Five years after it premiered on Indian television and captured the imagination of children, cartoon character Chhota Bheem (Little Bheem) is all set to debut in Canada and North America early next year.
Considered to be India’s first “homegrown” TV series, the adventures of nine-year-old Chhota Bheem already air in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Voted India’s favourite cartoon character in 2011 and 2012, Chhota Bheem is a cherubic boy who lives in a fictional village called Dholakpur. Inspired by the character of Bhim from the Indian epic Mahabharata, the series tells the story of Chhota Bheem and his group of friends.
Together they solve problems, fight evil and save Dholakpur from numerous enemy attacks. Besides his strength and wit, viewers are drawn to the fact that he loves eating and gets a little extra energy to fight demons and evil kings from ladoos, an Indian sweet.
Created by the electronics engineer Rajiv Chilaka and his firm Green Gold Animation, the series first went on air in 2008. Since then, its fan following has grown to nearly 40 million children. Chhota Bheem has also grown into an estimated 200 crore rupee brand (Dh116.7m). The company licences and merchandises Chhota Bheem keychains, fans, bedsheets, mugs, masks amid a wide range of products across stores in India.
“The success is unprecedented,” says Mr Chilaka.
“We set out to create a character that Indian children would relate to and which would also be unlike the Japanese cartoons that were being dubbed into Indian languages and shown on television.
“The character did not become an overnight success. It took us four years to translate the idea into a workable business model. ”
In 2001, Mr Chilaka set up Green Gold Animation in Hyderabad, which today is one of the “largest animation production companies in India that primarily caters to children”, he says. In 2003, the firm got its first break with an animation series called Bongo, which was about an alien who lands on earth.
Green Gold Animation went on to make a series of animated telefilms on the life of Krishna for the Cartoon Network.
“Even as we were producing other shows, we had come up with the idea of Chhota Bheem in 2004,” he says.
“Bhim was my favourite character from the Mahabharata when I was growing up, so I named my character after him and also gave it similar characteristics [strength and a love for food]. And in 2008 we got a break and the first episode went on air on Pogo channel.
“The timing was perfect and we have not looked back since then,” Mr Chilaka adds.
Since 2008, more than 160 episodes have aired with another 40 in the pipeline. The show is telecast in English, Hindi and the southern Indian language of Tamil. The cartoon series was followed up by 10 television movies. Last year, the feature film Chhota Bheem and the Curse of Damyaan was released. The movie grossed 50 million rupees at the box office.
Most animated films made in India have tanked at the box office. Besides Chhota Bheem, the only other movie to earn revenue at the box office was one about the Hindu diety Hanuman.
“With our first film we had no expectations and knew we were taking a risk,” says Mr Chilaka.
“But it did well. Our second film released this year didn’t do well. We realise that the audience appetite for these films is not there because they are watching the character on TV in any case.”
But that hasn’t stopped the Green Gold team of 300 or so people from working on another movie, scheduled to be released next year. And this time it will be 3D, along the lines of Kung Fu Panda.
Recently winning a leadership award by the third edition of the Karnataka Animation Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics Summit in Bengaluru, Mr Chilaka says the show has grown with the children who watch it.
“It has become a phenomenon that can go on forever,” he says, adding that his vision of following in the footsteps of Walt Disney is now coming true.
And it is not just children – parents’ feedback on the show has been tremendous, says the channel.
From initially stating the action in the show was too violent to later writing in to prasie it after their children now ate more healthily because Chhota Bheem does the same, parents have been in constant touch with the creators.
Based on their comments, Green Gold has also modified its show and toned down the “violence”.