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Spikes Asia 2015: A chat with the creator of Pakistani hit show 'Burka Avenger'

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Singapore | In Media Publishing | September 10, 2015
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Grey Singapore's Ali Shabaz quizzed Aaron Haroon Rashid, maker of Burka Avenger, popular animated Pakistani TV series.

Grey Group Singapore's chief creative officer Ali Shabaz hosted one of the most engaging sessions of Day One of Spikes Asia 2015. Credit goes to his guest, Aaron Haroon Rashid, founder-CEO of production company Unicorn Black, and to the topic they discussed, the award-winning television series on Nickelodeon Pakistan, Burka Avenger. While Season One was aired on Geo Tez, the show moved to Nick for Season Two. The protagonist is a burka-clad super-woman who fights characters that symbolise all the negative elements of Pakistan, for instance, extremists who bomb schools meant for girls. When not out fighting evil, she plays a school teacher named Jiya.

"What did it take to step out and put a character like that on mass media?" Shabaz asked, attempting to make the discussion as relevant as possible to an advertising-marketing audience, to which Haroon (as he is popularly known, thanks to his parallel music career), responded with, "I have always felt very strongly about gender equality. There are villages in Pakistan where the literacy rate among women is actually zero... I pictured teachers actually standing up to protest against things like school bombings. Just like Batman puts on his 'bat outfit', she - the protagonist - puts on her burka to become a superhero. She fights violence with books and pens."

A still from Burka Avenger

And quite literally, she hits the bad guys (read: Baba Bandook) on the head with books, sometimes. "Education..." Haroon said, "...not violence, is the answer," before going on to talk about how, initially, his radical idea (of making a show like this), was met with some amount of resistance, both external (Pakistani media) and internal (self-doubt, the kind that typically precedes a risky step).

L to R: Grey's Ali Shabaz and maker of Pakistani TV show Burka Avenger Aaron Haroon Rashid

"I didn't tell too many people about the idea. My friends said I was playing with fire, and told me not to get involved with this kind of messaging," he shared, recalling the early, pre-launch days.

When he went to market with the idea, some Pakistani TV channels urged him to change the name of the show from 'Burka Avenger' to something less provocative like 'Girl Avenger' or 'Woman Avenger'. "But I was sure it had to be 'burka'," Haroon said, going on to explain, "the brand name is always the most important thing."

Ultimately, though he was open to changing the dialogues if it came to it, the show went on air "as it was" without his having to alter anything on account of the Pakistani censor board, one that seats "maulvis and mullahs."

Prompted by Shabaz's question around the show's performance on social media, Haroon shared a few facts: When Burka Avenger was first launched (mid-2013) it became the No.1 trending topic on Twitter for two weeks. The show's official website got three million hits in the first two days of the launch; Haroon's pre-emptive move of switching over to a dedicated server was one that paid off, he recalled.

"You seem to have resisted going 'completely commercial'; how long before we see the protagonist whipping out an Apple phone?" Shabaz wondered. Few companies, including a beverage brand, have approached Haroon for integration opportunities. But it's an avenue he has not yet explored. However, he will foray into merchandising soon, a move driven by Pakistani kids' demand for show-based action figures. "Soon, kids can own their own avenger doll," he said.

Speaking of unexplored avenues, Haroon has received offers from a few directors and producers in Bollywood; they're interested in turning his show into a commercial Hindi movie (non-animation), something he is not open to at the moment. He is sticking to animation for now; in fact, the movie version of the animated show is in the offing.

"The great thing about animation is - you can dub it in any language," he says on a tangent, during a brief discussion about the scope of the show in diaspora markets. Burka Avengers (originally in Urdu) has already been dubbed in several languages including Pashto for the Afghanistan market and Hindi for the India market; it is aired on ZeeQ.

Grey's Shabaz ends the session with a risky question, one that was just waiting to be asked: By showing a burka-clad super-woman, isn't he glorifying an attire that, to many, is a symbol of oppression? Haroon assured him and the audience that promotion of the burka is not his objective. "It is something she dons as a disguise,' he explained, adding about the larger issue, "Wearing a burka, or not, is a matter of personal choice. It is not something that can or should be forced." He also reminded us that when not on superhero duty, the protagonist does not wear a burka.

Top quotes of the session:

"Entertainment for the sake of entertainment is a thing of the past. One has to try and share a message, and try and change mindsets." - Aaron Haroon Rashid, creator of the show.

"We can't wait to see her (Jiya, the burka-clad superwoman in Burka Avenger) in an 'advertising' surrounding, with brands around her." - Ali Shabaz, Grey Singapore.

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