Interview with Haroon, Creator of Burka Avenger
Matt Shedd - 5/7/2014
One of the recipients of the most recent batch of Peabody Winners is Burka Avenger. It is the first Pakistani-produced full cartoon series, and it is bold, direct, and a sheer delight. The action centers around Pakistani school teacher Jiya, who is also the titular super heroine fighting for “justice, peace and education for all.” The first episode is available to view online for free, and we have featured it on the show’s award page. The Peabody Award winner’s citation describes how Jiya “dons a magical cape at night to right the wrongs around her, from the ban on girls going to school, to child labor abuses, to environmental degradation,” striking a perfect tone as “part Catwoman, part Muslim ideal.”
The brains behind the show is Aaron Haroon Rashid, but he is known better as Haroon, a Pakistani singer and composer who has sold millions of albums internationally. He was gracious enough to answer my questions about what it’s been like to be behind such an innovative and exciting project like Burka Avenger.
Matt Shedd: How did you come up with the idea for Burka Avenger?
Aaron Haroon Rashid: As a musician many of my songs touched on social issues such as corruption and interfaith peace. Living in Pakistan, many of the issues are staring you right in the face and you can’t ignore them. I became interested in producing and directing a movie about 6-7 years ago. I began writing stories and short-listing ideas. It was important for my story to be more than just entertainment. My goal has always been to address issues, make people think and help change hearts and minds. In 2010 I read about girls schools being shut down by extremist elements in Pakistan. Like most people around the world and in Pakistan I was appalled. Pakistan has one of the lowest rates for female literacy and this was the last thing we needed.
I started imagining a teacher fighting back. The idea for Burka Avenger grew from there. She is a schoolteacher in her everyday life but disguises herself in a Burqa-like costume to fight the baddies. I have always been anti-guns and I wanted to reinforce the message that the pen is mightier than the sword. So her weapons are books and pens. Literally she clonks the bad guys over the head with books. Her motto is “Justice, peace and education for all”. Instead of a movie it ended up being an animated TV series which worked out great because there is hardly any local entertainment for children. The Burka Avenger is a great role model to the kids of Pakistan and the show’s women empowerment themes and importance of education for girls are essential. The show imparts these great messages and morals without being preachy.
MS: You already have a very successful career as a musician, composer, performer and producer, but now you are the creator of a groundbreaking cartoon that’s having a very positive global impact. Tell me about how you made the jump from being a musician to creating Burka Avenger.
AHR: People in Pakistan were surprised when I created and directed Burka Avenger. For many years I had been known mainly as a successful singer and performer.
However from the very beginning I played an active role in the production of my music videos. The very first song and music video I ever released was directed by me and became the first music video from Pakistan to make it on MTV-Asia. As my music career took off I had the opportunity to work closely, over 15 years on my music videos, with some of the best directors in the country. Some were large-scale music videos shot across Pakistan and the world at exotic locations such as the Pyramids in Cairo. Eventually I focused on producing and directing my own music videos. The creative side, dreaming up ideas for interesting song themes or ideas for music videos is part of what I have been doing for many years. So I had a lot of fun developing the Burka Avenger characters, story and scripts.
MS: The show received positive reviews here in the U.S. from places like NPR, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Think Progress and many other outlets as well. How would you describe the response in your home country of Pakistan?
AHR: The show has been very well received in Pakistan and the press in Pakistan was also very positive. Most of the news stories coming out of Pakistan are very negative so this was one of the rare positive stories. Pakistanis are proud that such a high quality animated show was produced here in Pakistan.
Currently the show is running on the Geo Network in Pakistan. This is the 3rd broadcast of the whole first season (13 episodes of 22 minutes). The series airs every Sunday and is currently the slot leader. By slot leader I mean it is the most watched show in the country during it’s time slot. Surprisingly during the repeat on Sunday night at 11pm it is also the slot leader. This means adults are watching the show too.
MS: Can you tell us how you’ve handled negative feedback about the show?
AHR: Most of the negative feedback came from people who had not actually watched the show and just made assumptions based on the title of the series. Sometimes the press would approach me with all sorts of strange questions and then I realized they had not actually watched the show itself. I started asking the press to watch an episode before coming in to interview me. Of course the whole tone and vein of questioning changed after that and mainly they would be gushing about how they loved it. So the moral is don’t judge a book by it’s cover or in this case don’t judge a burka by it’s cover.
MS: What were some of obstacles that you faced trying to get this show made?
I came up with the idea and story in 2010 for a Burka Avenger movie. I realized that a movie right off the bat would be too large an undertaking so I came together with a team of game programmers and artists and started working on an iPhone game. I decided the game needed an animated promo/back story for youtube. When that two minute animated promo was complete it was so good that I realized we had all the resources right there in Islamabad to do a whole animated TV series.
However an animated TV series (a full season of 13 episodes) like this had never been done before in Pakistan. I couldn’t just hire people who had already worked on a project like this. We had to research and figure out the best animation production pipeline on our own. We certainly learnt a lot and now for Burka Avenger season 2 we have streamlined the production pipeline immensely and kicked the production values up a notch.
Starting in 2012 the energy crisis in the country kicked in full swing. In a 24 hour period we get 12 hours of power cuts. A lot of our time was spent making sure we had generators and UPS’ running. When those failed due to excessive load we were left with no choice but to come in on the weekends to make up the lost hours during the week. Recently we bought a mammoth generator so hopefully no more issues on that front.
MS: In another interview that you did, I saw that everybody who works on the show is from Pakistan. Do you have any thoughts on the current state and the future of media entertainment in Pakistan?
Rather than outsource the Burka Avenger series I decided to take the plunge and set up my own animation production company, Unicorn Black in April 2012 in Islamabad, Pakistan. I set-up a recording studio, programming/design department and an animation studio in-house. We did scripts, storyboards, voice-overs, sound design, music score, animation, lighting/rendering, compositing and editing etc all in house which gave us a lot of control over the final product.
Pakistan has a thriving media industry but is mainly focused on soaps and political talk shows and news. There is little to no local children programming and there is very little on television that focuses on education or sending out social messages. With literacy rates in Pakistan below 50% and so much work to be done I feel it is important for shows to be more than just pure entertainment to help get the country back on the right track.
I think the future for media entertainment in Pakistan is very bright. Recently there has been a revival in the cinema with several locally made record-breaking blockbuster movies released in the last year. We have over 80 TV channels now but nearly half of them are news channels. Often the real life news in Pakistan involves more drama and entertainment than anything one could dream up.
MS What does winning a Peabody Award mean to you and the rest of the people who work on Burka Avenger, and what do you think this means for the future of the show?
Winning the Peabody Award is a huge honor. We worked very, very hard and we put a lot of thought into the series. My team would often stay late and work weekends to try and meet deadlines. So many talented people worked on the series from script-writers to actors to musicians to artists and animators. It is a great feeling for the whole team to be honored like that. This is a positive boost and has definitely spurred us on. Burka Avenger winning the Peabody Award was headline news in Pakistan.
MS: What sort of adventures can we expect Jiya/The Burka Avenger to get into going forward?
She continues her adventures in Season 2. There are so many issues and topics that we can touch upon. In a new episode, Jiya, in her teacher role, helps spread awareness of the importance of the polio vaccination and as Burka Avenger she fights the bad guys when they try to kidnap the polio workers and destroy the polio vaccines. Again this is a real life issue and very current. Many polio health workers have been killed in Pakistan. Some of the topics we touch upon sound very serious, but they are packaged in a wonderful story full of fun, adventure, comedy and action.