Pakistani pop star Haroon talks about his animated series featuring a burka-clad superheroine.
Just before Burka Avenger was launched on July 29, its creator — pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, better known by his stage name Haroon — took a rash decision to host the website on a rather expensive private server. “I thought what if it goes crazy and the server can’t handle it. Thank god we did. Because in the first three days, we got four million hits. Our website would have crashed,” he says.
On Facebook, Burka Avenger gets one million views a week. In the last one month, it went from having zero to 120,000 fans. Not many saw the launch on July 29 on Geo Tez channel but it became a big hit after the first episode was published online.
“After I put the first episode online, all that stuff about ‘oh my god, he’s forced a woman into a burka and little kids are going to grow up wearing burkas’ vanished,” he laughs. “The only articles were about the people criticising those who were criticising the show. It’s very clear that this school teacher who doesn’t wear a burka is a working woman. It’s also clear she’s using the costume as a disguise. People in the West get that; they are used to superheroes and the concept of disguises. The only criticism came from two or three people based locally who I am sure never read a superhero comic book in their life.”
When you first meet Jiya, she is training hard at takht kabaddi. “I invented it. I didn’t want a martial art that is Chinese or Japanese. I wanted something indigenous. Takht kabaddi has to do with books and pens and advanced acrobatics. It draws strongly on cultural elements and local themes from the subcontinent. Rubot, the robot, has got truck art on him and Vadero Pajero is the embodiment of the corrupt politician we all know and loathe.” Haroon had a lot of fun inventing the characters and places set in Halwapur; well, because he likes halwa puri.
The creator of Burka Avenger comes from a mixed background. His mother was an opera singer from New Zealand and his father a British Pakistani. After a degree in Business Finance in the U.S., he came back to form a popular group, Awaz. Haroon went to Hollywood to produce music videos but he doesn’t believe in “basic entertainment. I wanted to make a movie because I’ve been producing and directing my own music videos. One of the ideas was about extremists shutting down girls’ schools.”
He built on the idea of a school teacher as the protagonist who fought back wearing a burka. “She would be a super hero, fighting with pens and books and giving messages of peace and on the importance of education.”
He also realised that a movie would be too large an undertaking and started with an iPhone game version of Burka Avenger in early 2011. Then he decided to make an animated back story and, once that was done, he got down to animation, voice-overs and music. The theme music for Burka Avenger is from the original score for the game, which will be released shortly.
“Once the animation was ready, it was so polished and well done that I realised we had the resources for a series right here in Islamabad. I set up Unicorn Black in April 2012 and we finished the first episode in July 2012. In October, the Malala incident occurred.”
The Malala episode was pure coincidence, he says. “When Malala was shot, we had already done six episodes and we were all quite stunned.” Though people urged Haroon to release the series around that time, he says, “I wasn’t comfortable with it. People would have thought I was trying to cash in on a tragedy. Also we weren’t ready with a full season with all 13 episodes — which happened only by February 2013. Then we entered into an agreement with Geo TV.”
One of the ideas behind Burka Avenger was to give children a positive role model. Jiya — the school teacher who morphs into the Burka Avenger — is in the best traditions of a super heroine. She stands for justice, peace and education for all. Even without her super hero persona, she still fights for education, and women’s rights.
Haroon is also keen on an animated movie and, later, a live action movie. The whole show was made locally with his staff of 35 people who are animators, artists, designers and technicians. There is a lot of interest from people all around the world. “I received many e-mails for books and merchandising. I was approached by publishing companies from India and Europe, by a film agency as well as an Indian director.” Hollywood is also keen on film rights.
Haroon is keen to work with Indian producers, animators, writers and musicians. The support from across the border is heart-warming, he says. “The way forward is through collaborations with artists, writers and thinkers and philosophers. We have so much in common.”
He was also lucky to land with “the right team,” he says. “The goal was to make something that would stand on its own at a global level. I didn’t want people to say ‘Yeah, it’s not bad for Pakistan.’ We were very critical about every little frame, the music and sound effects. We got some great actors like Ainy Jaffri and Hamza Ali Abbasi. We got Josh, a very popular band, for one episode on discrimination.”
With six episodes already aired, he’s planning to work on Season Two because there’s so much interest worldwide and in Pakistan. He has been approached for worldwide distribution rights for Season One from companies in Europe and Asia and to dub it into 20 languages. He is now getting down to hiring staff to handle his e-mails and contracts. “It’s only been a month since this craziness occurred. I was not prepared for it to explode like this,” he laughs.