When Sonam Shekhawat was a five-year-old growing up in Rajasthan, her parents took her to watch Jurassic Park. Though the dinosaurs in the film scared her at first, realising that they were created using technology sparked off a lifelong interest in animation and storytelling in the little girl.
Today, she’s the creator of iconic animated films and shows like Chhota Bheem and Little Singham, and recently won an Emmy Award for her work on the animated series All Hail King Julien.
Born in a small town called Karauli and raised in Jaipur, Sonam began to narrate stories as early as she learned to speak. But after learning about Steven Spielberg, she decided, “I also want to create dinosaurs.” She grew up reading inspiring stories by JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien and was further convinced that she wanted to tell stories and make her identity in it. “But my parents had other plans for me!” she narrates.
Many Indian teens tussle with their parents over career choices. The situation was no different for Sonam. They wanted her to pick science. Academically, she did well, got through competitive examinations, got offers to pursue medicine or engineering from prestigious colleges, but eventually she chose animation.
“It was a difficult time in my life. My parents were not keen on my career choice, but I am grateful they understood my passion and enthusiasm.”
Animation has emerged as the most engaging and transformative art form to influence young minds. Be it the technical and artistic brilliance involved, the beauty with which it propels one’s imagination or the honesty with which it dispels information, its significance is far beyond its commercial value.
But holding on to your passions is one thing, and knowing the turf is another. Sonam built a bridge between the two and became one of the most sought-after storytellers. Children swear by her iconic characters – from Bandbudh Aur Budbak, to Shaktimaan Animated to Super Bheem.
Like every artist, the 31-year-old has her way of approaching a blank canvas. If you ask her where she draws inspiration from, she says, “Everywhere!” and even credits her six-year-old son. Sonam loves to experiment, and her creative process is detailed and filled with subtle variations.
“It’s different every time. I get something in my head, and I keep thinking about it, sometimes I even dream about it. Sometimes I am sitting on a sofa, and there’s an entire story or episode or movie running in my head. Sometimes I go by the rulebook, but that is usually when deadlines are close.”
A significant turnaround came when she landed a job with DreamWorks animation in the US. “By 2014, I felt like I was writing shows that were the same with different castings. That’s when I decided to switch and joined DreamWorks. People there wanted to tell good stories, and bring good content to the fore,” shares Sonam, who is now vice president of Nucleus Media Rights, London.
One of her mainstream Netflix shows All Hail King Julien got nominated for the Emmy Award for three consecutive seasons. In the third season, she won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. “After that, it was like what more can I do? I am grateful to God for blessing me with the right opportunity at the right time,” she says.
The downside of being a creative genius is that sometimes your inner ideas run dry, and you hit a wall. With so much of animation happening in the professional front, even Sonam had her share of creative blocks.
“Of course, that happens to me a lot. But I involve myself in some other creative process like I write a song or I paint or sculpt. Once I finish, I feel accomplished. That helps me get back on track,” she explains.
Like every artist has that one inspirational piece of artwork, Sonam’s favourite animated movie of all time is the 2000 American animated buddy-comedy film, The Emperor’s New Groove.
“I think that movie was made ahead of its time. I admire it because it depicts complete growth of its main character Emperor Kuzco from being an unkind, ignorant, powerful ruler to reflecting on the consequences of his selfishness and making amends. And, it’s so funny and relevant that you would not even realise that you are learning so much just by watching it.”
The gifted storyteller is also a member of MENSA, an international forum for intellectual exchange for people with high IQs. While talking about intellect and how animators make a conscious effort to influence children’s minds and communicate positive messages, Sonam quotes Albert Einstein: “If you want your kids to be geniuses, you must tell them fairy tales. They enhance and expand their thought process, propel their imagination and help them in visualising things. And once they can do that, that can solve any complex problem.”
According to her, every writer has a philosophy. “I believe in kindness, innovation, in being who I am. And, it shows in my pieces. If I am true to myself, then I will be able to create stories that inspire children to be who they are and make them more confident in their skin.”First published in eShe magazine