“Salaam!” she beams, in a loud and chirpy tone as she pops up on the screen. Dressed in a yellow salwar, a red kurta and a headscarf, Zari is not your usual Sesame Street muppet. She’s a curious, eager six-year-old Afghan girl who loves school.
Sesame Street, the popular and longest running American children’s show ever, recently introduced Zari in the fifth season of Baghch-e-Simsim, its Afghani version. And Zari has had her hands full since. If she’s teaching children about courtesy in one episode, she’s asking a female doctor how girls like herself can become like her, in the next. In a country ravaged by decades of war and with one of the lowest literacy rates for women, she’s become a shining mascot for education and empowerment.
Baghch-e-Simsimhas been on air since late 2011, but it was only in August last year that the team first toyed with the idea of a local muppet. The production units of the show in Afghanistan and the US worked together to conceptualise Zari’s appearance and personality.
“We wanted to keep in mind the cultural aspects, but also not overstep boundaries. Her appeal had to be across ages and genders,” says Jawed Taiman, the executive producer of the show.
For Taiman, whose previous works include hard-hitting documentaries on the troubles in the nation, Baghch-e-Simsim was a big change. His family moved to India when the civil war began, and subsequently to the UK, where he did his masters in filmmaking.
“While I was lucky to leave, many others weren’t. This was my chance to work on something empowering, and to have a positive, lasting contribution on the young generation in Afghanistan,” he says.
The hands behind Zari
While Zari delights children across Afghanistan, two women have an even more special relationship with her. Sima Sultani and Mansoora Sherzad are the puppeteers behind Zari, voicing her in Pashtun and Dari respectively.
“Zari makes me very happy. When she laughs, every problem disappears,” says 23-year-old Sherzad, an arts and music major at Kabul University. She had limited experience in theatre, but didn’t know anything about puppetry until she saw an ad and went for the audition. “Getting the call back was surreal. I didn’t know I was going get famous,” she says.
The lively Sultani, 18, says that she “never missed an episode of Baghch-e-Simsim” and it was a dream come true when she was selected from 150 women to voice Zari in Pashtun. In Zari, she sees strains of herself. “She’s intelligent, naughty and is a problem-solver, which is exactly how I am,” she giggles.
The two women travelled to India for training at the Indian version of the show, Galli Galli Sim Sim. “It was nice to see how respected women are in India. In Afghanistan, we often live in fear. But I love it when through Zari, I say, ‘Children, I will meet you again,’” says Sultani. While being female puppeteers in Afghanistan is not without its risks, the women say they have unflinching support in their families. “Through Zari, I want to show Afghani children that they are free, have a right to learn and most importantly, to laugh,” says Sherzad.
Across the border
A few thousand miles away, Delhi-based Ghazal Javed knows the laughs and lessons a female muppet can inspire only too well. She has been the puppeteer behind Chamki, the five-year-old Indian schoolgirl muppet on Galli Galli Sim Sim, for 10 years. “When I was selected, TV puppetry was quite new in India. The voiceover and characterisation process was so intimate. Putting your soul into an inanimate object and bringing Chamki to life was overwhelming,” says Javed.
Besides the TV show, Galli Galli Sim Sim has had educational outreach programmes, radio shows and tie-ups with pre-schools across cities. “The idea was to never be preachy with Chamki. And yet she talks about fears, dreams and problems that plague young minds, helping influence habits and create a better society,” says Sashwati Banerjee, managing director, Sesame Workshop. She adds that the show’s viewership is almost 50 million today, five times more than when it first aired in 2006.
Over the years, Javed has travelled the country as part of Sesame Workshop, encouraging parents in rural heartlands to send their children to school and promoting gender equality. She recalls visiting a mountainous region near Sohna, where she met a farmer living in a straw house. “He had a semi-broken radio player, but he and his four daughters would tune in to listen to Chamki’s adventures. His daughters attended school in a nearby village, and when transportation became a problem, he and other villagers hired a tempo. He had learned from Chamki that learning cannot stop,” she says.
As Zari becomes a messenger for peace and learning in Afghanistan, there’s much that adults can learn from these muppets who showcase the beauty and essence of childhood. “The wonderment of seeing things for the first time, the excitement… haven’t we forgotten all about that?” says Javed.
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From HT Brunch, July 24, 2016
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