At Toy Fair, from left: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pocket Box Office founder/CEOs Shailja Gupta and co-founder/CFO Kurush Mistry, and Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit as Ganga in Subhash Ghai's action thriller "Khal Nayak."
Pocket Box Office (PBO) came to Toy Fair for the first time last month at New York’s Javits Center, but if its ambitious plans pan out, it will have plenty more to show next year besides the already impressive prototype South Asian figurines and marketing concepts on display this year.
The New York-based company, whose motto is “Weaving tomorrow’s technology into yesterday’s stories,” is what founder/CEO Shailja Gupta describes as an avatar company that tells immersive stories by way of character-driven “smART toys” and animated series accessed via its “ijooLife platform.”
“Every story starts from a character, and I make pop culture characters using real people,” says Gupta. “In today’s social media world, ‘avatar’ is something that everyone understands--so it’s easier to call ourselves an avatar-creating company that focuses on telling mash-up stories of these avatars.”
Ijoo, then, is the name of PBO’s flagship five-inch character, “an adorable reflection of mankind, with the motto ‘Live life pop style,’” continues Gupta. “He represents South Asian culture as a huge fan of Bollywood, cricket, and everything South Asian.”
She notes that her company’s name is itself a reflection of pop culture.
“In today’s world, box office, TV, ratings, collections, revenues--everything is available in a device that is easy to carry in your pocket,” she explains. “Metaphorically, the whole idea of box office collections has changed: The movie--and any content-viewing experience--is in your pocket. Hence, Pocket Box Office!”
PBO’s main initiatives, per Gupta, are “collaborative pop merchandising, smART toys and artificial intelligence-driven storytelling.”
“We’re not just looking at creating a one-off company. There are tons of artists, marketers and writers who are interested in creating their version of what we call ‘fan POP’ merchandise, but have no platform or resources. There is no formal training, platform or outlet available. The only things that are mostly available are t-shirts and accessories like laptop covers, mobile phone covers, etc.--mostly printed stuff. So what I’m doing is inviting other artists to create their fan POP action figures, sculptures, etc., and then help bring their ideas to life by way of ‘collaborative pop merchandising.’”
Gupta says she’s already collaborating with an entrepreneur who has a board game based on Bollywood trivia, and another trying to convert a comic strip into an action figure and other merchandise. Meanwhile, she’s soon to market PBO’s smART toys, STEM toys, “pop action figures,” back-to-school items, accessories, apparel and children’s books.
“Our series, ijooTREE , teaches children social responsibility through interactive storytelling and fun play, using action figures, dioramas, voice and activity-driven instructions. Our first toy, ijooCAN teaches toddlers about water conservation, recycling and food wastage.”
And by “smART toys,” Gupta means “smart art toys.”
“It’s something I coined to showcase art toys integrated with technology,” she says. “We’re making a special edition of toys—‘art collectibles’—that will be augmented reality [AR] activated, and are also experimenting with an AI [artificial intelligence] driven action figure using a famous celebrity as the pilot piece.”
This all ties in with the ijooLife platform—“an online and mobile platform, developed using our SapnaMachine AI framework, where people can use our characters and create their own animated spoofs and parodies,” says Gupta.
“SapnaMachine is a collaborative platform where tech artists, designers, performers, students and content creators tell their stories through iconic pop characters. Using object identification and immersive animation, ijoo travels through time and space in various avatars, sparking the imagination of creative souls: The idea is for creative people to have access to all our desi [pertaining to people of South Asian descent] characters and 3D environments for use in telling stories.”
The word ijoo “doesn’t mean anything” but does convey “one’s essence,” says Gupta. She suggests that when asked, “Who’s your ijoo?,” then, one might answer, “The Angry Young Man portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan.”
“The Angry Young Man” is a Bollywood movie character archetype, most notably associated with superstar Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan for his 1970s roles depicting the anger of dejected youth. Gupta says that “fan POP” figures now in the works include such famous characters, designed by fans (thus the name fan POP).
“Since we haven’t acquired the rights yet, these will be marketed as ‘Fan created POP action figures,’” says Gupta. “The Wise Man, The Angry Young Man and The Superstar are three avatars of Mr. Bachchan. We also have others coming out this summer: Thalaivar [a Tamil language term for ‘The Leader’ used in addressing Rajinikanth, another South Asian cinema superstar], Captain Cool & Captain Hot [references to Indian cricket captains known for their demeanor], and Item Dancer [a female participant in an extravagant Bollywood ‘item number’ song that has no bearing on the plot].”
PBO has acquired licensing rights from Hindi cinema director Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts company, and after launching some of the generic characters where the intellectual property belongs to Gupta, will launch specific actor figures (a figure of Ghai himself is also in the works).
“In the meantime we are already in talks with other production companies and celebrities to acquire the licenses, and working on getting some new ones from current movies,” she says, adding that while PBO is starting out with Bollywood and cricket, it’s also reaching out to South Asian celebrities in the U.S. as well as creating characters based on “the clichés of South Asian culture in the NRI [Non-Resident Indians] communities”--these including Indian mythological characters (Hindu and other religious deities) and cultural figures (Fan POP Gandhi and Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh).
It should be noted that PBO’s use of the term “Bollywood” includes films made in all Indian languages and not just the Hindi of the Bollywood capital of Mumbai (formerly Bombay, hence the name “Bollywood”). Gupta herself was born and raised in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). She moved to Mumbai in 1999 when she was 25 in search of greater professional opportunity (including India’s first dot-com company, developed jointly with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan), and moved to the U.S. in 2004 to further expand her horizons.
After directing and producing her first feature film (the 2010 English language desi dramedy Walkaway), she launched PBO two years ago as a merchandising/licensing/content creation firm, and is now in talks with distributors for its initial product launch.
“Our mission is to create an ancillary revenue system for Indian intellectual properties worldwide to help expand the consumer industry in the areas of merchandising memorabilia, high quality toys supported by emerging tech art, vinyl toy manufacturing and AI avatars-based storytelling,” summarizes Gupta.
Speaking of Indian cinema, she adds, “With more than 1.5 billion fans worldwide, the largest film industry in the world makes more than 2,000 films in a year, and generates billions of dollars in ticket sales, 60 percent of which comes from outside India. However, less than one percent of this revenue is generated through merchandising, toys and other ancillary revenue models, which can be expanded to the captive potential audience--which includes adults and children--by drawing on nostalgia and contemporary content.”
This potential marketplace, she continues, includes the U.S.
“It’s one of the biggest international consumers of Bollywood, with five million Indian-Americans and a total of almost 25 million Bollywood fans,” Gupta continues. “But the market for Indian-centric collectibles is almost non-existent. Be it here or in India, the collectibles market has been dominated by brands like DC, Marvel, Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Pokemon--in spite of the huge volume and variety of Bollywood content. With the renewed interest in everything ‘vintage’ from the millennial generation that loves and consumes cultural representation in pop form, the need for a standardized licensing and franchising model, or ecosystem design for South Asian intellectual property to generate ancillary revenues, has never been more in demand.”
To help meet this demand, PBO has established ijooCollective as a research-and-development creative entity for studying and publishing papers on the global impact of South Asian culture--and to support emerging artists and designers in developing their personal franchises through storytelling and merchandising via emerging technologies.
“We are working on creating content in the form of Virtual Reality where users feel immersed in the storytelling,” says Gupta, pointing to a DesiSuperverse (South Asian Superhero Universe) filled with "iconic characters and Bollywood stereotypes, where the fight between good and evil is re-imagined using pop avatars from Indian mythology and Bollywood bad guys. We need to create content to sell merchandise.”
Gupta also cites the “quirky animated spoof series” FilmiCurve, where multiple Bollywood worlds collide while cult film characters and stereotypes from various genres and ages interact in unusual situations to create mayhem and mirth.
One such scenario concerns the discovery that two iconic screen mothers, Sharda and Durga, lifted respectively from the hit movies Ram, Lakhan and Karan, Arjun, are actually twins, separated during the world’s biggest spiritual event, Kumbh Mela.
“It’s a quintessential Bollywood stereotype where kids get separated,” says Gupta, looking now to use “today’s technology to tell yesterday’s stories”--while creating “a standardized licensing and merchandising model for selling thousands of pieces” to both the Bollywood demographic and “American millennials trying to figure out our culture.”
And as K-Pop, J-Pop, V-Pop and C-Pop--pop musics from Korea, Japan, Vietnam and China--have gained traction, “the concept of global Desi-Pop is more viable,” Gupta observes. “There is a barrage of Desi-Pop merchandise getting made in India on our cultural themes. So the idea of ‘Live life POP style’ is a fun way of classifying a modern take on Indian cultural representation.”