It was a quest worthy of a superhero. Animator Rajiv Chilaka spent years flogging his pitch about a superhuman Indian child to Western executives, to no avail.
But today Mighty Little Bheem is a global hit, as viewers seek alternatives to white-dominated storylines.
From his mother’s sari to his love of laddoos, everything about the star toddler is Indian.
His giant fan base stretches from Seattle to Sao Paulo, making it Netflix’s most popular show for preschoolers.
Since its launch last year, it has been seen by more than 27 million households. It was Netflix’s top international release of 2019 in the US, and a third season is now under way.
But the nappy-wearing superhero’s journey from the southern Indian city of Hyderabad to Hollywood was not easy.
“I was thrown out of every office I went to,” said Chilaka, who originally approached US television channels with the hope of taking Chhota Bheem [Little Bheem] – his popular Indian show about a nine-year-old village boy with superhuman strength – global.
TV executives demurred, claiming children in the West would reject it because the setting was “too bright and colourful” and the protagonist was shirtless, Chilaka said.
“It didn’t really make sense to me. I mean, kids are drawn to colour and Disney made Jungle Book – a whole movie about a boy in his underwear – years ago,” he said.
Although US studios regularly approach Indian animators to create English-language content at a lower price, the industry had never won acclaim for original productions.
Then Netflix came calling.
The streaming giant wanted to crack India’s massive entertainment market, and hoped a Bheem spin-off based on a baby version of Chilaka’s beloved superhero would help to do just that.