The Mumbai outpost of Green Gold Animation’s empire is located in a glass-fronted office complex in suburban Andheri. The no-frills rectangular box is shared equally by humans and merchandise inspired by the firm's best-known creation, the cartoon character Chotta Bheem. A junior Salman Khan whose brawn, bravery and problem-solving skills have made him the darling of children across the country since he first appeared on Pogo TV in 2008, Chotta Bheem is planning his third assault on the cinemas this week. A new movie featuring the adventures of Bheem and his buddies, called Himalayan Adventure, opens on January 8.
Previous movie spinoffs have not replicated the television show’s humungous popularity, but Green Gold Animation’s founder and head, Rajiv Chilaka, is confident this time round. “This one is by far the best, though, of course, people can have their own opinions once they watch it,” Chilaka said during a recent visit to Mumbai from Hyderabad, where Green Gold is headquartered. “It has a better script and a lot more for children.”
Chhota Bheem Himalayan Adventure features the Bheem’s friends, which include Raju, the bald one with the gap between his front teeth, Chutki, the doll-like girl with the red splotches on her cheeks, and the identical twins Dholu and Bholu. The perennially resourceful Bheem has had something of a sartorial makeover. He is fully clad rather than walking around bare-chested, which is appropriate given the Himalayan setting for the plot, in which Bheem and company take on the evil dacoit Hidimbak.
There have been several straight-to-television movies based on the animated series, which is set in the fictional kingdom Dholakpur. The first spinoff, Chhota Bheem and the Curse of Damyaan, came in 2012. The movie, in which Bheem and his friends rescue his beloved king Indravarma from an evil magician, was “too dark” and not funny enough, Chilaka said. “Hardly any kids laughed at the shows I attended in the cinemas, and that stayed in my mind,” he said. The second movie, Chhota Bheem and the Throne of Bali, came a year later, but even the exotic foreign setting didn’t help Bheem’s big-screen fortunes.
Himalayan Adventure has been directed by Rusauro B Adorable, unlike the previous films, which were helmed by Chilaka. “The new movie has a lighter theme, and we have decided to showcase the beauty of India,” Chilaka said. “We felt that the Himalayas would be a fantastic theme – most people haven’t seen snow, and we thought it would be great fun to show something different.”
The film is aimed as much at parents as their wards. “Some of the parents feel that taking their kids to such movies is like a punishment, so we also want to keep them happy,” Chilaka said. “Since Chhota Bheem comes on television all the time, why should parents take their kids to the theatres? We have to give them an experience, so we have songs, 3D elements and larger-than-life visual effects.”
Himalayan Adventure also hopes to grab the attention of families through its emphasis on skiing and outdoor sports. “The best way parents keep their kids busy is to put them in front of the TV, and although we have catered to that impulse for years, I don’t always feel so good about it,” Chilaka said.
Playing it safe
Green Gold might be setting off into new terrain with Himalayan Adventure, but some elements remain unchanged. What has worked for the television series will not be sacrificed for the movies: simple and clean animation, uncomplicated characters, accessible language and humour, and an overall emphasis on good values. If Chhota Bheem feels like a cartoon for very young minds, that is because it is targetted at the nine and below age bracket. “The show is simple and it has been designed that way,” Chilaka said. “Today if I had to redesign Chhota Bheem, I would make it more complicated and add many more elements than just a simple village with a few huts. But the beauty of the story is its simplicity. It connects with kids across the country and across all demographics.”
The neat division of the fictional universe into good and evil flows from the fact that children see everything in black and white, Chilaka said. The character Kaalia initially had grey shades that confused young audiences, he said, which is why Kaalia has now become one of Bheem’s posse rather than an adversary.
The disadvantage of aiming a show at attention-deficit minds is that children quickly outgrow their love for Chhota Bheem, which is why the series has spawned so many spin-offs. Raju, the baldie with two strands of hair on his head and blue knickers for clothing, has a show of his own. In Mighty Raju, the character has morphed into a tiny superhero with levels of aggression that young boys, in particular, will relate to. Arjun Prince of Bali is another spin-off for older viewers.
Bheem, meanwhile, has been playing the dutiful son of Dholakpur for as long as one can remember. “This is the kind of show that cannot be made to appeal to older audiences without changing its basic DNA,” Chilaka reasoned. What works for the series is the balance of various elements, which were finalised after several rounds of brainstorming with the Pogo TV network. Chilaka enumerated the winning elements: “The balance between boys and girls, Kaalia’s comedy, the presence of the pet talking monkey.”
Chotta Bheem faces challenges not just from Mighty Raju, which sometimes posts better ratings, but also from rival shows such as Motu Patlu, Doraemon and Oggy and the Cockroaches. “I wish I could predict what is working, but while all the shows are different, all of them are original,” Chilaka said. “Kids need to connect with at least one character on a show.” His favourite in the Chhota Bheem universe is, unsurprisingly, Raju. “And, of course, the storytelling has to be good. We don’t like to show bad habits, such as characters beating up weak people. We used to have many more fights, but we reduced them. Children like to imitate their favourite characters, and we have to be very careful.”
Chhota Bheem’s appeal cuts across classes and regions, but its largest pockets of popularity are in small towns and rural centres. “The audiences in rural areas are much more loyal to the show than the ones in the cities,” Chilaka said. “We track very well in towns that have a population of one million or less.” He got a measure of the show’s popularity when he accompanied his mother to a temple a hundred kilometres out of Hyderabad. “I saw these five-rupee puffs that were being sold under the Chhota Bheem brand name,” he recalled.
Another encounter with the show’s rural constituency influenced the pricing of merchandise. A daily wage-earning farmer dropped into the Green Gold office in Warangal to point out that the comics were priced at Rs 65, which he could not afford since he earned Rs 100 a day. “I felt really bad that we were not targetting this section,” Chilaka said. “We have released a lot of products that are priced much cheaper even though we don’t make money on them to cater to the lower segments of the market.”
Affluent or underprivileged, Green Gold’s consumers will remain children. The studio is planning live action shows as well as a series centred on a young heroine, and its focus will remain on that section of the population that is many years away from voting and marrying. “Our target audiences will always be kids – if you ask us to make a love story, we will fail miserably,” Chilaka said.