Meet Rajiv Chilaka, Chhota Bheem’s Giant Maverick


Bheem ki shakti, dhoom machaye! This little jingle is an everyday carol of almost every Indian household with kids. It loosely translates to ‘Bheem’s power, does wonders!’ Rajiv Chilaka, the man behind this beloved character is testimony to the wonders that Chhota Bheem can in fact do. Rajiv’s life has been full of grit, determination, acumen and a never die attitude. Rajiv Chilaka is the CEO of Hyderabad based, Green Gold Animation. Green Gold Animation is the house of successful creations that are now part of the most important offerings that channels like Cartoon Network, Pogo, Hungama, Disney have for their young viewers. Everything that this company is today is because of one passionate guy, who likes to define himself as “Just a normal guy. Who like to keep things simple. I try not to overcomplicate anything I do. Just that, I’m someone who thinks out of the box, I don’t like to think traditionally.”

Cartoons and animated figures were not new for Rajiv as he beamingly shares his childhood fascination of Superman with Dutch Uncles, “I was a crazy fan of Superman. Back in the early 80s, there was a release of a Superman movie. When I saw Superman, I had the imagination that there is somebody out there, who can fly. I thought I could too with that costume.” Rajiv always involved himself in things that he has always wanted to do. “Either do things that you like or don’t do it. During my engineering days in India with Osmania, Hyderabad, I spent time with great people, had fun and then finally cleared international exams to end up in University of Missouri, Kansas City.” His days in Kansas were full of good times and inspiring moments. 

“On one good day, they took us for a tour of the city. I saw Walt Disney’s house in Kansas City and I also found out that the logo of our university was designed by Walt Disney when he started his career, that fact wowed me. It doesn’t stop here. Someone gave me a book on Walt Disney’s life. I am not a person who reads books. This one, I enjoyed it a lot and got inspired by it. Today there is a lot of money for companies but back then without much technology and financial support, what Walt Disney had done, moved me. I said to myself, if even five to ten percent of this I can achieve, then I would have done something with my life.”  A simple eye on a logo, went on to inspire Rajiv to read Walt’s life. Observation is essential for an entrepreneur to get interesting ideas. “Observation is what will take you to the next level. That is why travelling is important. Ideas need to flow. That is why entrepreneurs are asked to visit places and have a change of mindset with an open mind,” Rajiv adds.

‘‘

There were so many situations where I thought, this is over. Everyone is telling me to do something else. Though, whenever I thought we had hit rock-bottom and then some miracle happened. Just then, when there’s intense struggle, we stick to our goals and we get some kind of order. This is how things were at one point.

It was clear to Rajiv from the start that engineering and allied jobs in that field are not where his heart lies. He had a chance to stumble on an animation techniques book and that eventually became his second complete read of his life. Now it was clear to him that animation was his calling and he started searching for animation schools to get into. It wasn’t easy. “Wherever I went to learn animation, they would say that I don’t have any experience, portfolio, or skills like drawing that are necessary for me to get admitted in them.” Despite such hurdles, Rajiv did not lose focus from the goal and that was to achieve what he wanted; to learn animation. An entrepreneur needs to focus on acquiring the skill that he wants to learn and not get mingled in certification or formal acceptance of the same. For Rajiv, he went blunt and honest, which worked out, “I talked to the dean of one of these schools. I told him, I don’t want a degree or a certificate. I just want to learn; I don’t know how to draw. I just want to learn. And that’s when I got in.”

Passion as a word might be overly used to sound like a cliche but in entrepreneurship, it can change the way things are going for you. For Rajiv, finally getting the chance to do what he wanted was the break point to do the real handwork, “While in the corporate, at my job, I was a slacker. I was pretending to work, though since I was good at the job, I could do my work. In fact, I wanted to pay back to my company because my heart wasn’t in my work. So, when I came to do animation, I started my day at 8 a.m. and then I was working in the library till 2 in the night. I’m getting no sleep but I’m equally excited. I used to think I’m lazy, no, I’m not.”

 

Often entrepreneurs face strange stages of approvals before setting things in order. Approval from the investor’s associates, friends, society in general and most importantly, your family goes a long way in boosting morale. Rajiv’s father had flown from India to the US to convince him not to start a company by leaving the software company job and if not, to come back to India. For him, the challenge was on a different level. “When I insisted that I do want to start an animation company, he said, ‘okay convince me, make a business plan. I didn’t know anything about a business plan but then that’s when I made my first business plan. Then I got my Dad’s approval, which is very difficult, I must tell you.”

In January 2001, with all might and glee, Rajiv started his office. He is soon hit with harsher market realities. “There was no work for animation. No one was doing anything in animation. There was just one kids channel at that time, a cartoon network. They were also not producing any local Indian content. Even if you have created something, how will you put it out there?” Rajiv shares the tale of initial challenges that a new business idea is bound to face, “After the market realities, came to me the issue of manpower. Animation industry is a very labour-intensive field. For every different thing, you need talented individuals. I could see that the people I’m starting with did not know much about animation. I realised that you have to train your people before they can start working. I was trained in animation and was able to impart my skills to them.” 

After initial investment help from Rajiv’s brother and Dad, he did not want to go back to them again to meet the company’s requirement for funds. He further through his own journey, teaches the idea of surviving first, “So, once labour is set, they have to be paid too. And a month ends pretty quickly. It is the most difficult part to start earning enough to pay the team you have set in place. So, I started thinking about doing some kind of work, it can be anything, be it designing an invitation card. I would work with all kinds of corporations to fulfil their needs of brochures, photography or creatives. So, I used to take those projects just to survive. I just wanted to survive. We’ll fight the battle tomorrow.”

Rajiv, did never at any point of time in life, let the notion of dignity of work come in the way. He proudly took up jobs that would create favourable conditions for him to succeed eventually, one day. On this he says, “Generally speaking, I was always proud of myself even when I had nothing. Though, I think I had the right attitude. There is dignity in whatever you do. For part-time I did work at an Ice-Cream parlour or as a Pizza delivery guy too in the US. So, no job is small. So, in the beginning, at my company, I was the office boy, the accountant, the receptionist, I did it all.”

‘‘

Nothing happened overnight. It is a journey of 28 years. I’m still the same guy, like the one in 2001. I don’t know how success feels overnight because I did not taste it that way.

At times, Rajiv felt that it had gotten too much for him, the times went extremely challenging but the true entrepreneur in him, gave him the belief in what he was doing. He tells Dutch Uncles, “There were so many situations where I thought, this is over. Everyone is telling me to do something else. Even though my Dad told me to do something else, he is reminding me that I have to get married and this is a bad field to be, I should be taking up a job. Though, whenever I thought we had hit rock-bottom and then some miracle happened. Just then, when there’s intense struggle, we stick to our goals and we get some kind of order. This is how things were at one point”

Rajiv continued working hard towards his target of getting his first big breakthrough. Back in 2003 already he had Chhota Bheem concept ready but there were no takers. He tried to push it through but the broadcasters found the idea more contemporary than to their liking. Rajiv, went ahead with his creations like Vikram Betaal and Krishna, which stamped his success as an animator and Green Gold as top animation company in the industry. Earlier, to kickstart his projects, something as little as a letter of interest on a letterhead gave Rajiv confidence to comment on things. Later, interest from the industry solidified with Rajiv’s work. The success of Krishna show worked immensely in making sure Rajiv had bargaining power along with recognition for his company. “It was a rage. Top in every ranking for weeks.” he says.

The times of Chhota Bheem

Finally, with a few eggs in the basket and a few rejections later, Rajiv was able to convince Turner Entertainment to take on Chhota Bheem. Nothing comes easy and that is why, the biggest turning point is called a breakthrough moment for an entrepreneur. “It took me five years to take it to Turner. Ideas-wise, I always had ideas. Though for seeing it on the right platform you have to wait. After many rejections and no’s’, we had this good deal.”

With a big deal in hand, Rajiv decided the growing name of Green Gold needs a better home. Previously they were working out of Rajiv’s place. Hence, they shift to a nice five-storeyed building. All is set for them like a red-carpet to bring over everyday work, from furniture to electrical wiring. Things are in place for their big working space to welcome the team. Right at that moment, leaving a sour taste in the mouth, a tragedy struck. Rajiv shares the rest, “It is 26th of March, we are supposed to move-in on the first of April. On the night of 26th, a fire strike. It burns it all down. Almost everything in place is now in ashes. Till the 4th storey almost, things are gone. Fire station by the way, was just 100 metres away but it was Saturday midnight and they came in an hour. It was still on-time given they had to fill their tanks all of sudden. They saved the labourers sleeping on the terrace. That could have been very tragic.” What was your first reaction after this, I ask Rajiv. “At that moment I felt, what am I fighting for? If everything is against me, why am I trying to be a hero against all the odds?” If things couldn’t get worse for Green Gold Animation, an investor pre-pones a meeting with Rajiv and arrives right on the next day of the fire. Sees the situation and backs off from the commitment. 

Such a major set-back for an entrepreneur who had just gotten his break, could act as nothing else but the straw that broke the camel’s back. Not for Rajiv. He, in an exemplary display of mettle as a person and as a businessman, decided to go on. “It took me a few days to get over it. Honestly, I had no choice. No choice but to continue. There was no path ahead of me. You cannot quit. If there is no choice, you go with how things are. That is it” Rajiv elaborates.

As they say, fortune favours the bold, Rajiv’s never die attitude had destiny written over it. The sunrise from overcast came ten days later from the fire. On 6th of March, Chhota Bheem, finally went on air on POGO channel. “From that day till twenty days later, when they told me it was a big hit and they wanted us to continue it, we really had a difficult 20 days. If there was something negative, there was always something positive in waiting. I always wanted to focus on that. If we had seen success with Chhota Bheem, Krishna, Vikram Betal, we had the taste of a fair number of bad days too.”

Chhota Bheem went on to change the fortune for Rajiv and his company, forever. There was absolutely no looking back for him, as Bheem as a concept went on to create a cult of its own. Today, from their cricket bat stickers to their Rakhis on the festival, kids are attracted to anything and everything with Bheem on it. There is an innate Indianness in Bheem, he is the superhero which is desi and still, successful. He is quickly recognisable, its jingle is easy to catch and memorise, the story line suits the simplicity of Indian rural life and most importantly, kids find their superhero in Bheem. Today, Bheem is the world’s most popular preschool show. It is international. Earlier, international markets had their own demurs about Bheem’s potential, today, Bheem is on Netflix and without a change, goes live on air in the US and beyond.

Rajiv recalls his journey as one that has been long-fought, “Nothing happened overnight. It is a journey of 28 years. I’m still the same guy, like the one in 2001. I don’t know how success feels overnight because I did not taste it that way. It was hard for me, and yes, the battle is not over!  I see problems with us that we have today too. With our success, at times we might have gone complacent too. In that time came many new players as well. And I like that. It is always good. Helps us keep ourselves in check and the industry develops.” 

What would you like to change, if given the chance, “Nothing absolutely? I would love to be younger (chuckles),” Rajiv ends on this lighter note.

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Suresh Chouksey
Suresh Chouksey
Suresh was former staff at Dutch Uncles, he writes on entrepreneurship, start-ups, business life cycle and small businesses.

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