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‘Chhota Bheem’: The Indian superhero toddler goes global

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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, clothing worn usually by Indian women, to his love of laddoos, sweets popular in the Indian subcontinent, 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 United States, 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.

No translation needed

“We really wanted to have a character that resonated for, first and foremost, our Indian members,” Dominique Bazay, director of the original animation for Netflix, told AFP news agency.

There was no question of Westernising the content, she said.

Bheem wears a traditional bindi – a dot on the forehead – and lives in a village where everyone is dressed in Indian clothing.

Raised by a single mother, he crawls his way into every kind of mischief, occasionally including a cheeky monkey and baby elephant in his escapades.

The company was not worried about how the show – which has no dialogue – would translate among overseas viewers, Bazay said.

“Kids are really willing to discover [new things] and their curiosity is boundless,” she said.

Nevertheless, few expected the adventures of Bheem and his furry friends to attract such a huge global audience, as it snapped up fans in the age of Black Panther and the growing demand for more diversity in entertainment.

New Yorker Lisa-Michelle Houck told AFP her children, aged four and two, were fast fans of the show.

Bheem’s fondness for laddoos was self-evident to them, she said. “It’s just candy.”

Laughter and lessons

Bheem’s antics – from banging his toy drum non-stop to making a mess at home – are instantly hilarious to young viewers.

And for parents seeking a break from traditional kids’ programming and its parade of pink-wearing princesses and white protagonists, the show is an easy way to introduce children to a more multicultural world view.

Bheem’s single-parent household offers important lessons on how “there is no one right way to have a family”, said Houck.

She and her wife also wanted their mixed-race children to see that “you don’t have to be white to be a superhero”.

For Bheem’s creator Chilaka, the success has been both stunning and sobering.

“When we started work, I was very conscious that this was the first animated show from India to find such a large platform,” the 46-year-old said.

“It was a big load on my shoulders because I knew it could open doors for others.”

Bheem’s journey from underdog to global phenomenon could prove a game-changer for India’s animation industry, he added.

It has already transformed the fortunes of Chilaka’s studio, Green Gold Animation, which has seen its staff numbers shoot up from 25 to about 1,200 people based in India, the US, Singapore and the Philippines.

“We are still pinching ourselves,” Chilaka said, adding that he hopes to produce a movie about the toddler at some point.

“This little kid has turned my life upside down.”

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx grabs rocks from asteroid in historic mission

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A NASA spacecraft touched down on the rugged surface of the Bennu asteroid on Tuesday, grabbing a sample of rocks dating back to the birth of the solar system to bring home.

It was a first for the United States – only Japan has previously secured asteroid samples.

The so-called “Touch-And-Go” manoeuvre was managed by Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, Colorado, where at 6.12pm (22:12 GMT) on Tuesday an announcer said: “Touchdown declared. Sampling is in progress,” and scientists erupted in celebration.

Seconds later, the Lockheed mission operator Estelle Church confirmed the spacecraft had eased away from the space rock after making contact, announcing: “Sample collection is complete and the back-away burn has executed.”

The historic mission was 12 years in the making and rested on a critical 16-second period where the minivan-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft extended its 11-foot (3.35-metre) robotic arm towards a flat patch of gravel near Bennu’s north pole and plucked the sample of rocks – NASA’s first handful of pristine asteroid rocks.

The probe will send back images of the sample collection on Wednesday and throughout the week so scientists can examine how much material was retrieved and determine whether the probe will need to make another collection attempt.

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu was composed of 12 PolyCam images collected on December 2, 2018 by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from a range of 15 miles (24 km) [NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Handout via Reuters]

Scientists want at least 2 ounces (60 grams) and, ideally, closer to 4 pounds (2 kilogrammes) of Bennu’s black, crumbly, carbon-rich material – thought to contain the building blocks of the solar system. The asteroid is located more than 200 million miles (321.9 million kms) from Earth.

NASA’s science mission chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, likened Bennu to the Rosetta Stone: “Something that’s out there and tells the history of our entire Earth, of the solar system, during the last billions of years.”

‘Exactly perfect’

If a successful collection is confirmed, the spacecraft will begin its journey back towards Earth, arriving in 2023.

“Everything went just exactly perfect,” Dante Lauretta, OSIRIS-REx principal investigator from the University of Arizona, Tucson, said on a NASA live feed from Lockheed’s mission support building. “We have overcome the amazing challenges that this asteroid has thrown at us, and the spacecraft appears to have operated flawlessly.”

The robotic arm’s collection device, shaped like an oversized shower head, is designed to release pressurised gas to kick up debris.

The spacecraft launched in 2016 from Kennedy Space Center for the journey to Bennu. It has been in orbit around the asteroid for nearly two years preparing for the Touch and Go manoeuvre.

Bennu, which is more than 4.5 billion years old, was selected as a target because scientists believe it is a small fragment of what was once a much larger space rock that broke off during a collision between two asteroids early on in the history of the solar system.

“Asteroids are like time capsules floating in space that can provide a fossil record of the birth of our solar system,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of Planetary Science, told Al Jazeera. “They can provide valuable information about how planets, like our own, came to be.”

Thanks to data collected from orbit, the NASA team has determined two key discoveries: first, that between 5 and 10 percent of Bennu’s mass is water, and second, that its surface is littered with carbon-rich molecules. Atomic-level analysis of samples from Bennu could help scientists better understand what role asteroids played in bringing water to the Earth and seeding it with the prebiotic material that provided the building blocks for life.

Studying that material could also help scientists discover whether life exists elsewhere in the solar system, as well.

“If this kind of chemistry is happening in the early solar system, it probably happened in other solar systems as well,” Lauretta, OSIRIS-Rex’s principal investigator, told Al Jazeera in an interview ahead of Tuesday’s breakthrough. “It helps us assess the likelihood of the origin of life occurring throughout the galaxy and, ultimately, throughout the universe.”

Japan expects samples from its second asteroid mission – in the milligramMEs at most – to land in the Australian desert in December.

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World trade recovering slowly, but outlook is uncertain: UN body

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Demand for home office equipment, medical supplies and textiles rose in the third quarter – but car and energy sales fell, UN trade body says.

The value of global trade is set to fall 7 to 9 percent in 2020 from the previous year, despite signs of a fragile rebound led by China in the third quarter, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.

No region was spared by an estimated 19 percent year-on-year plunge in world trade in the second quarter, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted economies, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said.

Global trade recovered somewhat in the third quarter when it was estimated at about 4.5 percent less than in the same period a year ago, the agency said in its latest update.

“Trade in home office equipment and medical supplies has increased in [the third quarter], while it further weakened in the automotive and energy sectors,” UNCTAD said. Growth in the textiles sector was also strong.

Its preliminary forecast for the fourth quarter is a 3-percent drop in global trade compared with the same period last year, but the report said that uncertainties persisted due to how the pandemic would evolve.

If the pandemic resurges in coming months, that could lead to a deteriorating environment for policymakers and a sudden increase in trade restrictions, it said.

China leads the way

China’s exports rebounded strongly in the third quarter after falling in the early months of the pandemic, and have posted year-on-year growth rates of nearly 10 percent, UNCTAD said.

“Overall, the level of Chinese exports for the first nine months of 2020 was comparable to that of 2019 over the same period,” it said.

Chinese demand for imported products recovered following a decline in the second quarter, contrary to other major economies, it said.

Earlier this month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) upgraded its forecast for trade in goods due to improvements from June and predicted a drop of 9.2 percent for 2020.

But it saw a more muted rebound in 2021, with further lockdowns from a second wave of COVID-19 infections posing clear risks.

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Many dead in stampede near Pakistan consulate in Afghanistan

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At least 15 Afghans killed and more than a dozen injured as thousands gathered to secure visas in Jalalabad city.

At least 15 Afghans have been killed and more than a dozen injured in a stampede near the Pakistani consulate in eastern Afghanistan.

The stampede occurred in an open ground where thousands of Afghans had gathered on Tuesday to secure visas from the consulate, officials said on Wednesday.

Sohrab Qaderi, a provincial council member in eastern Jalalabad city, where the incident occurred said of the 15 people dead, 11 were women and several senior citizens were wounded.

Two other provincial officials said more than 3,000 Afghans had congregated to collect tokens needed to apply for a visa to travel to Pakistan.

Officials in the Pakistan embassy were not immediately available for comment.

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