ISLAMABAD: The United States has turned to oversized puppets in its newest attempt to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, funding a $20 million remake of popular children's TV programme Sesame Street.
The US show that popularised characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and the Cookie Monster is being remade for a Pakistani audience to promote "shared values and ideas" said USAID's education chief in Islamabad, Larry Dolan.
Girl power and tolerance are among the messages to be spread by colourful puppets such as "Rani", a science-loving 6-year-old girl with plaits who is friends with a teenage bookworm and a hard-working donkey.
The "Pakistan Children's Television" show will broadcast 78 episodes from September.
The show's makers hope to reach 700,000 children and 300,000 parents in total with the help of spin-off projects – 600 live performances are planned across 90 districts, and books and multi-media versions are in the works.
Dolan says the show has entertained not only the West for more than 40 years, but been used to striking effect in other developing nations – encouraging understanding of HIV in South Africa and girls' freedom in Egypt.
"Its role is simple – look at the society here and intolerance lies at the root of many many complex problems. The approach we are taking here with Pakistan TV is to promote tolerance," said Dolan.
Rani's father is a flower gardener and her mother a housewife, not educated but "adamant her daughter should have every opportunity in life," according to a written brief of the characters, shown to AFP.
The donkey longs to be a pop star, "illustrating how, through hard work all dreams are possible" says the brief, encapsulating the American dream.
Dolan said USAID was giving $20 million to the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop in the city of Lahore, the creative directors of the show.
But he conceded that a portion of the funds – albeit "less than half" – would be given to the US-based "Sesame Workshop", who would advise on bringing children's television to Pakistan.
Elmo, the inquisitive high-energy fluffy red puppet who is one of the main characters of the American version of the show, is the only character to make the cut in the South Asian remake.
"Elmo's Pakistani cousin 'illustrates the idea that questions are good and the world is a playground for exploration and discovery'" says the brief.
But the show will be set, not along "Sesame Street", but around a rural street stall cafe.
"All the elements that represent Pakistan," said the show's maker Faizaan Peerzada. "This programme is a gift to the children of Pakistan from the American people," he said.
The national language Urdu is spoken as a first language by only a fraction of the country, and most of the shows will be translated into the regional tongues of Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi.
Sesame Street has been in Pakistan before, televised in the early 1990s in English and later dubbed into national language Urdu.
But Peerzada said it is an ambitious project for a country with very limited children's programming.
"There's a certain section who feel they must come and disrupt the whole country," said Peerzada.
"But I think the programme itself is the answer... to teach children in a joyful and colourful way."