‘We want to produce animated feature films for the world’

Pankaj Mishra January 11, 2019 42 min

The year 2019 is of super beings! Superhero movie buffs have a record lineup of about 10 treats this year, including Glass, a long-awaited sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s cult movie Unbreakable and his 2016 release, Split. What better time to revisit a FactorDaily podcast with Rajiv Chilaka, the maker of India’s own animation superhero, Chhota Bheem. After growing his company, Green Gold Animation, through a series of struggles to the huge success it is now, Chilaka’s ambitions turned global. He wants to create a lasting legacy just as his idol, Walt Disney, did. Thanks to Kanika Berry for transcribing the conversation. Here’s the full and lightly edited transcript of the podcast.

Pankaj: Welcome to Outliers. We are back this week with Rajiv Chilaka, the founder of Green Gold Animations. If that doesn’t ring a bell, we all have seen our kids grow with the Chhota Bheem phenomenon. Green Gold is the company that created Chhota Bheem and so many other characters, and Rajiv is the entrepreneur who started this journey, I think in 2008, Rajiv?

Rajiv: 2001.

Pankaj: 2001. Oh, so sorry! And he is clearly an Outlier. At least, so far as I am concerned, because I have always looked at what you do and how you do, Rajiv, as quietly building a success story. And for me and for many people who are interested in discovering Outliers, that’s a very important element, so welcome to Outliers, Rajiv.

Rajiv: Thank you, Pankaj. I am excited to be on this event. I definitely have some things to share that hopefully will help young entrepreneurs, and I think as India, there is so much talent and I think we just need to believe in ourselves and I think all of us, we can make the country, you know, to be the number which it deserves to be.

Pankaj: Rajiv, how did this really happen? Where would you trace this journey to, really? In your childhood or when was that?

Rajiv: I think as a kid I was definitely drawn to animation, to comics, to this world. But I was growing up in the late 70s to early 80s, so that time the exposure to animation was very limited. Television had just arrived. So I think my first movie made a lot of impact in my head, animated movie. That’s the first time I had seen any cartoon. This was 1979, if I remember correctly. I was a five-year-old kid. My dad took me to see The Jungle Book and the theatre was right next to my house, so it was easy. He explained to me, “I want you to see this movie, it’s for kids.” I said, “What is this movie about?” So, he being a scientist, he had more of a technical explanation of the whole thing. He said, “You know, it’s a bunch of drawings that move and you have a camera.” I couldn’t understand anything. I just thought it was some scribbles that move and I said, “I didn’t want to see pencils move.” But he couldn’t explain because that was something that I had never seen. He just said, “Trust me, you will like this. Come.”

Obviously, I am forever grateful to him for taking me to that movie because the moment I went to see this film and I walked out, I just believed first thing that Mowgli was true. I mean, I loved the ending that Walt Disney gave. I fell in love with the film. I was just so enamoured by the whole movie experience that I was just thinking about the movie for many days… I was also watching whatever Doordarshan had, the cartoons to shows like Mickey, Donald and these kinds of things, Spiderman.

And at the same time, for summer camps I used to go to YMCA in Hyderabad, Narayanguda. There, they used to play summer movies, so they used to play Tom and Jerry, Laurel and Hardy, and these kinds of things. Tom and Jerry became my favourite. So it was there in the back of my mind and I also was greatly drawn to comics. I used to always think that it would be great to do something like this. You know, when I used to read some of the comics in Amar Chitra Katha, I wanted to see, you know, the war happen actually, I wanted to see the horses move. So I used to imagine. I am sure everybody does that but I felt I had a strong desire.

I used to be attracted to this area but I was not an artist in terms of drawing or colouring. I was a terrible artist. I used to try, like I used to enter drawing and painting competitions, and every time I used to believe I would win but I never won. Even though I knew that my drawings were below average or let’s say up to an average level, I saw some fabulous drawings by other people who deserved the prize, and I knew that ok, I was far away from being an artist, so I really assessed my talent that I cannot be an artist but I was a great storyteller. Like, I would always gather the kids in the neighbourhood and tell them stories. Sometimes I would just invent the stories and tell. I was great at making up stories. Also, if I saw a movie, I used to come and tell everyone that story very dramatically that they would all listen and pause for the next couple of hours. I used to be able to engage them but I didn’t realize that that I had the strength of storytelling, it was just spending time with friends kind of a thing, summer holidays you know, those days TV was really not the thing. So it started somewhere there but I really had no clue that was what I wanted to do.

So as regular people in Hyderabad, I went to do my engineering. Primarily, I had chosen engineering because I wanted to go to the US and study there and kind of see the world. I love to travel and I wanted to go abroad. I was excited about the idea of going international or flying to the US or any other country. So after my engineering, I went to do my Masters in Computer Science from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. So, on the first day of orientation there, they took us in a bus around Kansas City showing some landmarks and stuff and they would talk in the mike and explain which location is this and all. The first thing that drew my attention was the logo of our school, the University of Missouri, Kansas City. It was a Kangaroo. That was designed by Walt Disney when he began his career.

Pankaj: Wow.

Rajiv: Yes, so that’s almost a 90-year-old logo now. So when he was at the beginning of his career, Walt Disney spent his days in Kansas City. So (in the bus tour) they drove around telling, “Ok, so this was where he lived and a few houses.” Obviously, somebody else lived there now but it kind of had some history of Walt Disney in Kansas City. And they obviously became so famous, so there were references to him, and I was like, “Oh wow, he started in Kansas City and then he went to Chicago and to Hollywood.” I never realised that Disney had to go through this journey to get where he got.

So the next thing immediately was, I was working in my student job, I was working as a librarian, so I was at the library front desk, so somebody dropped a book, and that was ‘The Life of Walt Disney’ in my hand. And then, that caught my attention. I am generally not a person to read books and so something like reading about somebody else’s life, that was something that I had never done, and that was kind of my first book that I completely read with interest. Before I’d read but it wasn’t something seriously. So this guy’s life story, when I read it, I was totally inspired. I felt that whatever he has achieved, even if I am able to achieve 5-10% of that, then I would have achieved something in my life. I think today as a company, Walt Disney is different, but whatever he made, I think that was the true Walt Disney company, where he cared more about that entertainment has to be given to kids. It was not about making money, it was about giving a great time, giving back to society.

In an interview on Disneyland and he said, like, “Ok, whoever spends at tickets in coming to Disneyland, I want to ensure that the value of money for getting, is they have paid for that ticket, is basically they should get the value out of that.” They are simple words but you can see how it was sinking. The whole thing was about, “Ok, you have to survive, you have to run your company, but also you have to give back entertainment, and whatever you are doing, you should do it with excellence. So he kind of started an animation studio and did all these things at a time when the technology was brand new. Nobody had done it before. So then, I thought to myself, “Ok, now I am in.”

That was the early days of 1995. I felt, ok, maybe I should not do Computer Science and do something to do with filming or something. I was really inspired by what Walt Disney did. So during my first semester, I applied to Florida Film School and I thought I will go to Florida Film School and learn how to make films. They gave me the admission and stuff but I did not get any scholarship or anything like that. But in my Computer Science thing, I had a scholarship, so my fees was actually not so much. I also had a job, so it was easy to make both ends meet. So here, the fees was something around $20,000 per semester, and obviously, I didn’t have that kind of money. I called up my brother, who also lived in the US at the time, my elder brother. So I said, “Listen, I am not liking this Computer Science, I don’t want to do this, it’s not like I am not good at it, but this is not my interest… I want to quit this and I want to join film school.” He said, “Ok, good luck.” So I said, “Ok, but I would need your help.” He said, “What do you want?” I said, “I need $20,000.” And he said, “After $20,000, are you done with education?” And I said, “No, no, that’s only the first semester.” So he said, “Ok, great. So, whatever you want to do, do, but don’t expect any help from me. Not that I don’t want to pay for this but I don’t think this is the right thing for you to do, especially at this time. You have a scholarship, finish your education, get your Masters, work for a few years, then when you are sure that this is what you want to do, make your own money and go and spend it.”

It was very practical advice and it kind of made sense to me. Also, you know, $20,000 per semester… I mean, I am sure, after a couple of years I would not be able to afford that. So I realised that, ok, I should do that. So I completed my Masters and started working there, in Kansas City itself. And I tried to study animation in Kansas City but there were not really good schools there. Then I was looking at California side or New York side. There are a lot of decent schools that taught animation. So, finally I moved my job and then I learnt animation at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

Before that, in my job, in my college, in my school, during my Master’s program, I was a slacker, I would never work hard, I was lazy, I would pretend that I am working in my office just to make sure that people believe that I am working. But I had no interest in work. So when I went to learn animation I realised that I was working from 8:00 in the morning till 2:00 in the night… so many hours I am putting and I am still fresh and I am enjoying it, I am so excited about it. I kind of realised that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I mean, till that time, nothing interested me and it’s almost like now, 17 years after that, but I am still equally excited about the whole field of animation and arts and this thing.

I immediately I knew, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. In 2000, around August, is when I completed my summer semester and I wanted to come back to India. That’s when I went to my boss there and said, “I am quitting and I am going.” Obviously, he was pissed off because that time, this was the IT industry, Indians going to the US was at its peak, the stock market, anything I mean, I was making very good money, the company was taking very good care of me, but I realised that whatever it is I will be bored of it. So I left the US and came back to India. Obviously, I didn’t have parental approval. My dad flew from India to the US when he heard that I was going to do this. He said, “Are you crazy or out of your mind.” My mom was supporting me, so she said, “You should let him. The elder brother is settled, you are settled, what do we need? Let him do what he wants to do!” Dad was like, “No, no, this is not the field, blah, blah, blah.” Then my mother kind of made some sense to my dad and he said, “Why don’t you make a business plan and show it to me. If I am convinced you come back to India and start this company.”

Pankaj: Oh, that’s nice.

Rajiv: So that was the first time I heard about a business plan. Before that, I had no clue. He asked me, “Do you what’s a business plan?” I said, “Of course I know,” So, he said, “Ok, go ahead and make it.” So then I went ahead and researched on the internet and understood what a business plan is, made a pathetic one, but I still made a decent start. So he was convinced and then he and my brother kind of helped me kick-start the whole venture. So somewhere in September 2000, I came back, started pre-operation. You know, we had just moved our house back then to a newer house, so my dad said, “Ok, so why don’t you just use the house because initially you will have trouble paying the rent and all, use this place.” So I did that. I started the networking and those kinds of things and started Green Gold. We started operations by the end of that year. So beginning of January 2001, as a proprietary concern, I was single-handedly running this thing. We hired 3-4 people and started working. So that was kind of like a long story cut short. During this time, a lot of things have happened. There was also a time in the US when the dotcom companies, somebody starts a company, they are overnight a millionaire or a billionaire, like Yahoo was the story that time… There were great stories about all these entrepreneurs who inspired me and success was not going to be easy, but I realised that if you get that success then it will be fantastic.

Pankaj: This is fascinating. How did you start thinking of creating these characters and what was on in the early experiments? And what was the Chhota Bheem moment, much later, of course, but what led to that? What all went behind it?

Rajiv: I learnt a bunch of software, animation and stuff, but I realised that nobody has a background in animation here. Animation was just a new thing. There was Pentamedia, Color Chips and a few companies like that who went public, and they were doing fantastic, and there was a story back then and we had something at least to look up to. So there was some hope. So, initially, I realised that we didn’t have the people to run what I wanted to do. So we had to start training people. So we started with 4-5 people, started training them. At the same time, these guys were having multimedia experience, they were more multimedia guys than animators or anything. So we started doing this thing and started working for corporations, like started doing small jobs for software companies. So we started doing services for them, you know, designing their websites, doing some logos or their visiting cards or brochures. Basically, we didn’t restrict ourselves from doing anything. We made corporate films. In fact, I was the writer, cameraman, one-man army kind of thing. So when I came back, I bought a digital camera which nobody had in Hyderabad that time. So I kind of made myself look very tech savvy, so that everybody was impressed. So it was easy and I always priced things right, because I knew that my interest was only to survive the month, pay the bills. I understood what my clients wanted and I saved them money, so they never left me. Because they knew that no matter who they go to, I will give them the best quality as well as the best price. So that kind of worked in my favour and I did that and that is my policy, as long as you are making some money on it, I think you should not overprice yourself.

I kind of did that initially and a year passed and I realised that this is not what I want to do. I am getting into this trap of survival, and then I felt. Ok, so by now we are making some money that I can hire four more people, four more computers, and I thought, okay, let me start a 2D animation studio, and we bought, in 2002, some people from a different studio startup, like an educational academy. I found these guys who could do animation and they knew the techniques and stuff, they knew drawing and all, so they were a little trained. So I bought these guys and started working with them trying to make some pilots and we were kind of trying to work for films and stuff for animation. Somebody came to us and asked if we can make Vikram aur Betaal for them in animation, so we kind of made a pilot episode of Vikram aur Betaal. By the time, that guy ran away, never paid us any money. So we had made a pilot anyways of Vikram aur Betaal and we are figuring out what to do with it. We had no clue. And then I thought, let’s make one more pilot and I wrote a story and we made that pilot as well with Vikram aur Betaal, which was more of a universal story that could go to other countries. It looked very amateurish because we had a really inexperienced team and stuff, but that kind of taught us the production cycle and stuff like that. So, on one side, we were doing the services for corporations and advertising agencies. By now people were wanting to work with me because we were very professional, we delivered on time. Any crazy deadline was there, we would work overnight. We started doing some projects even for STPI, all those kind of things. So the contacts were there, my brother was also in the software industry, but it wasn’t the passion which we started the animation studio.

So in one of the key trips I went to, so was somebody in the paper, and one of the animators saw that in the paper, Cartoon Network is today in Hyderabad, they are doing some competition or something. So I said, ‘Ok, let’s do this’. I saw the location and went to meet them and so there were all kids, and adults were not allowed. So I kind of requested to meet the Cartoon Network guy and someone came and said, “Listen, I am doing events, I don’t do whatever you talked about, but if you want I will give you the email address of this lady who runs this programming,” He gave me the email address. So I wrote to her and then she invited me to come and show what we were doing. So I went to Mumbai and went to meet Cartoon Network, and they asked me to show what I had done. I showed the project that I had created, which was pretty universal. Then she said, “Listen, this kind of project, we have loads of tapes, everybody in the world makes this, it is easy to acquire that, but what else do you have? Because, we are not interested in this product. Then I said, “We have made Vikram aur Betaal” I was carrying the pilot luckily. I showed the tape to her. She said, “Ok, I like this thing. Can you make this for us?” I said, “We can make it but can you give me an order?” She said, “We cannot give you an order but you make it and then we will buy it.” I said, “Can there be any promise or something’?” She said, “Ok, before that, we will pay only this much.” That was not sufficient to meet the cost of production in any way. It was only 5-10% of the cost. I was under the impression that they will pay a lot of money or at least meet the cost of production. That was bad news for us. I didn’t know what to do because that was the only Indian channel back then, there was only one Cartoon Network, there was no kids channel.

Pankaj: Absolutely nothing.

Rajiv: They were also new, they had just started, they did not have enough budgets. So they had to run by theme. So I came back and (decided) to keep making it. International projects were coming that had more money and all, but I felt that this was something that we should not do. So we started producing episodes of Vikram aur Betaal. So there was one team making all these corporate ads, the team was supporting the 2D team to produce some output, so we produced three episodes of Vikram aur Betaal in some time. In the meantime, I met my partner Samir Jain. He was also my client. He was into a lot of things actually, a bit of cosmetics, a bit of factories, chemical manufacturing, real estate. He was happy to work with us and we got along very well. We became friends. So he used to come and sit at my studio to get the work done, and at the same time he was watching and very drawn towards it. He also saw my work and how hard I was working, how I was trying to make shows, and then he said, “You know Rajiv, why don’t we do one thing, why don’t we work together? You know, I see, you are going crazy working so hard here. Actually, you cannot achieve your dreams the way you are working. Why don’t we work together?” So he kind of made an offer to fund the whole thing and for obviously sharing the company and stuff.

I took some time. I didn’t say a yes or a no. We kind of started to get to know each other and took some time and then we joined hands. I realised that I can’t handle the pressure of paying so many people’s salary every month and obviously I was running in the wrong direction. After he came, it made it a little easier for me to focus on more creative stuff. So during this time, three episodes of Vikram aur Betaal we made, my team came to me and said, “Ok, listen Rajeev, I think what we are doing is going to be difficult because in Vikram aur Betaal every time, Vikram aur Betaal repeat, but every time, every story has new characters, new locations, so every time we are wasting time in designing these assets and stuff. So if we can have a story where characters repeat locations, then we can produce that at a cheaper cost or at least we can produce it faster. It completely made sense to me.

The same night I sat figuring out with my partner. Samir was sitting across my table. We were turning Amar Chitra Katha comics, then I started reading some lists of Amar Chitra Katha, you know, back of Amar Chitra Katha, the list of names of the books and all. I was looking and suddenly I ran across, Bheema, the Pandava, something like that. My eyes stopped there, my heart stopped there for a second, my mind stopped there, and it felt like something more, like one second, there is Bheema. Bheem was also my favourite character growing up, so I kind of stopped at that and then I said, “Ok, how about we make Bheem?” And then I started thinking aloud that there is Bheem and then there is Arjun in Mahabharat, then Shakuni and Drithrastra, and unlimited characters, and no, no, no, Bheem doesn’t make sense because then again he is growing up, same problem, our people will kill me. Vikram aur Betaal is still better.

So then I said, “Ok, let me just think about this. How about we make little Bheem?” Then I thought, little Bheem, Bheema stories are not there. This is actually between Bheem being born, I am talking about Mahabharat again, to the time he reaches Hastinapur, hardly any story of him is there in between. Then I realised that if we are doing something on Bheem, we cannot do the original one because there is no story and when we were doing Vikram aur Betaal, there were so many other people also doing Vikram aur Betaal. It was flash CDs, VCDs, so it kind of didn’t give us great security, something like that. Then immediately, within 10 minutes, this whole concept was made and I just started thinking and I tried jotting down. I said we will just call him Chhota Bheem right now. So Bheem is in a fictional town. I immediately connected with a scene that I saw where Bheem kills Kichaka and Kichaka was playing tabla and Bheem comes and plays tabla as a woman and he kills him. Some movie scene that I had seen in my childhood, Bheem and Kichaka wrestling and Bheem kills Kichaka. So that scene demanded Bheem playing a tabla, so Samir said, “Dholak, dholak.” So, Dholakpur was born. Then I said, “Bheem is alone, who is he?” So we started giving him friends, so the names, Bheem, Chutki, Raju, Jaggu, Kalia, Dholu, Bholu, it just happened in less than 7-8 minutes, this whole thing.

Pankaj: Wow.

Rajiv: And this was about 9:00 in the night and nobody was in the office. I went back home. I was very excited. My partner was generally always encouraging of any idea I gave, so I was not very convinced about his feedback. So I said, let me just talk to the team. Then I called the team, the three people. I said, “Listen guys, I had an idea last night. Tell me what you guys think about it. Be honest.” Then I told them this idea, and they all loved it. They said, “This is brilliant.” Some were a little senior than me, some were junior, so then I thought, now I have some kind of assurance, which is good. Then I started developing the storyline, character sketches, details about everything, the story, how they can, then we started making some pilots. This was in 2003. We made some pilots and we tried to sell Bheem but nobody was interested in that thing. In the meantime, we again approached Cartoon Network saying, what about Vikram aur Betaal because we had already made three episodes, we wanted to monetise that. A new guy came called Vishnu Athreya. He saw our story, he liked it. In fact, the call came from them because the story was lying in their studio and they saw Vikram aur Betaal and then we got a call. I think Samir got a call because Samir went and handed over them, again an updated show.

Then he called me and said, “Go immediately to Mumbai, meet Vishnu and let’s see what happens.” So I went to meet Vishnu and he said, “What can you do? We have only three episodes.” I said, “How much can you pay?” Again, it was small money, so I said, “We cannot afford to produce a new episode with this money, but we have already made the content and we are happy to take whatever we get. But let’s do one thing, I will add a beginning and an end to the story, and you stitch it in and release as a television movie.” He liked that idea. So I said, “Can you give us an order?” He said, “No, I can only give you that ‘we are interested’ on a letterhead.” I said, “Ok, that’ll also do.” We were kind of desperate to make it work. So we went back, completed the project, delivered it, and they loved it. They said they aired it because it did very well and people called me from many places and congratulated because that time anything Indian that came out, people used to notice.

Pankaj: I think, even now.

Rajiv: So people appreciated and I got a few calls from Hong Kong Turner and then I knew that this was something. Then the next thing they said was, “What can you make?” I said, “We have a great idea for Chhota Bheem.” They looked at it and brushed it aside, “No, no, we can’t risk it with a contemporary idea. Can you do something in mythology?” Then I said, “Ok, we can do the story of Krishna.” Then he said, “Ok, I always wanted to do Krishna… Ok Krishna we will do. If you do Krishna, we will give you the thing.” I said, “Ok, can you give an order?” He said, “Ok, the same thing, I will give you a letter.” I knew that time 17 companies were producing Krishna. I had done my research, animation companies, everybody was doing Krishna. I said, “Seventeen companies are doing Krishna.” I am not stupid enough to do this one because Vikram aur Betaal, I knew nobody was doing, they kind of… people started, left it. “So give me an order and I will do it otherwise forget about it.” So he kind of convinced his team, they gave us an order and in the meantime, we also realised that Vikram aur Betaal, we could monetize some money through home video, and we thought we could do some more thing, but the characters were not friendly enough for kids, so we can’t do any products. So we went on to do Krishna, we pre-signed home video deals and a few things, so we kind of raised money.

There was another company called Pierman Mumbai, we kind of tied up, they agreed to produce this. Things kind of started moving very quickly. So Krishna happened, it went on to become the top show of that year, number 1, 2, 3 ratings. The best of the entire year were those four films of Krishna we produced, I mean television films. Actually, it became a rage at that time. That’s when again they said, “What else can you make?” By then, I understood channel thinking, TRPs and all those things, and I said, “Listen, this show will give you TRP.” He said, “Ok, makes sense.” And then they also knew by now that not many people were crazy enough to produce that as a loss, and also knew that I knew storytelling, so the ratings were doing well, so their company was making money, the ad rates went all-time high. By now, any other channels had also come, CN was not the only channel.

Pankaj: Oh, you had choice.

Rajiv: Yes, others were also there. Disney was there. I mean, few years back only. We also went to everyone, Disney, Hungama. Everyone rejected Chhota Bheem. So the last attempt we made again to Turners, that “this is the best show ever, trust me, you’ll not regret.” So they kind of heard me out because I already was working with them, so we signed a deal. But then, little bit of a bomb they put on me, that, “Ok, we are going to put Chhota Bheem not on Cartoon Network but on a channel called Pogo.” They were about to shut down the channel, so this was the last resort for them to save Pogo. So they asked me, “Are you ok with it?” I said, “I know irrespective of what I say, you will do what you have to do.” And I told them the exact words: “This is a gamble but if it works on Pogo for Bheem then Pogo will become the face of the channel and that is the best thing that can happen to us… so I think it’s a risk worth taking, I have no objections to it.”

So it was a very crazy thing because Pogo was the last channel then and then Pogo was not even distributed properly. That time cable was more prominent, nothing was visible by the time you see the 54th or 70th channel (where Pogo was), while Cartoon Network band was like 18th or 3rd or 7th. So I knew it was a risk but we also had no choice but to agree to what they said. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise and as the show was good, people liked it. This was in 2008, April 6 that it went on air. So that was a turning point for our studio and everything for us has forever changed after Bheem has come on television. It went on to become a phenomenon and today whatever we are, the company is entirely built on this one show. And Bheem, obviously, was very special for us because we built our licensing and merchandise business. The entire business is built on this one character, one show. And then, post Bheem, we have done so many spin-offs of this show… like Mighty Raju is a spin-off of this show. We had Arjun, which was born out of this show, which was on Disney channel. Super Bheem is again an evolution of this show. So it really worked out well for us. We became the Mickey Mouse of India, I would say.

Pankaj: How do you describe Bheem’s success in numbers? How many kids have watched it?

Rajiv: As per our research and some articles on the net, it looks like about 73% of Indian kids follow Chhota Bheem. More during its peak than now, but pretty much every kid has grown up at some point or a few months to a few years, they have grown up on Chhota Bheem. Which turns out to be, TV audience-wise, about 40 million-plus viewers. The best thing that Bheem has achieved is, it has got equal success in Kerala or Andhra or Telangana or Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh or West Bengal or North East or Kashmir or Bangladesh or Pakistan or Nepal, all these countries which have a similar thing. Even in Indonesia, it’s become a phenomenon, it did extremely well. Animation, obviously, is universal and I felt very proud that, although everybody saw initially at this as a Hindu character, it was just a kid and went on explaining to people that this has got nothing about God, it’s just a story of a kid. He wears a dhoti, I have given that dhoti just to have, you know a colour to the kid, and be different about wearing, so the animated character wears yellow or so many other colours and nobody has done that, so let me do that. So it kind of had initial, little bit of issues but Bheem, viewership-wise, I think that it still continues to be in the top 2-3 shows even today after 10 years. Our new show, Super Bheem, is also doing very well and we are excited about this series. In the future, we want to do a theme park where Bheem is also a part of the whole thing. That is some five years away at least, but overall, I think the entire foundation of the company is made out of Chhota Bheem.

Pankaj: Not so Chhota after all. When we met for the first time, you talked about an almost near-death experience that you had, and there were a lot of other problems as well. What are one or two things that you have learnt from those challenges?

Rajiv: In the time between 2001 to 2008, we could have been shut down at least 25 times. Every 15 days there was a challenge. I mean, things like we get an order, it gets cancelled, we spend money on it, we don’t know what to do with it. We work for movies, they promise to pay but they never pay, so my plans backfire. Employees are not happy because we are not able to pay them on time. One show I forgot to mention was a show called Bongo on Doordarshan. My entire team suddenly abandoned me because they got a better job offer from DQ entertainment. Eight of them left me overnight. I said, “Can you at least work till the end of the month so I can find new people?” They didn’t listen and this movie was live, the episodes were going live on television. We had 13 episodes already delivered and we had to make one episode every week. And in that, about seven minutes of animation was there. But I was hands on, I was the key guy, so I could manage. I hired some students and kind of re-built everything. It was a very tough phase because the key people that were there with me for 3-4 years suddenly left and I think it was a sad thing. But it taught me a lesson. Prior to that, I was very emotional with employees and everything, but I realised that everybody has to make their own decision for their own good future, so it made sense to me to be more practical that I cannot get attached to people. I can only get attached to projects and, you know, goals and stuff like that. Obviously, I still trust people but at that moment I felt very betrayed.

Few more times, like, you know, after some time Samir developed cold feet. He had his health problems, he couldn’t fund any more, we were out of funds. So 3-4 months were terrible times and then I stopped working on the other clients. So I had to go and again ask for work, re-start it. In the meantime, we had started getting some orders. We had already started getting names in the circle. Then one company came, PMI, they came for the help, so they saved us again from a shutdown. Another setback was just 10 days before Chhota Bheem went on air. We had built a new office. We had brand new interiors, we were inaugurating that office in four days, and there was a fire on the first floor. A short circuit or something happened on a Saturday night. From the first floor the fire spread to almost the fourth floor. So, the first, second and third floors were completely damaged and burnt… We had to rebuild. Unfortunately, the PMI investors were coming to decide whether they wanted to invest in Chhota Bheem or not. I told them what had happened and it was all over the newspaper and news and stuff. I took them to the site. They obviously had a negative feeling, they pulled out of the funding and everything.

So fair enough. Obviously, anybody who saw that would have been scared. Luckily, there were no people living there, so no files or hard disc or anything was lost. But this was a moment where I felt like, how much ever I am putting effort, how much I am facing, there are so many hurdles, I cannot take it anymore. I had that kind of a moment, now this is enough, now this is where I quit. I felt that for about 15 minutes, then I went and had a beer and then I was ok. I wanted to keep going. So one of the offers that one of the guys told me was go back to this old office, reduce the team size and start again. I said, “Listen, I don’t think I want to move backwards because I believe in moving forward and I don’t see this as anybody’s fault. It happened! But we have an order, we are doing great, we shouldn’t be conservative. This is a time to take bigger risks. So one of the challenges was to pay all these guys first thing. And then they had to supply me all the material again. So I called all of them one time, before they could hear from every other source, I called them to the office, I showed them what happened. I said, “Listen guys, now this has happened, I know I have to pay you guys. I will pay you as soon as I have, within three months, I promise you. I need a favour from you all. No, not only will the payment be delayed or what you pay now, you have to pay supply everything that you supplied to me again, and I will take another three more months to pay that money.” And I thought they will trash me then but interestingly, they were all ok with that.

Pankaj: Oh, that’s nice.

Rajiv: I was actually shocked that they were ok with that. They said, “Ok sir, I will support you in whatever manner.” Obviously, they also said, “We will charge an interest rate.” I said, “I have no problem in that, go ahead.” So everybody supported at that moment, which was kind of a moment where I could have, you know, kind of said, ‘Ok, this is it.’ So 10 days later, Bheem went on air, it became a hit. Cartoon Network came to us and said, “We want you to make another 13.” I said, “You see my haalat (condition), I cannot do it. The money that you are paying is also not sufficient and you are also paying me after the delivery, which is impossible. So if you can pay for every episode in advance, I can deliver.” So they kind of helped me out in whatever way they could in terms of advances and stuff, they kind of kept the company going. After that also I kept looking for funding, nobody funded. Whoever came, saw and I always told the truth to the investors that till five years you will not make money, only after five years you will make money. So they didn’t want to hear that obviously. Nobody came forward, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I have the larger share today. So it worked out like all is well that ends well. After that event, I got married and my wife got me all the luck that I needed very badly, because till that time even if I touched gold it was becoming brick. But suddenly some good luck came into my life in form of my wife and family. Suddenly, whatever I was touching was becoming gold. So my life just reversed overnight and suddenly people were listening to what I was saying, they were agreeing with whatever I was saying, they were allowing my terms and conditions. There was no looking back.

Pankaj: Sure.

Rajiv: We were still struggling with producing Chhota Bheem because we were doing a traditional way of drawings. We digitised the entire thing in 2009. Before most companies turned paperless, we turned paperless, and that decision was key for us, to start being able to meet our cost. We tried to do that, we were not able to do it, we needed funds. But suddenly, with the turn of events, digitising paper, the first two months were pretty bad because everybody was training on the software, it didn’t work out. But suddenly, after two months, with the same people, the production output was two times more. Suddenly, my episode cost comes down by 30%, keeping all overheads and everything in mind. That was the turning point for us and some key people joined us, some good people. Once we had a nicer office, lot more people joined us who came to see us, heard about us, used to come and see our small office and decide not to join. But then, once we moved into a new office, we attracted better talent because people want to believe this company is secure, you know. So all these minor things really went on to add value to the whole thing and we kept always writing, re-inventing the ways, doing different things, and continuously growing, investing back into the company and technology, investing back into people, and doing newer things. Today, we have offices in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Chennai, offices in the US and Singapore, and a presence in 15-20 countries in terms of our content. We are on Amazon, we are going to be soon on Netflix.

Pankaj: I wanted to ask you that. You have had this long journey with television. Now, in new medium like the Netflixes, Amazons’ of the world, do you see better and bigger opportunities for your content?

Rajiv: Absolutely. Netflix and Amazon are a boom to content creators, you know. TV stations and all obviously have grown new channels, 25 kids channels are in India. So you can see, in 16-17 years, from one channel to 25 channels. So there itself, there is a lot of work to do. And to add to that, Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar and Voot and other things, so that side is growing obviously. I think at some point all these TV channels will convert to digital. It’s just that we were able to monetize the creations we have done through Amazon or Netflix, so for people who own IP, it is a blessing in disguise and people who didn’t own IP, they would regret not having the IP. But it worked out very well for us as we could take more risks, new shows, we could launch our American operations. So these kind of things, you know extra money always helps in achieving your ambitions a little quicker.

Pankaj: Final question: if we are meeting again 10 years down the line, Rajiv, what would you have liked to achieve when it comes to things that you are doing today?

Rajiv: One thing is for sure, that our best is yet to come. You know, a lot of people believe that, I mean they come and sometimes say that, “Ok, Chhota Bheem is one success story you have and nothing else,” and it’s the truth. I mean, it actually inspires us that we have something to prove to the world, that we are not a fluke, and they are going to achieve this again and again and again. So that is something that we want to achieve, to create more shows that are loved by people across India. And not just in India, we want to be a global player.

And one of the things market, like how there is a Frozen or Cars3 and so many other movies made either by Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks, made in the US and released worldwide. I think that is a dream for us to achieve that. We want to have a movie made out of India, may be in collaboration with somebody in the beginning, and have a global release and have a successful release. For me, it is not about the Oscars or something. I think for me it is about how people think you are able to entertain and are you able to achieve this globally. I think our shows have done well but to a limited audience, so we want to be able to achieve this globally. And my idol is Walt Disney, so I would like to achieve some of the things that he has achieved, like the theme park and all. It is not easy at all… Indian companies are more known as service companies. I think the time has come for Indian companies. We have the talent, we have the brains, we have the product brain also, we are creating everything, but for others. I think it’s time that we do things for ourselves, work for ourselves, create products. The good thing about India is it’s a self-sufficient market, it is never-ending. So I think we should make India proud.

Pankaj: Thank you, Rajiv. This was really fascinating and very inspiring, so more power to you.

Rajiv: Thank you, Pankaj.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)


Updated at 07:29 pm on January 16, 2019  to add transcription credit.

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