Bollywood hopes Christmas animation is a draw for audiences

India's animators are hoping that a film starring two of Bollywood's biggest stars will revive the sector's fortunes, after earlier efforts to popularise the cartoon genre fell flat.

Ajay Devgn and his wife Kajol appear in "Toonpur Ka Superrhero" (eds: correct) (Toontown Superhero), whose combination of real-life actors and cartoon characters recalls the Oscar-winning film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" from 1988.

Box office success for the film, which is released on Friday, Christmas Eve, could spur more studios to finance home-grown animation projects, analysts say.

"The coming of mainstream actors in Bollywood is a big boost to the industry," said Andrew Gonsalves, from Animation Reporter magazine. "This will help the industry a big way as more projects will now take off."

Indian-made animation feature films were touted as the next big thing in 2005, as studios looked to utilise a vast pool of technical talent in animation and gaming that was increasingly being used by foreign filmmakers.

The success of the small budget film "Hanuman", based on the mischievous Hindu monkey god of the same name, showed the possibilities for the sector and a follow-up was announced.

"Hanuman 2" was released in late 2008 around the same time as US studio giant Disney made its first full-length animation feature using Bollywood stars, "Roadside Romeo".

But both did badly and the following months saw major projects put on ice as the global economic downturn took hold and Indian studios wary of financing further flops shied away from investing.

Global consultancy firm Deloitte said last month that India's animation and gaming sector was worth 750 million dollars last year and could be worth 2.5 billion dollars by 2013.

In Hollywood, animated films can cost 80-120 million dollars but "Toonpur" director Kireet Khurana said his film - India's first 3D "animation combination" feature - was made for a 10th of the cost.

"It's tough to get someone to finance an animation project in India. People are still wary of box office results," Khurana told the Indian Express newspaper.

Devgn, who starred in the 1970s underworld thriller "Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai" (eds: correct) earlier this year, said he was not deterred by past failures.

In "Toonpur", he and Kajol, who was in the Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster "My Name Is Khan", appear alongside a cast of animated characters and cartoon extras.

Devgn plays a Bollywood action hero who wants to be a real-life hero to his children, whom he rarely sees because of work commitments.

He somehow ends up in Toonpur, where his children's favourite cartoon characters live, and finds himself in the middle of a battle between good characters and bad ones.

"I only did the film because I loved the script," he told reporters recently. "It was difficult to act when there were no real actors around me. It was a challenge.

"Initially, I too wondered what I was doing but I was very satisfied when I saw the final product."

Disney, whose Pixar Animation Studio arm has produced hits like "WALL-E", "Ratatouille", "The Incredibles" and Finding Nemo", began operations in India in 2004.

It has since secured a foothold in the cable television sector, mainly through its children's outlets like the Disney Channel, Hungama TV and Jetix, and is moving into producing indigenous content in India's south.

But Animation Reporter's Gonsalves said Indian audiences had yet to see the genre as entertainment for all ages.

"I think that perception will change in India, too, after these big Bollywood stars start doing animation films and 'Toonpur' is the first film that will make an effect for change," he added.

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