exposure to comics from the library itself. I used to read a lot of Batman. When I went to National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad to study design, I chanced upon Sandman and Watchmen. I read superhero comics primarily till then, but independent comics blew my mind. I always wanted to get into storytelling but my parents weren’t very keen on it. So I had to study engineering, and then I went into product design. I eventually started working as a concept designer for a theme park enterprise. I realised I could collect comics or I could make comics, but even then becoming a publisher—I didn’t see that happening.

My brother is actually a filmmaker, and he had a short story idea that he wanted to make into a film. I told him that I’d adapt it into a comic that he could show producers to get funding. Like a storyboard. So I adapted it in my own way. And then this friend of mine from college, Dileep Cherian, who was just getting into comics at that point, suggested that we start a publishing house together. So we started Manta Ray in 2010, one of the first independent comic book publishing houses in India. The first comic we published was Hush, which I wrote. Rajiv Eipe illustrated it. It was about child sexual abuse. It got a lot of word-of-mouth publicity around the country. That’s how we got started.

Tina: I grew up reading Balarama and Amar Chitra Katha. I had no access to international comics, and there were no comics made in India for teenagers. Hush is probably the first graphic novel that I read. I always wanted to write but my parents sent me to engineering college. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I got a seat so I had to do my B. Tech. I worked at Wipro for five years as a hardware engineer, but I hated it and wanted to become a writer. I was introduced to the comic scene by Pratheek and became a part of Manta Ray soon after. I started out mostly handling social media, writing to stores, etc. But I slowly started writing comics. One of our major clients at Manta Ray was Mint newspaper. They had a weekly single page comic called ‘The Small Picture’. I wrote five stories for that.

Manta Ray shut down in 2013. Dileep was in Dubai, and we were in India, and the distance wasn’t working out. But Pratheek and I wanted to continue the storytelling adventure. So immediately after that we started Kokaachi in February, 2014.

A glimpse at ‘Hush’, a graphic novel which deals with heavy themes, written by Pratheek Thomas and illustrated by Rajiv Eipe.

2. I hear there’s a story behind the name. Why did you choose to call the studio ‘Kokaachi’?

Tina: Kokaachi was the main character in the first story we ever heard. Pratheek and I both grew up in central Kerala. His mother and my aunt respectively used to tell us, “If you don’t eat your food, the Kokaachi will come catch you.” I wasn’t too keen on the name initially, because it’s a story that was used primarily to scare children. But our friends told us: this is from your roots. And though we started Kokaachi in Bangalore, within a year we moved back to Kochi. Kochi-Kokaachi. It made sense.

Pratheek: People didn’t know what Kokaachi was at that point. We had another name; we’d done the logo and everything. And then realised we couldn’t use it, because it had already been taken by someone else. So, we tried Kokaachi, and Google didn’t know what it was. Even to this day, there’s no visual representation of what a Kokaachi is. Even we don’t know what our Kokaachi looks like.

3. Can you tell us about your artistic influences? And what kind of stories are you personally drawn to?

Pratheek: When we take up a project, we like to look at references. We have an extensive comics library that we refer to. We also follow a lot of comic creators and draw inspiration from their work.

We’ve also designed games and crafted animations, so regardless of the medium we think we could create stories. We think of ourselves as visual storytellers.

Tina: In animation projects, animators take references from existing animations. We go through our comics collection.

Pratheek: There’s a completely different visual language in comics. I used to like a lot of science fiction, and the stories I write tend to be in that genre. The longform ones, film screenplays and everything, are set in Kerala today but have sci-fi elements. That’s the kind of stuff I like to write.

Tina: I don’t like hardcore sci-fi or superhero stuff. But I’m drawn to ordinary people with some magic. I like Murakami’s stories and Miyazaki’s.

Pratheek: My influences are very western. I think Tina’s filmography is primarily Malayalam. We love Kerala for what it is. So we have a lot of healthy scepticism towards Indian superhero stories that try to do the same thing as western movies without being cognisant of the fact that we don’t have those kinds of skyscrapers to swing from. For instance, right now, we’re sitting across from paddy fields. How would somebody in a mundu, who works in a field, do superhero-like things? If an alien comes and visits this village, how would things go?

 

Studio Kokaachi created stunning animated visuals for the title sequence of Thuramukham (2023).

4. Language plays an important role in the creating process. Since you both write a lot, how does language play into that?

Pratheek: I primarily write and think in English. I’m not thrilled about the fact that I haven’t read as much in Malayalam. I’ve read about four or five books. My reading speed in Malayalam is so slow. Tina, growing up, used to read Malayalam a lot more. Her first language is Malayalam. And she’s read a lot more English books than I’ve read Malayalam. So when she writes an English script for a comic, I’ll help her refine the dialogues. And when I write comics or screenplays that are set in Kerala, I’ll write in English, and she’ll come in and craft the dialogues in Malayalam.

So I think our biggest strength as a couple, with respect to storytelling and with regards to language, is that we complement each other with our strengths in each of these languages.

Tina: I want my characters to speak Malayalam. Because when I write English dialogues, I know Pratheek has to refine them. We are planning to bring out some comics in Malayalam but my work in Malayalam films is where I get to write freely.

5. The comic book scene in India still feels very nascent despite the recent popularity of graphic novels. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in this space?

Tina: The biggest hurdle is the fact that there aren’t many readers. You need to sustain yourself, and reaching the readers is a big part of that.

Pratheek: Some of the titles we published ten years ago are still being bought, but it’s a medium that a lot of people haven’t taken to. And the ecosystem to distribute books in India is a bit fragmented. Before COVID-19, we had about 35 stores that sold our books and now we have less than 15. But we’ve also done about 30 web series in the last decade, and we’ve only released around ten books in the same period. Whatever money the animation gave us, we’d put it into the comics. We had plans to expand and take our books outside of India. But, that’s been a challenge. COVID-19 happened, and our plans went for a toss. We haven’t recovered from that blow, to be honest.

Also, we’re primarily storytellers. There’s only so much energy that we are able to put into the business side of things. We are both creatives, and all the admin work you need…if one person focused on that primarily we could probably make it work. But to hire somebody, the books should generate money. It’s a chicken and egg situation. So, while there are books in development and at least three or four in the pipeline, we have moved our focus to title sequences and feature films. We have a few books in the works. We’ll return to comics in a stronger way once things stabilise for us, and we’re able to bring back focus to them.

6. In an ideal world, what are the kind of stories and mediums you’d like to explore?

Pratheek: We want to do a lot more children’s books. We want to try making comics for young readers. Because, especially in Kerala, you can’t find anything like that. In Malayalam, if you’re looking for books for children, the only thing you can find are fairy tales or folk tales from Russia and China. Mostly translated works. There’s really no original content being written for young children. Probably because big publishers don’t see a market for it, and because of who the target audience is.

We also want to explore the kind of characters that we like. Not superheroes but magic realism stories that don’t find a home in film or animation. Compared to films and animations, comics are easier to make. One writer, one artist. It takes only three or four people. And you can make a book in a relatively short amount of time. Animations and feature films take more time and money.

Mixtape (volumes 1, 2 and 3) are some of Studio Kokaachi’s best-known work, featuring the writing and artwork of several independent creators. Photo by Pratheek Thomas.

7. How did you get into animations for streaming and for feature films? Can you tell us how it all got started?

Tina: In 2013, while still under the banner of Manta Ray, we launched the second volume of Mixtape at a cafe in Kochi. A well-known Malayalam film director, Aashiq Abu, met us there. And three months later he called us to do an animated trailer for his upcoming Mammootty film, Gangster. The trailer didn’t end up happening, but he wanted us to do an eleven minute animated sequence—a flashback of Mammootty’s character’s childhood. It’s set in Bombay and it’s a period film. They could’ve shot it but the costs would’ve been huge.

Pratheek: He’s someone who experiments a lot in his storytelling and his filmmaking. He wanted a Tarantino comic book kind of treatment for a gangster’s life history.

Tina: We ended up doing 13 minutes of animation in that film.

Pratheek: At that time we thought it was a fluke. But soon after that, Mani Ratnam was doing a film with Dulquer Salmaan, and his character was a gamer. They reached out to us as well. So we worked on OK Kanmani (2015) and then Lust Stories (2018). Lust Stories became big and a lot of people saw it and loved the title sequence we did. Zoya Akthar, as one of the directors of Lust Stories, asked us to do a logo animation for her production company Tiger Baby and then the title credits for Gully Boy (2019). And all these things come back to the comics because somebody will pick one up and show it to their director and the director will commission a title sequence. It’s a chain of events.

The advantage, I think, was that there was only one other company doing comics at that point; they are no longer around. As for title sequences, Plexus in Mumbai were also doing it, but we were the second company to enter the space. Being some of the first people working in these mediums helped us build up.

Saiju Sreedharan is directing a film that Tina is writing. He is one of the best film editors around. He loves our work and whenever he’d see a film with our title sequence, he’d ask “When are you going to do your animated film?” Just before COVID-19 hit, we were at a book fair and he happened to come. He saw our books, called Tina and asked if we had a story. He didn’t want the typical story. He wanted something different. Tina took up that project.

8. Do you feel like you’re getting to share a new perspective?

Tina: The screenplay I’m working on is set in a village on an island. The people in it are very local and normal. But there is some magic to it. The world is very familiar, the people are familiar, but there is something special to it. Consciously I’ve made the world very rooted. So people shouldn’t find it difficult to connect to the movie because of the genre.

Pratheek: It’s a love story. That anchors the entire story from start to end. There’s one tweak that’s slightly extraordinary. But the characters still remain rooted. And if you’ve been in love or if you love somebody, you can clearly understand the desire and emotion of that character.

Another of Studio Kokaachi’s fascinating storytelling projects, The Visitor, by Upasana Mehndiratta. Photo by Pratheek Thomas.

9. Can you tell us about your upcoming projects? What can we expect in the near future?

Tina: There’s Midnight Cat, a graphic novel which we are working on. The artist’s name is Shweta Balagopal. She interned with us on a Mixtape story last year. We really liked her work. So this year, when she came to do her graduation project with us, we asked her to work on a longer story that we wanted to make into a comic.

Pratheek: We’ve been working on Mixtape Volume 4 for quite a while. This time we’re writing all the stories for it. We’ve finished three and we’ve got two more to illustrate. There’s another comic book we’re working on. It starts in an A5 size and opens up into an A3 and then becomes an A2 and A1. The story keeps growing as you open it out. An artist called Soundarya Raman from Coimbatore is working on it. We also have another project, a poem that Tina has written, it’s about climate change. It’s shaped like an accordion. It opens up into a very long art print. There’s art and words on both sides.

Tina: We’re also working on a book called Raja. It’s almost ready. It’s illustrated by Priya Kuriyan.

Pratheek: We both wrote it. It was actually a concept we pitched for Ghost Stories, an anthology horror film. It was rejected by the producer, so we decided to make a book out of it. It’s the story of a grandmother and a dog from Kottayam, inspired by my own grandmother who used to travel with her dog. We have about five books in the works right now. Two or three of them will come out this year. I’m also writing a screenplay. It’s in its final stages. It’s a contemporary story set in Kerala. It’s a supernatural thriller. After that, we will be writing a screenplay together.