The global toy and games market is anticipated to touch $130 billion in 2024, with dominant players like Hasbro, Mattel, Spin Master, and LEGO spanning various product categories such as action figures, dolls, puzzles, among others, according to Statista, a global data and business intelligence platform. These leading companies produce renowned toys and games, leveraging iconic characters like Hot Wheels and Barbie from Mattel and DC Universe collectible toys from Spin Master. These toys often evolve from comics, movies — animated or otherwise — or the development of games around these toys.

At present, India’s toy market is estimated to be around $1.7 billion according to Statista, and largely dominated by imported toys. However, a significant portion of these toys do not reflect India’s rich heritage, civilisation and culture. Fortunately, India’s indigenous toy industry boasts a diverse array of toys originating from different States, each with its unique characteristics. These indigenous toys have the potential to be transformed into captivating characters that embody Indian tradition and heritage.

This approach can achieve dual objectives: first, by fostering the local production of indigenous toys, it would support Indian craftsmanship and benefit artisans; second, by creating a global cinematic universe centred around Indian culture — akin to the ambition of Toycathon, an inter-ministerial initiative organised by the Ministry of Education’s Innovation Cell — could lead to the export of Indian culture. This parallels the success South Korea has achieved with its K-Pop and dramas, popularity of which on Netflix in India skyrocketed by over 370 per cent in 2020 compared to that in 2019. This has led to a ripple effect in the market, which has facilitated the entry of Korean noodles into Indian households, forcing top FMCG companies like Nestle and HUL to introduce them as well in the form of new products.

Toy character-based movies

Barbie’s nine Oscar nominations serves as a compelling illustration of our point. Originating as a comic character, Barbie evolved into a globally recognised collectible toy loved by children, eventually spawning a lucrative movie adaptation. The extensive exposure through films, along with the widespread popularity of Barbie dolls and characters being referenced in daily life and other media, has seen Barbie transform into a symbol of — some would say — empowerment, reflecting the evolving demands and export of American culture and in stories over time.

The Marvel and DC cinematic universes offer another parallel example, with superhero characters like Iron Man, Avengers, Thor, Superman, and Batman originating from comics and transitioning into blockbuster movie franchises. This phenomenon has not only fuelled the market for collectible toys and fan clubs but also facilitated the global exportation of American culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, in particular, stands as the highest-grossing film franchise in history, amassing $29 billion worldwide through 33 feature films. Notably, Walt Disney’s Incredibles 2, became the highest-grossing Hollywood animation in India in 2018, underscoring the global reach of such cinematic endeavours.

Indigenous toys

India boasts a rich heritage in toy craftsmanship, with a history dating back 5,000 years. Archaeological findings from sites like Harappa and Mohenjodaro have unearthed ancient toys and dolls, such as miniature carts and dancing figures, providing glimpses into the early roots of Indian toy-making. The indigenous toys across States not only offer insights into various aspects of life but also reflect religious influences, with many depicting narratives from revered epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The various types of indigenous Indian toys could be integrated into the global toys market. While there is a growing emphasis among global leaders on eco-friendly and sustainable toy manufacturing, it is noteworthy that the plastics segment holds the highest market share globally, based on material-type segmentation. However, Indian indigenous toys typically utilise wood as their primary material, augmented with natural colours applied through lacquering and polishing techniques. Consequently, indigenous toys surpass global market leaders in terms of environmentally friendly manufacturing practices.

For example, Bhatukali represents a miniature compilation of household items, offering potential for imaginative play and creativity. Kondapalli toys, inspired by ancient mythological roots, showcase scenes ranging from mythological narratives to village life, animals, and birds, presenting opportunities to capture the interest of both children and collectors alike. Similarly, Thanjavur dancing dolls are a testament to Tanjore’s rich heritage of beautiful handicrafts, with their intricate designs and cultural significance appealing to a global audience. Choppu Saman, traditional role-play toys for kids, feature utensils crafted from fine wood or clay, painted with harmless natural colours, providing avenues for interactive and educational play experiences.

Each of the aforementioned examples presents opportunities for creative minds to craft stories around these characters. With each type of indigenous toy possessing unique features, aesthetics, and clothing styles — many of which are rooted in rural life — there is ample potential to weave engaging narratives that resonate with audiences, especially children, who are the main target groups for such products. Given the pivotal role that franchises and characters from movies, TV shows and books play in driving toy sales and leveraging brand recognition, it is imperative for Indian toy manufacturers to showcase Indian stories and culture on a global stage through character driven cinematic story-telling. This initiative can endeavour to elevate Indian toy characters to prominence and popularity worldwide by exporting Indian ethos and culture.

Sondhi is Chairperson National Board for Quality Promotion and former MD and CEO, Ashok Leyland & JCB India; Chauhan is with the Policy Unit of Quality Council of India