The Face of Indian Animation

The Face of Indian Animation

These days, Hanuman and Krishna are busy fighting it out with the likes of Ben 10 and Mickey Mouse in the world of children’s animation. With more localised Indian content slowly gaining viewership in India, joining the gods in giving them a good fight is a little hero who has managed to catch every child’s attention – Chhota Bheem. Conceptualised by Secunderabad-based Green Gold Animation Pvt. Ltd. (Green Gold), Chhota Bheem aired in April 2008 as a 13 episodic television series and soon got children hooked onto its protagonist’s adventures. In its third year running, TAM Media Research shows that Chhota Bheem is watched by 34.732 million children in India in the first half of 2011 (see box) and has led to a highly profitable offshoot business that sees 100 per cent revenue growth every year through sales from its branded merchandise. Green Gold is also setting up exclusive stores in Hyderabad in May this year and in Kolkata by this September end.

“Chhota Bheem was developed keeping in mind the keen sentiments and expectations of Indian audiences between the ages four to 11. When we made the show we knew that it would do well, but we never imagined that Chhota Bheem would go on to become the most popular animated television show in the history of Indian television,” says Rajiv Chilakalapudi (37), founder and managing director of Green Gold.

Chilakalapudi believes it is the affable nature of the main characters like Bheem, Chutki and Jaggu that has Indian children tuning in to watch the series on a regular basis. “The unique selling proposition of the series is its method of storytelling. Though the stories in the series carry a lot of complexities and mysteries, they are also laced with rib tickling instances of humour and mirth. Also, the stories unfold at a brisk pace. We wanted to achieve a compelling sense of mystery and drama without compromising on the basic ideals of the series – namely that it should be clean and bereft of blood, gore, dark mysteries and other such elements,” says Chilakalapudi.

Conceptualising the small wonder

The idea of Chhota Bheem took root when the company was working on one of its earlier productions ‘Vikram aur Betal’ (VB). During its production, the company’s artists pointed out that in every episode there were new locations and new characters. Hence, the time taken to produce such an episode is much longer. “We realised that in order to produce a show within a budget and a time frame, we needed to have one with a fixed location and repeated characters. We also realised that VB was not really attractive for children. We then started to work on new story ideas and soon, we were able to come up with the idea of Chhota Bheem,” says Chilakalapudi.

Inspired by the Pandava prince Bheema, the show alludes to some of his characteristics like his incredible strength and Bheema’s favourite food: ladoos. Chhota Bheem derives his strength by eating ladoos. “Ladoos are the most loved Indian sweets and often prepared for festivals or given as prasad at temples. Hence, we felt that ladoos were the obvious choice. But Chhota Bheem is also shown having healthy foods like banana, milk and parathas,” says Chilakalapudi. He adds that every other aspect of the show was developed fresh: from the imaginary setting of Dholakpur and its rural landscape to the many supporting characters. Throughout the production, Chilakalapudi designed the series keeping in mind the interests of children of varying age groups. “I imagined that if I am around nine years old, then I want to be like Bheem. And if I have a younger brother, I want him to be like Raju and I want my pet to be a talking monkey like Jaggu and have a reliable friend like Chutki and so forth. I continuously pictured being in the shoes of each of these characters and developed them further,” he adds.

Chilakalapudi’s faith in Chhota Bheem was unwavering even in the face of initial scepticism. During the making of its first season, an international delegation was looking to outsource their project to Green Gold. When they realised the whole studio was working only on Chhota Bheem, they felt the company’s vision was myopic and it was not thinking big. Green Gold did not get the contract, but it did eventually make it big with Chhota Bheem.

And the recognition that has poured in only seems to validate Chilakalapudi’s faith in the series. Chhota Bheem was voted as the leading children’s favourite character in a recent study, ‘Small Wonders’ (April 2011), conducted by Mumbai-based Ormax Media Pvt. Ltd., a research and consulting firm for the media and entertainment industry. The bi-annual syndicated study was conducted among six to 14 year olds in seven cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Jalandhar with interviews of around 2,000 kids across high and mid socio-economic classes. “Chhota Bheem is a character that offers a unique combination of fun and entertainment, along with Indian values and culture. This makes the character endearing as well as somewhat educational, ensuring parental participation too. Further, the character has supernatural powers – an idea that always works with kids,” says Shailesh Kapoor, co-founder and chief-executive officer, Ormax Media.

Content collaboration

To keep children tuning in regularly, the team at Chhota Bheem continuously strives to keep the series relevant and engaging. Chhota Bheem is an example of good content creation partnership between Green Gold and Turner International India Pvt. Ltd (Turner). Turner, which owns Cartoon Network and Pogo channels, has been participative in the development of Chhota Bheem from the onset of the series. The channel keeps Green Gold updated on viewer responses to its shows, which its team then analyses and makes necessary adjustments to. Even though Chhota Bheem is set in the past, the company ensures that the story ideas are contemporary and today’s generation can relate to them. For instance, it did an episode on Twenty 20 (T-20) cricket during the time of T-20 World Cup.

It is this close collaboration between Green Gold and Turner that makes sure the creative inputs and strategic integration for the series are an ongoing process. Green Gold has delivered 120 episodes since 2008 with 20 more to be completed in the next six months. According to Krishna Desai, director – programming, South Asia, Turner, it is the show’s simplicity and relevance that sets it apart from other Indian animation shows. “Chhota Bheem is one of the key viewership drivers for Turner’s children network, Pogo. What started as an effort to promote Indian animation is now one of the top rated children’s animation series in India today,” says Desai. Its programming slots, promotional activities and constant creative collaboration impact the ratings, believes Desai. Turner helps in developing and packaging its content for consumption at multiple levels with frequent show timings.

“While the series continues to rule, Chhota Bheem movie features have created bench marks that are a tall order to compete with, for example, the ‘Chhota Bheem and Krishna’ movie on Cartoon Network clocked in a massive 2.3 TVR (television viewer ratings that measures popularity of a show) mid-April 2011 on a weekend,” says Desai.

My Bheem

Though a relatively new show, Chilakalapudi believes Chhota Bheem has managed to establish a huge brand recall of its own, which in turn has motivated the company to look at licensing and merchandising (L&M) possibilities. While the television series continues to contribute to a majority (85 per cent) of its revenues, sales from its L&M division account for the remaining. “The response we receive for our merchandise reinforces a sense of fan identity and belonging towards the character,” says Chilakalapudi.

But L&M was a calculated risk which the company decided to undertake in 2008. “When we decided to launch L&M, most of the franchisees we met with did not believe in the product. However, we were convinced about Chhota Bheem’s success after receiving feedback from our sources and how well the series was doing,” says Chilakalapudi. Chhota Bheem was rated the top show in 2009 and the second most watched show in 2011 H1 (see bar graph). Once the initial ground work was completed in six cities where Bheem was considered most popular – Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, Chilakalapudi went about setting up a distribution network through local partners. “Distribution was our biggest challenge. We first targeted metros and our next focus will be India’s Tier-II cities. We want to consolidate the northern region in the next three years.”

Samir Jain, partner and director, Green Gold and now heading the L&M division says, “We started small with comic books, keys, mugs, home videos etc. By tying up with different distributors for each product, state-wise, we have covered 10 states so far and hope to cover 10 more by March 2012.” The line-up of products now range from bed sheets, home furnishings, ceiling fans, puzzles, games, umbrellas, raincoats, action figures, apparel and comic books in local languages. Green Gold has also recently tied up with Mumbai-based Brand Wagon Marketing Pvt. Ltd. to bring out an energy drink called ‘Naughty’, which is expected to hit the stores soon. Following the launch of exclusive Green Gold stores in Hyderabad and Kolkata, the company is considering launching four to six more stores, with Chennai and Mumbai being the likely locations.

The way ahead

According to a FICCI-KPMG Report 2011, the animation, visual effects (VFX) and post production industry witnessed a growth of 17.5 per cent over 2009 to reach Rs. 23.6 billion in 2010. Animation alone grew by 10 per cent in 2010 to touch Rs. 10 billion. By 2015, the animation and VFX industry has the potential to grow to Rs. 55.9 billion (estimated to grow at 18.5 per cent CAGR – compound annual growth rate), while the animation sector is expected to touch Rs. 20.8 billion by 2015 with growth largely driven by the services market for the next two years, post which, intellectual property (IP) creation is also expected to see a significant pick up. With the industry poised to grow, Chilakalapudi believes Indian animation companies are slowly moving from working only on outsourced projects to original IP creation.

Over the past five years, Green Gold has evolved from being a producer of one television movie to having produced over 200 episodes of animation content. The company, now with a total strength of 200 employees, sees a top-line growth of 20 per cent every year. It also has a separate production office in Warangal. “The main challenges for us now are to maintain our lead in domestic market, while we continue to take our content globally and to cash in on the popularity of our shows. Setting up our own distribution chain took time but L&M has a huge potential for growth and we want to stabilise that,” says Chilakalapudi. The company might look for external capital in the future.

Green Gold is also venturing into feature-film production and will launch its first animated theatrical for Diwali (October) 2012, followed by a hybrid film combining live action and animation slated for December 2012. In the next few years, it also plans to launch innovative merchandising campaigns and introduce more than 100 products across four key categories: toys, apparel, gifts and publishing.

Chhota Bheem might make it to the big screen if all goes to plan. “Though for now we are looking into sustaining the television series, we will take a call about a movie by this year-end,” says Chilakalapudi. The series has been successful in markets like Indonesia, Iran and Malaysia and will soon launch in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. “There has been a good demand for continuation of the show in these markets.” Plans are also underway to monetise content on digital distribution platforms such as Apple’s iTunes, Android Apps and Intel AppUp Centre. Recently, Green Gold launched its Chhota Bheem application on Apple. And Chilakalapudi now hopes to take it to bigger avenues such as Europe and North America, but admits it will not be easy to place an Indian hero in other markets. “When we receive good response from the digital platform, it will enable us to take it to the next step with channels.” But he is clear he will not tailor Chhota Bheem to suit American children’s sensibilities. “We might dub it in their accent but not change the essence of the character. Else, it would not stand out. I do believe American children will soon relate to eastern culture just like we have become accustomed to western culture,” he adds.

However, whether Chhota Bheem’s success can be repeated in western markets is a wait-and-watch game. Kapoor feels that though Bheem has the potential to replicate the same success the iconic Tom & Jerry received in India, the character might not appeal much to children outside the country given that it is rooted in Indian mythology. “Typically, a children’s character can stay on top of the popularity ladder for four to five years, as after that, there is a generational change and those who were hooked onto the character outgrow it, while newer characters are liked by the new set of children. Chhota Bheem still has another two years or so to stay on the top,” he adds.  But from Chilakalapudi’s own experience and interactions with the western media, he says parallels were drawn between Mickey Mouse’s early years in the Disney camp to Chhota Bheem’s modest start. “Mickey Mouse is considered to be the face of American animation and many now seem to consider Chhota Bheem to be the face of Indian animation,” he states. His belief in Chhota Bheem stems from the tremendous response he receives through events, television shows, merchandise sales and the innumerable emails. But more so from children who curiously prod him asking, “Where is Dholakpur?”

In many ways, Chhota Bheem might be on the vanguard for the development of more home-grown animation characters in the future, much like Mickey Mouse did before it was relegated to the background. Presently, it has trumped over many other Indian cartoon shows in catching the attention of children and sustaining it. A look at its viewership numbers show that they have steadily increased since its launch. But to be regarded in the same vein as the timeless Tom & Jerry or Mickey Mouse, which has generations of admirers, Green Gold needs to sustain its high quality of production, delightful storytelling, the novelty of the various characters and importantly, understanding the pulse of children of every generation. For that, the little boy from Dholakpur needs to prepare for more fierce battles headed his way.

Character


Chilakalapudi’s description


Chhota Bheem Inspired by the legendary Pandava prince Bhima, Chhota Bheem is a nine-year-old adventurous boy. Bheem has his incredible strength, which he obtains by eating ladoos, which is Bhima’s favourite food. The character is designed keeping in mind of how most nine-year-old boys would like to be. He doesn’t just care for his family and friends but for the whole village of Dholakpur. The heroic side of him matured in the series. He likes to fight bad boys but we didn’t want to give him any superhero qualities like flying, only super strength. We, then, also brought in characteristics in him from a young girl like Chutki’s point of view, for instance his forgiving nature. Similarly, we slowly defined different aspects of the character from his relation to other characters.
Chutki Chutki was developed to be Bheem’s closest and reliable friend. She is a simple and sweet-natured girl, who often accompanies Bheem on his adventures. As a seven-year-old, she is both playful and responsible when necessary. She often helps her mother Tun-Tun run her sweet shop.
Raju A four-year-old, we developed Raju as a character that aspires to learn good qualities and become someone like Bheem. He is considered brave for his age and is not afraid of Kalia Pahelwan. His rivals are Dholu and Bholu, who love picking on him.
Jaggu Jaggu came into the picture because children love having pets. But we did not want the customary dog so decided on a monkey to bring in an element of fun. We then made it a talking monkey so that it would be easier for the characters to communicate and it is probably most children’s fantasy to have a talking pet.
Kalia Pehalwan (or) Kalia Kalia’s character is based on Mahabharata’s Duryodhana so he is bad by nature. He is large and strong for a 10-year-old, and despises Bheem’s popularity. Though, at first, he was created as the bad guy but as the series progressed, we realised children started liking him because he is constantly trying to outwit Bheem but fails to do so – like Tom in Tom & Jerry. Hence, in the later series, he is seen helping Bheem in certain occasions.
Dholu and Bholu Dholu and Bholu are dumb, who keep getting into stupid situations. We brought them in to bring in an element of humour to the show. They’re identical twins who dress and think alike. They usually follow Kalia around and are always seen picking on Raju.
Indumati Time is not defined in Dholakpur and we did not want to introduce a prince, who might end up competing with screen space with Bheem. So, it was a better bet to bring in a princess, which young girls like too. Indumati’s character comes in when the need arises but we found that she is very popular among young girls.
Kichak As the series keeps developing, Kichak’s character was introduced later in the series. He is a bully and is now seen more of Bheem’s rival that Kalia.