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 television programme “Sesame Street”.
The US show that popularised characters like Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, is being remade for a Pakistani audience in order 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 six-year-old with plaits who is friends with a teenage bookworm and a hardworking donkey.
“Pakistan Children’s Television” show will broadcast 78 episodes from September, but in a country of up to 180 million people, only three million children are estimated to have access to television.
The show’s makers hope to reach 700,000 children and 300,000 parents with the help of spin-off projects. Six hundred live performances are planned across 90 districts, and books and multimedia versions are in the works.
The show has entertained children in the west for 40 years, but according to Dolan, “Sesame Street” has also spread understanding of HIV in South Africa and promoted women’s rights in Egypt.
“ The approach we are taking here with Pakistan TV is to promote tolerance,” said Dolan.
Rani’s father is a gardener and her mother a housewife, uneducated but “adamant her daughter should have every opportunity in life”, according to a written brief of the characters. The donkey longs to be a pop star “illustrating how, through hard work all dreams are possible” says the brief.
Dolan said USAID will give $20 million to Lahore’s Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop to creatively direct the show. A portion of the funds — albeit “less than half” — will go to the US-based Sesame Workshop, which will research how to bring more children’s programming to Pakistan.
Elmo, the inquisitive high-energy red puppet — one of the main characters of the American version of the show — is the only Western 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.
Since Urdu is commonly spoken by only a fraction of the country, 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 the characters and context could only be understood by a westernised minority of Pakistani children.
The new version of the show will be set, not along Sesame Street, but around a rural street stall cafe. “This programme is a gift to the children of Pakistan from the American people,” said Faizaan Peerzada, the creator of “Sesame Street Pakistan”.
He admits that in the past, the workshop has been targeted by Islamist militants waging war on anything seen to smack off Western liberalism. “There’s a certain section of the Islamists 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.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2011.