Shanti The Queen of Jalpur (voiced by Freida Pinto) has appointed bright, observant 12-year-old Mira (voiced by 16-year-old Leela Ladnier) as her official Royal Detective. Now Mira is on the case to solve all the court mysteries and the issues plaguing her friends, family and neighbours in the new Disney Junior (DStv 309) animated series Mira: Royal Detective. It’s a tough job but Mira is smart, has a sharp eye for detail, and she has “help” in the form of her 2 keen mongoose friends, Mikku (Kal Penn) and Chikku (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Mira’s little brother Rishi in The Mindy Project), along with a host of friends.

The delightfully colourful mystery adventure series is targeted at children aged 2-7. While they explore the clues to Mira’s cases with her, they will be learning so much more. The intensely researched series is packed with detail about Indian culture, customs and celebrations.

Jalpur is a fictional Indian city with architecture influenced by the Northern Indian state of Rajasthan. “It’s a port city because we wanted to be able to reflect all of India,” adds series executive producer Sascha Palladino. “I see kids TV as an opportunity to expose kids to both new things and familiar things. For South Asian kids (like South Africa’s Indian community), for example, it’s meaningful because they’re seeing themselves represented on TV, sometimes for the first time, which is a big deal. And then for non-South Asian kids, it’s equally meaningful because they might never have been exposed to South Asian culture before. And we have this opportunity to show them things that are beautiful and unique and wonderful.”

A detective's eye for detail

“Our cultural consultants are important for every step of the process, from writing to design, to storyboarding, to music, to choreography,” says Sascha. “That was the most important. We wanted at all levels of the show to make sure it was authentic. The visuals, the clothing, the music, the dance. That was our guiding principle. A big part of my job was to listen and make sure that we had as many South Asian voices on the show as possible. I could be a proxy for that audience member who was not South Asian, and think about how we can make sure that it is accessible to everyone without watering it down.”

“We worked with an amazing person named Shago [Shagorika Ghosh Perkins, the series’ cultural consultant and consulting producer], who looks at every single one of our scripts and all of our designs and gives us feedback. She’ll tell us things like, ‘Samosas wouldn’t be eaten at that particular meal, for whatever reason. Or this type of outfit isn’t quite right for that type of event. She’ll give suggestions like, ‘You could incorporate this type of greeting here.’ We make sure that that is part of the process,” says Sascha.

Shagorika Ghosh Perkins adds, “My role here is giving feedback all the way from storylines and scripts, to set designs and costumes. I advise them on sets like the buildings, the architecture, the different kinds of costumes that people wear.” For example, a character from the Punjab would be wearing long shirts with loose trousers, while someone from central India would wear a Sari. It’s a detail that goes all the way through to the characters’ surnames, with a couple of characters hailing from North-east India carrying the surname Chaudry. Shagorika even keeps watch over the cast’s accents. She has been part of the team since day 1 and helped to design Jalpur. “There’s a beautiful palace in Udaipur called the Lake Palace, and the palace for this fictional kingdom of Jalpur is based off of that. So we looked at the architecture and material and everything started from there,” she reveals. 

Dance of joy

The Mira Royal Detective characters will dance at the drop of a hat. But it isn’t just the animation team pulling the strings. They’re working hand-in-hand with Choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan – the man in charge of Bollywood style choreography for So You Think You Can Dance?, US (2009-2015).

Supervising Director Sue Perrotto will go over the song that they need choreographed with Nakul. Nakul then develops the choreography to suit the music, the character and the story. He and his assistant, Khushy Niazi, then demonstrate the choreography, record it and send it back to Sue and her team. They then put together a basic storyboard of what the dance should look like, and they send that, along with Nakul’s recording, to the animating team at Technicolor in India, whose artists base their final animations on a combination of the dance and drawings.

“Dance is such a big part of the Indian culture. It is something that is almost the backbone of our life,” says Nakul. “It is a unique experience choreographing for animated characters. I start thinking of different movements that a younger child could see and maybe want to try. What’s beautiful about Indian dance is that there’s so many kinds. It makes for a great story. I’m hoping that kids are inspired to dance, to move, and to learn about a different culture. Having the world see Bollywood through the eyes of a child is a reward and it’s special on its own. What I wanted to bring through choreography was just the joy and how connected the Indian culture is to dance. There are so many styles of dance throughout India. It’s not just Bollywood. And what I love about this show and how open the entire team has been to seeing other styles of dance than Bollywood, which we will see throughout S1. I always feel that dance is food for the soul. It doesn’t matter how old you are, everyone needs music and dance. This is the type of show that didn’t exist for so many of us. It’s ground-breaking.”

Playing a royal tune

Along with its dances, Mira is filled with music, from the background tunes, to songs showcased during cultural celebrations, to the songs that Mira and her friends sing, as well as that addictive theme tune. South Asian music consultant Deepak Ramapriyan has gone all out to push authenticity and representation from around the Indian subcontinent. Fans of Indian classical music can keep their ears open for the sounds of traditional percussion instruments from both Northern and Southern India. Even the details we don’t see are important on Mira Royal Detective. For example, the renowned Zakir Hussain plays the tabla on the series’ theme tune.

Series composer Amritha Vaz says, “All of us are so committed to making these instruments that can be a little daunting and intellectual really approachable and fun. I never imagined that the words sitar and tabla would be on a mainstream Disney show, that we would see little children hearing these unique instruments and being excited about them. As a mom, I am thrilled to have my daughter see these instruments and maybe she’ll see them as really cool and want to take them up, and start learning them herself. It’s a dream for me as a composer.”

Some South Africans out there already know Amritha personally. “Before I became a composer, I had developed tendonitis in my arms and so I thought that was the end of my music career [Amritha was a classical violinist], so I went off to follow my second passion, which was social justice. I won a scholarship and I chose South Africa because of my personal heroes like Madiba, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mahatma Gandhi. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave me so much to learn as a budding lawyer. Part of my job was to work with the judicial inspectorate assisting in a low-level way with the honourable Justice Johannes Fagan. But what is amazing about my time in South Africa is that I did some work with UCT students in Mannenberg, with kids, doing songwriting to deal with trauma and anger. It was an amazing and integral part of my personal journey, where I learnt the importance of music and the power of music to make change. Now here I am, so many years later, part of a show that is so powerful and has so many lessons of tolerance and understanding and co-operation and social justice. All these great things,” she ways with wonder.

PS: Amritha’s feel-good playlist still includes music from her stay in South Africa, particularly kwaito music. “I still listen to TKZ, Mandoza, Brenda Fassie. I still carry South Africa with me in my heart,” she says.

Raise your voice

Mira’s voiceover artist Leela also sings all her songs. And as a newcomer to voice work, she’s finding her character so inspiring. “I’m really learning a lot from Mira every day,” says Leela. “She’s compassionate and strong. She guides her own path and she creates opportunities for herself, which is something that I am going to try to do for the rest of my life. She’s confident with who she is, and I am trying to be more like that. She’s a little girl, so I try to bring as much energy as I can every time I record. I leave all the negativity at the door, and I just go and try to be as confident as she is and as optimistic as she is. I try to make sure that little kids can look up to this girl. Mira always believes in what she says, and I have to make sure you can hear that in my voice.”

Aside from Leela, Mira Royal Detective has filled its voice cast with South Asian talent. Parents can play “spot that voice” in each episode, as characters include Hannah Simone (New Girl’s Cece) as Pinky, Jameela Jamil (The Good Place’s Tahani) as Auntie Pushpa, and Danny Pudi (Abed in Community) as Sanjeev. “We made a list of all of our dream actors, and we got them all,” says Sascha. “Kal and Utkarsh were our Mikku and Chikku from the beginning. They both had such a great energy. Finding Leela, when we heard her audition, it was like, ‘Hey, wait a second, that’s Mira!’ It was so clear to us. She just has this energy and this spirit that we were looking for.”

Made in India

This outpouring of care and attention to detail has the show’s animators keeping Mira close to their hearts. Animation Director Leon Davdatt Christian of Technicolor India says, “We have felt really comfortable working on the show because it takes us back to our childhood.” Technicolor’s Head of Production Kumar Chandrasekaran adds, “It’s a show based out of India, capturing the essence of what the spirit of the country is. That has brought a lot of passion out of all the artists and the technicians working on the show.”

Take in a couple of episodes with the kids, learn some songs and dances, and soon you’ll see why everyone working on Mira Royal Detective has lost their hearts to it.

Watch Mira Royal Detective S1, weekdays from Monday, 9 November on Disney Junior (DStv 309) at 18:00

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