During its short time in India, anime has seen quite a few ups and downs. From the excitement of animation’s first introduction to the vilification of children’s programming as a whole, our fanbase has been subjected to many rapid changes brought by globalisation and internet-driven connectivity. But if one wishes to talk about the current state of anime in India, one must necessarily and unavoidably take a look at its roots: the Cartoon Network and Animax channels of yore.
The former is globally well known, of course, and in 1995, the Indian subdivision came under its international aegis, splitting time with the TNT network and airing only Hanna-Barbera shows. In 2001, however, something of great significance occurred: CN India became an independent 24-hour channel and added a much more diverse cast of shows—including mega-hit Dragon Ball Z. Other greats soon followed, with notable names like Pokémon and Naruto heading up the ranks—and while the Cartoon Network has changed quite a bit now, an entire generation fondly remembers its late-night DBZ shows. How undeniably nostalgic!
Animax—now that is a name that might be slightly more under-the-radar for international audiences. The channel is Japanese in origin, and it was purported to be the first, and largest, 24-hour anime provider. What made it so special in India is that it would play episodes on the same day the Japanese got them—and no other channel could even come close to offering it during the Animax India run. This, along with an arsenal of niche and underrated shows, made it a cult favourite back in its day. Sadly, the channel was canceled in 2017, but the marks it left on our fandom have proven indelible.
You see, the audience of these two channels formed the first semblance of the anime fanbase in India. Viewers would discuss the latest DBZ episode, speculate on what was going to happen later that night, and ruminate over rumours—all in a way that generic cartoons couldn’t allow for. While the CN viewers tended to be more mainstream fans, Animax had a truly dedicated and unwavering fanbase. You still can hear them weep for its discontinuation.
Back then, in the 2000s and the first half of the ‘10s, anime was viewed as being primarily for children—and that was true for a long time, because only children were watching it. The overarching mindset of adults (including my own family members) was that sure, watching the occasional DBZ airing was fine. It had drama, violence, lots of gung-ho action, and that made it basically an animated James Bond. However, come the time of decision, it was still a “cartoon,” and fans would try not to get caught watching it if they could help it.
In the past, exposure to animated television, or indeed any kind of television, was very rare among the previous generation, because private companies had only been broadcasting since 1992. Taking this into account, anime got off to a relatively good start in India. The selection of programmes that were accessible was nothing to write home about—we had to watch what was on and pray for a well-timed rerun in case we missed something. However, I will once more repeat, anime got off to a good start in India, being viewed primarily as something very niche and underground, something unlike the generic animated series that were popular among younger kids.
Once the digital development here picked up, and computers grew more commonplace, it wasn’t uncommon to see zip drives with entire seasons being shared. Indeed, having the entirety of Dragon Ball Z on your computer was something to brag about. Towards the end of the 2000s, the anime movement was beginning to gather steam, and the future looked bright.
Then came a drop. The overall animated show scene in India changed, and suddenly there was saturation caused by poorly animated spinoffs. This was also the time when anime targeted towards a younger audience (say, Doraemon) started running for almost the entire day on channels other than Animax and Cartoon Network, those who had decided to capitalise on animation’s audience potential. Suddenly, anime was seen as something that ruined a child’s life, something that was an addiction—something that grew and grew and grew like a cancerous growth.
Keep in mind that selection bias is most definitely a thing among us humans. We remember the bad and forget the good when it suits us. Suddenly, the “admirable honour” of DBZ and Naruto were forgotten, consigned to the murky depths of ignorance. The addictive nature of kids’ shows started being focused upon, and all the glory and fame of the golden years of television programming were gone. In particular, parents heaped criticism upon Japanese shows, and it was not entirely unwarranted; the watching of 5+ hours of Doraemon a day wasn’t an altogether unseen phenomenon back then, particularly among the younger audience. However, the reputation of adult anime viewers also suffered as a bystander casualty to this witch hunt. For all the flak that it gets, the Asian tiger parent stereotype is not entirely wrong, you see. A drop in grades, regardless of the actual reason, was often attributed to an excess of television. This still happens, and the biggest alleged culprit is still Doraemon. Thus, while the popularity wasn’t diminished, anime’s perception did take a downhill turn.
Slowly, amidst pressure, the classics were taken off regular programming. Animax’s star dimmed, and it ceased operations. Things were looking grim. But then we had something very beautiful and inexplicably unexpected occur—all the more so because it had already occurred in other countries: the streaming era arrived. And man, did it explode onto the scene. Suddenly, you could catch up on the episodes you’d missed ten years ago because you were unfortunate enough to come home late from school. Suddenly, you didn’t have to bear with infuriatingly long ad breaks. Suddenly, anime (and television in general) became so much more accessible. Previously, as has been mentioned here, the only way to watch less well-known shows was to hope that Animax fancied broadcasting it. No longer.
But what impact has streaming had upon how anime is perceived?
Mixed, it turns out. Among the youth, a personal observation has been that acceptance of Asian media (Chinese wuxia dramas, Korean soaps, Japanese animation) has been increasing, and at least for the most part, is legit. Anime is once more an “in” thing. It helps that internationally well-known figures (Israel Adesanya, Robin Williams, and the like) have name-dropped characters every so often. All of this has contributed quite significantly to making anime cool again.
Imagine an athlete using the hashtag, #nerd; I doubt anyone could have seen this coming 50 years ago. However, there is of course some negative perception. Quite a bit of it in fact, and unlike the old days, it isn’t exclusively the premise of the more aged. Now that we have more hardcore anime fans than ever, we also have detractors on a hitherto unseen scale. I myself would probably profile somewhere in the middle—I like anime as a medium of expression, but knowing how passionate some people can be about it, I don’t come close to the fandom elite. Recently, I was able to ask a few acquaintances (scattered all over the fandom intensity scale) some questions about how things look for anime in India right now. They preferred to remain anonymous for the interview.
A relatively new fan, someone who started really getting into anime around mid-2020, says that the old perception of “anime equals cartoons” has changed over time, and positively to boot. But only slightly.
Someone who has been watching for quite a while longer, however, someone who also has lived through the two-channel era as a primary school student and is thus a decently old hand, says that quite a bit depends on what sort of series a person is exposed to. If it’s a title that really sparks something in them, a positive perception is born. If not, negative stereotypes—like the unfortunately inevitable association with hentai—dominate, and a sense of disgust is fomented. It is also their opinion that people are often prejudiced against it because both animation, and the Japanese language, are turn-offs. But, to conclude, this fan says that things look to be on the upswing, as an increasing number of people are getting into anime in today’s world of rapid globalisation.
And for the last opinion, we have an old hand, someone who started watching at the turn of the century, someone who’s seen it all. This person opines that anime is definitely much more mainstream than it was a while ago, and attributes this primarily to the fact that people can connect with each other easier than ever, and when fans have other people to watch anime with, they can form a group, and this group can grow. However, here also it was mentioned that anime perceptions are influenced quite heavily by word of mouth, and a good first impression matters—and knowing the right people to give you recommendations.
All in all, I feel that right now the spread of anime is quite momentum-based in India. All it might take is one cult classic (like, say, Rick and Morty was for conventional animated series) and anime might take off in a way it never has before. In the absence of that, anime does still have a dedicated fanbase here, and the detractors, while vocal, are mostly due to a loud minority. India is still a country that is growing accustomed to having the world at its fingertips through the internet; the vast majority of Indians live in rural areas and had inconsistent power supplies just a decade ago. Such people will naturally take time to accept Japanese animation as a legitimate narrative form. However, globalisation is inevitable, and I believe that it is only a matter of time before we have an anime fanbase that rivals any other in passion—and exceeds most in size.
This might take some time, on account of Asian media not really having percolated down to all societal strata. But look at how quickly Korean media, both musical and televised, caught fire here. What makes it so successful? The idols who refuse to conform, the sheer variety of those idols, and their high production values. Might not all of these be designated characteristics of good anime series, too?
Smattered all across my social media, I see anime references increasingly often, falling like raindrops from a stormy sky. And this storm is here to stay.