Director Rajiv Chilaka tells SUBHA J RAO he wanted kids to connect with an Indian hero and Chhota Bheem was the perfect choice

As a child, Rajiv Chilaka adored Bheem, the mightiest of the Pandavas. “He was so strong and we all wanted to be like him,” says the founder and MD of Hyderabad-based Green Gold Animation. Years later, he came up with the character of a village boy called Chhota Bheem who loved laddoos, and set him in a different era and context. Children fell in love with the boy who was righteous and could take on any opponent.

Four years since his successful debut on television, Bheem hit the big screens last week in “Chhota Bheem and The Curse of Damyaan”. It struck gold — the film, made on a budget of Rs. 4 crore, raked in Rs. 2.5 crore in the very first week of release. This is said to be the first home-grown TV series to be made into a feature film.

Rajiv, also the director of the film, says he came up with the idea of Bheem in 2004. “I wanted to give Bheem powers, a new set of friends, a different identity and challenges that only he could overcome,” says Rajiv in a telephone interview.

The concept finally took shape in 2008. The first episode was aired on April 6 that year. So far, more than 130 episodes have been telecast in English, Hindi and Tamil on POGO channel.

Bheem comes with unique character traits and is deeply rooted in Indian culture. “Yes. That's because Bheem came in at a time when children had access mostly to international content. We wanted to give them a chance to experience an Indian hero who can connect with them,” he says.

In came the bright yellow laddoos made by TunTun Aunty. “Ah, yes. We zeroed in on laddoos because they are so India, they are a vital part of our culture. And yes, I love them too,” laughs Rajiv.

Every episode comes with a subtle message. “Every time Bheem forgives Kalia (who seeks to run him down) children learn that it is nice to forgive. Bheem never cheats and he's a team player, he's humble and kind to all,” says Rajiv.

Did the makers ever imagine Bheem would become so popular? “We knew we had a good product on our hands, but this scale of success was unexpected,” admits Rajiv, whose nephew and niece loved the show. “I had access to my target audience right at home,” he says.

Bheem left children feeling good about themselves. “For instance, you can't figure out which part of the country Bheem is from; we purposely left that neutral. As a result, every child feels Bheem is like him. Many think Dholakpur is a real place. Thanks to all this, the show has worked across demographics.”

The team thought about making the movie version for two years. “We were hesitant because the audience has not been very kind to animation films made in India. But, Bheem was at the peak of his popularity and we had to offer the children something more. We had to capitalise on that,” says Rajiv. A team of 216 people worked on the film, he adds.

Also pushing the character's popularity is the merchandising. “The comics, DVDs, t-shirts… have definitely helped,” says the director.

The same production team had earlier made the “Krishna” series of telefilms on Cartoon Network. Now, they are working on “Mighty Raju”, a spin-off from the “Chhota Bheem” series, about Raju who is a patriot. The story is set in contemporary times.

A second “Chhota Bheem” film is now in the offing. “Work is on and we hope to release it on December 12, 2012,” says Rajiv who is delighted that children loved the first film. “Some girls told me they enjoyed it, but got scared too. One said he wished the movie never ended. That's motivation enough.”

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