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Small wonder

W hen three-year-old Ria Iyer celebrated Rakshabandhan recently, she insisted on tying a Chhota Bheem rakhi on her twin brother Aryan — and one on her own wrist too. Bheem is a hot favourite with Ria who constantly urges her brother to fight like the strong and fun-loving Chhota Bheem, who devours laddoos and saves the day against all things evil in the imaginary world of Dholakpur. “Ria loves the fact that Bheem is so strong and that he fights to help people,” says her mother Sandhya.

Cut to seven-year-old Avanti Biswas who also can’t get enough of Bheem. She says she loves him because “he’s really funny”. Her favourite episode is Chhota Bheem and the Chocolate World. She even spouts information she has picked up on the show. Says her mother Sonali: “Whether it’s a mythological tale about Krishna or even an event like the volcanic ash eruption, she always beats me to it with an ‘I know this, Chhota Bheem told me about it’.”

Riya and Avanti are among the many children who’ve fallen under the spell of Chhota Bheem, an animation series created by Rajiv Chilaka of Green Gold Animation. The popular character has emerged as the top homegrown animation hero — and a non-mythological one at that. He has topped research firm Ormax Media’s Small Wonders ranking as the most popular television character among children since 2011. And he’s grown beyond television too.

Photograph courtesy Green Gold Animation

Indeed, Chhota Bheem’s just about everywhere. He’s on Pogo for around five hours daily, delivering an average TV rating of 1 (which is very high for a show like this). He even hit the big screen with Chhota Bheem and the Curse of Damyaan, which has grossed a cool Rs 5 crore at the box office. He and his friends have also lent their faces to over 500 products from t-shirts and bedsheets to even ceiling fans, which are available at 20 Green Gold Stores across India. There are Chhota Bheem online games and comics, and now the little hero is also hosting Chhota Bheem carnivals — the first held at Vijayawada earlier this month drew over 5,000 kids with its mix of village fair fun-and-games and talent contests.

“Chhota Bheem offers a unique combination of fun and entertainment along with Indian values and culture, which makes him endearing as well as somewhat educational, ensuring parental participation too,” says Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media.

For those who came in late, the series is all about the adventures of nine-year-old Chhota Bheem and his friends Chutki, Raju and the talking monkey Jaggu as they take on the 11-year-old Kalia and his cronies Dholu and Bholu in their fight to protect the weak and innocent. Bheem’s also got a patron in King Indraverma and Princess Indumati.

“We’ve never had a homegrown show in the televised animation space that was this popular before. And it’s only growing stronger every year,” says Krishna Desai, director, content, south Asia, Turner International India, which owns the Cartoon Network and Pogo platforms.

Chhota Bheem’s success has even taken its creator Chilaka by surprise. “We knew we had a good script but we had no idea it would become such a phenomenon,” he says.

So, how did it all begin? Hyderabad-based Chilaka says he was crazy about animation as a child. “As a kid I felt bad that there were no Indian animation heroes. I always wanted to do something so that Indian kids didn’t feel left out,” he says.

Nevertheless, he first got an engineering degree from Hyderabad in 1995 and then headed to the University of Missouri, Kansas, for a master’s in computer science. He also began reading up on animation. But it was only in 2000 that he quit his job as a software engineer. To learn about animation he enrolled for as many courses as he could manage in one semester at the Academy of Art University, San Francisco.

He set up Green Gold Animation in January 2001. Chilaka was clear from the start that he would create original content. His first break came in 2003 with Bongo, an animation series about an alien who lands on earth. “It was noticed but didn’t get a large audience because it was on Doordarshan. But it taught us how to produce an animation series,” says Chilaka.

That led to Vikram Betal, an 80-minute 2D animation movie on Cartoon Network in 2004. “It was difficult for our small team to create new characters and locations each time Betal related a story. So, we began thinking of creating a series where things don’t change a lot,” he says.

That’s how he conceived Chhota Bheem. “We took the attributes of Bheem like his strength and ethical values and said let’s see what happens when we give these to a regular child,” says Chilaka, who scripts each episode’s concept. Even so, it took three years to sell the series after the 2005 pilot episode. Chilaka made four animation movies on Krishna for Cartoon Network before its sister channel Pogo agreed to air Chhota Bheem in 2008.

Chhota Bheem began with 13 episodes initially. “It was popular almost immediately,” says Chilaka. Still, it took two years to build awareness and establish its reach. In fact, Chilaka made 39 episodes in the first two years. But the subsequent 108 episodes came in the next two years. They’ve also been accompanied by 10 Chhota Bheem television movies on Pogo.

Chhota Bheem comics and t-shirts are selling briskly at Chilaka’s Green Gold Stores across the country
Photograph courtesy Green Gold Animation

“One unique thing about Chhota Bheem is that it’s followed equally by boys and girls,” says Chilaka. And he also moved quickly “to take the Chhota Bheem characters closer to kids”. So, within eight months of going on air, Chilaka introduced Chhota Bheem comics and then, t-shirts. He also started to build his own distribution network. Today, 40 per cent of Green Gold’s turnover comes from merchandise.

Since May 2011, Chilaka has also set up 20 Green Gold Stores. Now, he plans to add another 10 to 15 stores by year-end and to have 100 stores by end-2013.

Chilaka’s confident the brand’s going strong. Turner’s Desai too says that “The [viewership] trends are very strong.” So, there are another 52 episodes in the pipeline. And Chilaka also plans to make a bigger splash with a second film next summer, with a Rs 10-crore budget.

And in five years, Chilaka hopes to open a Chhota Bheem theme park. He’s launched the carnivals to test the concept.

Of course, he knows Green Gold can’t rely on a single brand. So, he’s trying to build others like Mighty Raju — he’s made three TV films around Raju who’s drawn from the Chhota Bheem series. But for now, it’s a certain laddoo- mad nine-year-old who’s caught the imagination of children around India.