It’s May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, and so, may the force be with you. It certainly is with Milind Shinde, the producer and founder of 88 Pictures, and writer-director Ishan Shukla. Together, they're the creators of Star Wars: Visions Season 2 episode 'The Bandits of Golak'.
The DisneyPlus Hotstar show, an animated anthology of shorts set within the Star Wars universe, tells smaller, individual stories within the galaxy. While Season One had nine anime short films from seven Japanese studios, Season 2 is bigger and more diverse – with studios pitching in from Spain, UK, Chile and India.
In the ‘The Bandits of Golak’, siblings Rani and Charuk are fleeing their village by train, pursued by ferocious Imperial forces. They eventually seek refuge at an intergalactic ‘dhaba’. While season 2 of Star Wars: Visions is bigger, better and captures a wider cultural tableau, the heartfelt and visually rich ‘The Bandits of Golak’ is a definite standout short.
Milind and Ishan talk about being the first ‘Indian’ entry into the Star Wars franchise.
Congratulations on being the first Indian studio to create a Star Wars animated episode, with 'The Bandits of Golak' for Star Wars Visions Season 2! How did this significant achievement come about?
Milind: 88 Pictures always had the vision of putting our name out there as a global content creator. When I heard about the Visions project, I spoke to Lucasfilm and told them, “Look, you have to give us this opportunity to represent 1.4 billion Indian people with stories, history, culture and a large Star Wars fanbase.”
Lucasfilm was happy to hear that, and they reached out with parameters on what the story could be and got the ball rolling. Ishan and I got in touch, because I wanted creators who could tell stories on a global platform with a heart that was uniquely Indian. We worked on ideas and approaches, pitched the storyline and we were surprised, lucky and happy to get to produce ‘The Bandits of Golak’.
Ishan: India has a huge Star Wars base – and when we heard that Lucasfilm was doing this, we just had to. India has a rich mythology, and Star Wars has Japanese and other global influences, but I personally hadn’t seen something uniquely Indian. That’s why, in our pitch, we tried to create a small planet, a world that was uniquely India. Our idea was to create this unique Indian microcosm within the Star Wars universe and juxtapose our story of two siblings, of heroism, with Indian culture, music and visuals. They loved it.
Milind: And it’s not just about putting Star Wars in India, or India in Star Wars. The idea was to tell a story, build a world. And maybe, that’s our secret ambition, that someone in the franchise will come visiting Golak once again.
And what drove the specific choice of a story about two siblings?
Ishan: To me, the choice was very personal. The genesis was in the relationship I shared with my elder brother. He was always responsible and caring on some unusual road trips we took. For the eight-year-old me, it was always an dventure – for him, it was always dangerous. I would imagine myself as a ‘force-sensitive’ child and then I saw the prequels in the theatre – which was a huge inspiration. I thought, 'What if we bring in Charuk, the protagonist, this elder brother who has no force powers, no training whatsoever, and he is now thrown into this adventure to protect his sibling?' He has no idea of the politics in the galaxy, he doesn’t know who the StormTroopers are, he’s just trying his best to save his sister.
Milind: Familial relationships were always going to be the core of the story to us – and in that context, the sibling relationship was a perfect fit. It was deeply personal for me too, being the elder brother, and then having to lose somebody. That’s why the story resonated so much with me – the letting go, the sacrifices you make.
There is a parallel story of displacement in Star Wars. The Jedi, the Mandalorian, the Clones, the outer rim colonies. And The Bandits of Golak also seemingly begins on that theme. Is that something you were consciously aiming for – that train sequence being reminiscent of the Partition imagery?
Ishan: Honestly, that train sequence is a Sholay reference. And maybe Indiana Jones. But if you go deeper, yes, it has a metaphor for colonization, for imperialism. That train is Imperial and the natives, the Jangoris are constantly in a scuffle with The Empire. There is that deeper layer.
Milind: There was a part in which the father hands Rani over to Charuk, and tells them to run as their village is being burnt. There was that element of displacement, yes – but we had to cut that out, since it is a short film.
Now let me segue into the visuals. There is a very distinct animation and visual style in the episode. What was the reason for the choice?
Ishan: When we were drawing references and concept art, we started leaning towards a retro look –a very Sixties' and Seventies' palette meets an oil painting. There is so much to draw from in animation styles today – but we wanted that oil painting look for the episode. There’s the great Indian artist Raja Ravi Verma – his brush strokes are flat, but as the eyes say, believable. But if you’re building an episode like ours, you have camera angles moving across the environment, not scrolling, like in anime. That’s why we had to create this hybrid look – in which everything is hand painted, painstakingly, but you can move around in that visual world.
Milind: We were very clear that if you stop at any frame in the film, it would have to be a painting on its own. That was our starting statement. And the hand-painted format shows the beauty of colours of India. Getting it right wasn’t easy. We wanted to do so much more but of course, there were time and budget constraints.
Ishan: Everything in India is so rich in colour and so intricate; the clothing, the prints. That helped to invoke that painting look!
Milind: I think the look captured everyone’s imagination at the Star Wars Convention as well. It stood out. Let’s hope we get Charuk and Rani cosplay at the next Star Wars Convention – that will be great!
If there was one character you wanted to transition into the larger Star Wars universe from the world of Golak, who would that be? And maybe vice-versa?
Ishan: For me that would be Charuk. A normal human being as a hero would be compelling. And from the larger universe, I would have loved to have the Sixth Brother (Inquisitor).
Milind: In fact, we wanted to bring him in, and then Lucasfilm said, 'You don’t have to – you can create your own Inquisitor character.' Now I would love to see our Inquisitor make it to the larger Star Wars universe!
Did I really hear an Indianized version of the Mandalorian Theme played in the Indian Cantina/dhaba?
Ishan: Sneha Khanwalkar, who did the music for us, was more familiar with John Williams' work than the recent work from Ludwig (Goransson) and others. She scouted the music we used in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. That matches the setting of the dhaba, which is rustic and North-Western India – and hence, the music is very Rajasthani folk.
Now I want to talk about the lightsaber fighting style. In that duel, there were definitely some Indian martial arts influences, right?
Milind: Well, the duel was the main thing for us. Ishan and I were clear that it had to be epic. Our team did the research and we based it on Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial art forms in India. The sequence has a dual-wielding of lightsabers, and that lent itself very well to the sword-and-shield style of Kalaripayattu. We had a lady in our animation team from Kolapur, who was an expert in using the laathi. We used her videos as references.
The way the characters move is very Indian – and I hope the audience understands that. We were working on the fight right till the end – and I think it was elaborate and epic.
Ishan: Exactly, if you don’t get the lightsaber duel right, you don’t get the short right.