Almost a year ago, news about a joint collaboration between the popular US children’s series “Sesame Street” and the Pakistani puppet show group Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop caused quite a stir in Pakistan. This four-year long, $20 million USaid project called “Sim Sim Hamara” was staged to promote entertainment for children in Pakistan.
With its first episode airing on Pakistan Television (PTV) channel on December 10 at 5:30 pm, The Express Tribune tried to explore what sets this local adaptation apart from the international renowned Sesame Street.
The twist in an age-old format
Although the overall structure of “Sesame Street” is the same, the local theatre group has tried to incorporate stories of Pakistani children and Pakistani culture in the format. According to Faizan Peerzada, the Head of Party at Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, “In the past, programming for children in Pakistan mostly emanated from animated cartoons and puppets. However, children from different backgrounds could not relate to these different characters, idioms or costumes. For instance, a child in Dagu or a remote area in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was unable to relate to a character wearing a Polo cap.”
“Now we have taken a Balochi or Punjabi child’s story, explored tales from Gilgit-Baltistan and incorporated the local diversity, traditions and folklore into the show giving it a more relatable quality,” says Peerzada.
Rafi Peer’s history
There is no theatre group better suited for this collaboration than Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop. For almost three decades, the group has been involved in this field of work and has spent the majority of its time reaching audiences all over Pakistan through their concerts and workshops. It has been because of these experiences that the local group was able to combine its indigenous experiences and blended it with “Sesame Street”.
The Peerzada family has been entirely responsible for the production of the show with Faizan Peerzada and twin brother Sadaan dealing with the production side of the show while Usman Peerzada was involved in the direction aspect. The writing side was left in the hands of Director of Content Imran Peerzada. With a team of four writers helping him create a script, the show’s content and characters encourage healthy habits like cleanliness, build basic learning skills and introduce children to the alphabet.
The huge funding received from USaid will provide opportunities for children across the country to view 78 television shows in Urdu. Whereas, an additional 48 shows are ready for viewing in Pashto, Balochi, Punjabi and Sindhi. At the same time, a radio component to the show is being developed as well.
To integrate an educational component, Imran Peerzada has organised a committee of representatives from educational departments of all provinces including the curriculum wing. This will include teachers, professors and artists who have worked with children to discuss the content and get their feedback.
In terms of content, he added, “We have tried to sprinkle a bit of fun with education.” On giving viewers a hint about the first episode, Imran revealed that the show’s theme was based on children playing on the street and their issues.
Television as a learning medium
“The growing number of children not attending school in Pakistan these days as well as the large number of schools and infrastructure needed for these children is alarming. It is only through far-reaching mediums like television and radio that education can be encouraged on a massive scale” explained Imran Peerzada who has also voiced a character on the show.
Here’s hoping that the theatre group’s efforts will bear fruit and this engaging adaptation will serve to lower illiteracy rates in Pakistan and bring about a positive change in Pakistani children.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2011.