The energetic, dhoti-clad boy from the village of Dholakpur is India's biggest animated success ever. Why can't Indian children get enough of him?
The children's animation business has traditionally been dominated by a remarkably small number of international cartoon characters. By way of example, Mickey Mouse was born in 1928; Popeye in 1933, Bugs Bunny in 1938, Tom and Jerry - still going strong - first appeared in 1940. Even Doraemon, a relative newcomer, is 40 years old. So great is the momentum of history behind these international favourites that local successes are few. The cost of creation is high, the success rate is low, and it takes a long time for a character to come into its own.
Barring the odd exception, the Indian TV scene too has largely been dominated by foreign characters in spite of there being a dozen Hindi and English language kids' channels. Says Munjal Shroff, director, Graphiti Multimedia (creator of J bole to Jadu as well as Krish Trish And Baltiboy), "We probably need a state-owned kids broadcaster who will think beyond the topline and bottomline and consider telecasting quality content instead."
In this gloomy environment a nine-year-old Indian village boy has knocked the stuffing out of rival dog, cat and mice characters to reach the top. In doing that, Chhota Bheem has turned the channel rankings topsy turvy. When the little fellow first appeared on Pogo in 2008, the channel was barely limping along. In week 18 of 2013 (April 28-May 4), Pogo registered 183 GRPs (4-14, all C&S homes), the highest ratings for a kids' channel since 2006. A big reason: the birthday celebrations of Bheem in different cities and its online telecast.
With its strong tradition of film making and TV programming, why did it take so long for an Indian character to enchant children? The first animation in India was Ek Anek Aur Ekta, a seven-minute-long effort followed by the first television series, Ghayab Aya. Both were telecast on Doordarshan. Shroff points out that animated content is expensive to produce and procuring existing programmes from abroad is more economical. Another animator points out that "Children understand no barriers. They don't mind if the character doesn't look Indian."
In the early days, Indian animators were approached by foreign production houses to provide backend services. That is probably why, for a long time, Indian animators lacked a sense of story-telling. Rudra Matsya, CEO, RME Entertainment (the company behind Keymon Ache and Chhotu Pandav), explains, "Back then, no TV network was asking for Indian content."
The creation of Chhota Bheem was not without trial for its creator, Rajiv Chilaka. After doing his masters in engineering and working for three years as a software engineer, Chilaka realised that his dream was animation. He did a course from San Francisco at 26 and started Green Gold Animation with four employees in Hyderabad where it is still headquartered. His equal business partner is Samir Jain, a local businessman, who invested in the company in 2004 and came on board fulltime in 2011. Since then, Green Gold has become a Rs. 35-crore company that employs 250 people - but, more important, entertains millions of children.
Characters from mythology had enormous pull but they were available to everybody else. In turning over the problem, Chilaka settled on Bheem from the Mahabharata: "I decided to pick the character and put him in a different set-up, era, time zone and different idea with different friends, thereby making him more fun."
One obvious decision was to reduce Bheem's age because children like the protagonist to be in their age group (Core TG for Chota Bheem is 3-9 years). Chilaka cites the example of the 2005 movie, Hanuman: the audience enjoyed the first half of the movie where Hanuman is a child more than the second half.
While Chhota Bheem is nowhere closer to the man in the Mahabharata, Chilaka's partner Jain adds that "Using Bheem was a perfect way to attract viewers initially." Moreover, since Chhota Bheem is not a completely mythological figure, he is free to do anything. Unlike, say, Krishna, who is a god and can't be shown to be kicked or, say, falling into mud. For Chhota Bheem, nothing is off limits: he is just another kid.
A challenge the company faced was that the mythological Bheem was overweight. "But we didn't want to create the perception that you have to be fat in order to be strong. We had to make sure that Chhota Bheem looks just like any other boy, except that he is strong," reasons Chilaka.
Though the first version of Chhota Bheem was created in 2003, five years of rejection followed. The production house drew over a hundred characters to finalise on a single prospective Chhota Bheem. The other characters were, however, finalised almost at the first go. Finally on April, 6, 2008, the first episode of the TV series went on air on Pogo from the Turner stable. (The show is co-produced by Turner and Green Gold Animations). Chilaka recalls, "I had to knock at the door of almost all the kids' channels. When we approached Turner for the second time, they finally said yes." Chilaka has to thank the fact that three channels were launched during that five-year period: Pogo, Disney and Hungama to join the existing channels - both from 1999 - Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.
The creators would have loved to have run Chhota Bheem on the then leading channel, Cartoon Network. Pogo, in contrast, was gasping for survival and had little viewership. The folks at Turner calculated that the little boy might just revive Pogo's fortunes - and they were right. Graphiti's Shroff says that the partnership has really worked as the channel and the production house have both prospered.
Pogo too has been instrumental in the show's popularity. "The network's strong distribution and their efforts in marketing and packaging the show have definitely created buzz around it," points out a media planner.
Krishna Desai, senior director and network head, kids, South Asia, Turner International India, says that the channel saw great potential when Chhota Bheem was presented to them in 2008, which is why they decided to co-produce it. "The show is a success mainly because of its storyline and its characters who are very strong. Kids not only adore the character but also aspire to be like him. The fact that it is in the local language (Hindi) increases its mass appeal and popularity," says Desai.
What began as a 13-episode TV show has grown to 155 episodes plus 14 movies made especially for TV. According to the Ormax popularity report for 2011 and 2012, Chhota Bheem has proved to be the most popular kids' character in India. Today, the show is aired in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Mauritius too. The production house is exploring deals with broadcasters in other continents. Cracking western markets is difficult because, according to Chilaka, "When they see anything Indian they discard it because they think it is about gods. But I think we aren't very far from changing this perception."
The success of Chhota Bheem also explains why it is so difficult to create a local animated character. Each episode of 20-22 minutes costs Rs 20 lakh to make. Until a show's popularity rises and a bank of episodes is built up, the business does not realise its potential. Unlike many other genres, kids' animation has enormous repeat value.
For instance, Green Gold makes only 39 episodes (20-22 minutes each) and six television movies (70-90 minutes each) every year. Against this, Pogo airs Chhota Bheem for an average of eight hours per day. In effect, just about 21 hours of fresh programming every year is enough to give the channel about 48 hours of programming every week. It's taken years to build the archive, though.
Is the time for animated Indian kids' characters finally here? While the little dhoti-clad chap leads the pack, some others have been able to make an impact too. Roll No 21, an original production of Turner International in India, is a hit as is Kumbh Karan, another show on Turner's Pogo.
Besides these, the other mythology-based TV series produced by Indian animators are Krishna Balram (Cartoon Network), The Adventures of King Vikram (Disney India) and Little Krishna (aired on Nickelodeon earlier). Arjun is another upcoming animated series. Meanwhile, leaving the mythological umbrella, we have more 'Made in India' examples such as Motu Patlu on Nickelodeon, Chorr Police on Hungama TV, Mighty Raju (which has roots in the success of Chhota Bheem) on Pogo and Shaktiman (animated series) on Nickelodeon.
Interestingly, a lot of animated movie series are coming up, specially made for the television audiences, wherein many of these movies are extended episodes of these TV series.
The popular movies include Kumbh Karan, Luv Kush, Balkand, Chhota Chintu Badaa Feku, My Name is Raj and movies from Roll No 21; apart from the Chhota Bheem movies.
Movies for theatrical release are far more expensive to make than those for the small screen. Distribution and marketing costs apart, the production cost is much higher too. Plus, while two thirds of the cost is guaranteed by the broadcaster on TV, for the big screen the risk is entirely the animation company's.
Interestingly, each Chhota Bheem movie (irrespective of the platform) has one new song, while the TV series has a single title track. There are about 15 Bheem songs available, which have been released on CDs.
If the advertisers are happy to support Chhota Bheem on Pogo, they are also keen to be associated with him in other ways: today, licensing and merchandising account for 40 per cent of the company's turnover. This part of the business is overseen by Jain. Over 20 brands are associated with Chhota Bheem, ranging from McDonald's and Del Monte to Johnson & Johnson, Knorr Soupy Noodles to Usha Fans. The deal period ranges from one to three years.
Ruchin Khanduja, GM - Marketing, McDonald's India (North & East) says that it is the Indianness of the character in every sense of the term plus the fact that he "inspires children to do good and what is right" that motivated the partnership.
At the other end is the Shemrock and Shemford Group of schools which has, unusually, decided to make Chhota Bheem its mascot. Amol Arora, the vice-chairman and managing director, says that "He always stands for what is right - so the kids get that 'be-a-good-guy' feeling from him." Another important reason, as per Arora is that Chhota Bheem is very secular. "At the end, from a business perspective, we got a range of characters and not just one. All his friends were a part and parcel of the deal."
Meanwhile the merchandising business has taken off and is growing at a steady 20 per cent annually. There are 30 physical Green Gold stores - mostly filled with Chhota Bheem products - in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi. Other characters are Mighty Raju, Krishna Balram, Luv Kush and Chorr Police. Of these stores, two are owned by Green Gold and the rest are franchisees. The company has a separate merchandising department with about 20 employees.
Jain says that the company is still going through a learning process of managing inventory, warehouses and getting the right people. "But we have a fairly aggressive presence on Facebook and we also do a lot of meet and greet events in malls, where Chhota Bheem makes a public appearance," says Jain.
Chilaka says that he sometimes can't believe "that the character has grown so big!" None of the other creations from Green Gold comes anywhere close to its star property. But, then, a Chhota Bheem comes along once in a lifetime.
A Note From the Editor
Marketing to children in any product category is frustratingly difficult. Their tastes are fickle; they can't easily articulate why they like or don't like something; their purse strings are controlled by somebody else - and they quickly grow out of the target segment. It is enough for any marketer to tear one's hair out.
Now go a step further and try to create an animated character that children might like. Animation is expensive to produce. The complication here is that the child's attachment to the character takes a long time to develop. A broadcaster is, in effect, selling a long-term relationship to a child who is not interested beyond the present.
Where there is pain, there is reward. If creating a successful animated character for television is hard, the rewards of getting it right are splendid too. As the cover story on Chhota Bheem explains, in its sixth year now, only 21 hours of fresh programming every year is enough to give the channel, Pogo, 48 hours of fresh content every week.
The cartoon world is dominated by international characters which are universally recognised because the major studios in the US have done such a good job of marketing these across the world. It is easier for local broadcasters to acquire the rights to these than go through the pain of creating new characters. Also, children are generally less sensitive to social issues like the character's origin and looks than are adults.
However, a market as large as India has promised more. In all other media, the content is overwhelmingly local. Even Hollywood films, which have wiped out the local film industry in many countries, command only a small share of audience attention in India. It seemed only a matter of time before the same rule would apply to children's animation on TV, too.
Chhota Bheem is by no means the only Indian character of its kind. There have been some successes earlier too but the fact that it has managed to race ahead of all the international competition is bound to inspire a new spurt in locally produced animation.