Rare is the day when I happily spend two hours watching back-to-back episodes of a Hindi fiction show on Indian television – that too in animation. No, this isn’t the meanderings of my addled brain. Finally, there’s a show which I think every adult, parent and non-parent, and every child who is allowed to watch TV should see.
Burka Avenger, the Pakistani series about a teacher who is a vigilante superhero by night, is now being shown in India. That too on a channel which few of us adults knew existed. ZeeQ and the telecast of Burka Avenger may just be the only redeeming feature of media mogul Subhash Chandra.
Burka Avenger is an animation series that was started in August 2013 in Pakistan. It has been nominated for an Emmy and has won the Peabody Award, the International Gender Equity Prize and the Asian Media Award. Its hero was also named one of the most influential fictional characters of 2013 by TIME.
The story revolves around Jiya, a sweet and popular teacher in a town called Halwapur. Her parents died when she was an infant and she was adopted by a kind couple. The man teaches her a martial art form called Takht Kabaddi, which uses pens and books as weapons. At night, Jiya dons a burka and fights crimes such as child labour, stopping girls from being educated and even social issues such as superstition and aversion to polio vaccinations. There are many bad guys, but the chief villains Jiya must battle are the bearded and decidedly evil-looking Baba Bandook and Vadero Pajero, the town’s Mayor. Like all good heroes, Jiya has sidekicks: three children and a goat.
The series and character were created by Pakistani rockstar, Haroon Rashid, which explains the foot-tapping music in each episode as well as the rock stars playing themselves in various episodes. Burka Avenger is a delightful watch as much for its social messages as the visual feast in it. The 3D animation is very Kill Bill in effect and if you pay attention to the background, you’ll notice how the scenery is beautifully drawn.
This is no vacuous cartoon, nor is it so high falutin that kids will be bored silly by its messaging. And it doesn’t pander to our entrenched, not-so-subtle sexism by showing girls as being only good for fawning over the lead male characters, like in Chhota Bheem.
Burka Avenger is everything a superhero show should be, all the while breaking superhero stereotypes. Jiya’s day avatar is not wimpy like Clark Kent’s or Peter Parker’s. Neither is her superhero avatar overtly sexual like Wonderwoman’s or Catwoman’s. As a schoolteacher, she’s popular with the kids (she orgnanises after-school rock concerts for them), intelligent and confident enough to lecture anyone who she feels is in the wrong. As Burka Avenger she is effective, physically adept, honest, brave and lithe. You’re definitely rooting for her when you see her silhouette on screen.
Also, there’s something wonderful about how the debate against the hijab and burka has been turned on its head by this series. Here, these items of clothing aren’t symbols of oppression or of lack of choice or subjugation. The burka becomes a symbol of women’s empowerment and of one’s right to choose what they will wear. Jiya chooses to wear the burka every time she fights evil. It’s a subtle statement that a situation is only as bad as you make it and if you want, that which is supposed to oppress you can become your strength.
The show also contains a strong lesson about the importance of education. After all, Jiya’s weapons are books and pens. As she says, the best defense against adversity is taaleem, or education, and we should make our pens and books our friends, whether we are boys or girls.
In the first episode, which began with the mayor Vadero Pajero asking Baba Bandook to shut down the girl’s school, there are little references to Sholay and some nifty action sequences. We realise Vadero Pajero is one of those old-fashioned misogynists who thinks girls and women don’t need an education because hey, they’re only good to make roti. Burka Avenger has a few lectures on education being a basic right – even for girls - but it’s far from preachy, thanks to Jiya’s martial arts skills. There’s a segment in which she wallops the villains and breaks the school lock open by using a pen pretty much as a javelin. She is literally too cool for school.
The second episode tackled the issue of child labour. There’s a reference to Kony’s army of children when Baba Bandook says that he’ll kidnap all the children from Halwapur and make an army and then rule over the town. The kidnapped children are hypnotised and made to do Baba Bandook’s bidding. The episode also has a very cool looking ghost in it and addresses how ghosts and bogeymen are just superstitions. While in the first episode series creator Haroon popped up to give us a musical dose, in this one, Ali Zafar does the honours. The hypnotised children break out of their reverie only upon hearing him sing.
The messaging and intent in Burka Avenger are excellent, but this is also the best animation I’ve seen come out of the sub-continent. Burka Avenger has a Batman-like light signal that is beamed into the sky, when someone needs her help. She uses her abaya as wings and glides like Batman. There’s also more than enough comic relief with the three children and the goat and Baba Bandook’s three henchmen to keep kids (and adults) entertained. The episodes are short — just 22 minutes — and there’s enough foot-tapping music for those who’d like a little be-bop to their TV watching.
Burka Avenger is by far the most entertaining cartoon I’ve seen in a long time and I cannot imagine what could possibly be better for South Asian kids than a female superhero who fights evil and promotes education and gender equality. Go on, watch it with your kids. Or by yourself. You’ll thank me later.
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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2015 11:08:36 IST