cover story: interview
The Burka Avenger is here “to make people laugh, to entertain, and to send out positive social messages”
It is always refreshing when innovation and quality meet, that too for a good cause. And that is exactly what Unicorn Black has achieved with Burka Avenger. A blend of wit and action, the animated TV show follows the adventures of school teacher Jiya, who dons a burka to conceal her identity as she transforms into the superhero Burka Avenger, in order to confront the evil Baba Bandook and his henchmen, and fight for justice, peace, and education. The brainchild of pop singer Haroon, the show is fresh, innovative, and fun, and hopes to present a positive role model for young viewers. We got a chance to chat to Haroon and ask him about the series and the attention it has garnered internationally. Here’s what he had to say:
Us: How and when did you come up with the idea for Burka Avenger?
Haroon: It was in 2010, after many years of experience producing my own music videos, that I decided I wanted to produce and direct a movie in Pakistan. I shortlisted some ideas with local themes and one of them was about a school teacher who protects a girls’ school from being shut down by evil elements. After I created the Burka Avenger character, I realised that a full movie might be too large an undertaking as a first step. I started working on the iPhone game version of Burka Avenger in April 2011 with an artist and game programmers. It was then that we decided we wanted to give an anti-violence and pro-education message where she repels the bad guys attacking the girls’ school using pens, books, and schoolbags. In September/October 2011, we created a three minute 2D animated short showing the back-story to the game. This short animated clip turned out brilliantly and we realised that we had all the resources right in Islamabad to make an amazing animated TV show. Production on the TV show started in March 2012 and the first episode was completed in June 2012.
Us: How many episodes have been made so far? And do you plan to continue the show after the first season?
Haroon: The Burka Avenger TV series comprises 13 episodes of 22 minutes each. Only four episodes have been aired so far, but we have made waves locally and internationally. We have built up a large fan base for Burka Avenger and I think we want to keep the momentum going. So it looks likely that we will work on season two.
Us: How has the experience of working on the series been so far?
Haroon: It was an amazing experience.
Us: The word “Avenger” is already popularly associated with Marvel Comics’ team of superheroes, the Avengers. Why did you choose to use that word in your superhero’s name too?
Haroon: Before the Avenger Marvel Comics, there was a super-hit TV show called The Avengers in the 60s. It was about British spies. This was also turned into a successful movie called The Avengers which was released in 1998. Avenger is a very common word in the English language and has commonly been used in films, TV, radio, comics, and books over the last 100 years. I created the Burka Avenger character in 2010. This was two years before The Avengers movie came out. They absolutely DO NOT have any sole rights over the common English word “avenger”. The only irritation for me is that because of The Avengers movie many people in Pakistan call my series Burka Avengers instead of the Burka Avenger.
Us: Did you feel any added responsibility because the show would be watched by young viewers?
Haroon: Absolutely. I thought long and hard about each and every detail. I was very careful that there was nothing in the show that could offend anyone. We held focus group screenings for feedback. I have always been conscious of the fact that the media in Pakistan should be used for education and positive messages, whether it be through my music or a show like the Burka Avenger. I am not interested in making entertaining fluff without depth or some sort of positive social message.
Us: Why does the Burka Avenger hurl books and pens as weapons? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on using knowledge to fight evil/oppression?
Haroon: Most children’s TV shows are pretty violent. They have the main characters punching, kicking, biting, wrestling, and firing guns and canons. We all know that throwing a book at someone in real life as a weapon is ridiculous. Firstly due to the way it is shaped with the loose pages it will probably miss its target, and secondly if it does hit its target it is highly unlikely to do any damage at all. There are no known reports of anybody being hurt, harmed, or killed because they had a fiction paperback or textbook thrown at them. The fact that she is using pens and books highlights the underlying education theme and that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Us: Burka Avenger has been lauded both locally and internationally. Why do you think the show has been received so positively in Pakistan and what impact do you hope it will have on the industry?
Haroon: Pakistanis are really supporting towards the show because they acknowledge that the Burka Avenger is our own home-grown superhero character. The show is in Urdu and is very Pakistani. 40 talented young Pakistani men and women worked very hard to bring this project together. So Burka Avenger is not just a success for Unicorn Black but also for all of Pakistan.
Usually the stories coming out in international press on Pakistan are negative. This is thankfully a positive story that highlights our culture, music, and the ingenuity of our people. We have some amazing talent in Pakistan. Hopefully we can attract foreign companies to outsource their animation work to Pakistan. We are hoping Burka Avenger will be the start of a renaissance period for animation in Pakistan.
Us: Were you expecting that the series would garner as much international attention as it did?
Haroon: I did know that the team at Unicorn Black and myself were creating something very special. I felt confident that we would get a positive reception. However, the reception internationally and locally far surpassed our expectations. We got four million hits on our website BurkaAvenger.com in the first three days of release, and we are getting over one million Facebook post views a week. That is phenomenal.
Us: Please tell us about the song ‘Lady in Black’ that you worked on with Adil Omar.
Haroon: I really liked his song ‘Paki Rambo’ and I wanted to use a wide range of artists on the soundtrack. I reached out to him. All I told him was the song should be called ‘Don’t Mess With The Lady in Black’. He went away and came up with a brilliant song with brilliant lyrics. I composed and sang the chorus “don’t mess with the lady in black, when she’s on the attack” and we had a great song and collaboration.
Us: Which other artists can we expect to hear on the series/soundtrack?
Haroon: Some amazing Pakistani and South Asian stars. Arieb Azhar, Ali Azmat, JoSH, Sheryar and Zoe Viccaji, Assad Ahmed, and many others. Also Ali Zafar makes an appearance as himself in animated version to save the day in episode four.
Us: When did you set up your production company/studios Unicorn Black? Why is it called Unicorn Black?
Haroon: I set up the company in March 2012. I called in Unicorn Black because I am a fan of mythological creatures. Unicorns are always white. But we are a company with a difference, hence Unicorn Black.
Us: Are there any other projects that the company is currently involved with?
Haroon: Yes! My team at Unicorn Black and myself produced a beautiful short animated series called Quaid Se Baaten. The main character is a young girl who has a poster of Pakistan’s founding father Quaid-e-Azam ian her room. In her dream, he comes to life and imparts knowledge, wisdom, and messages such as unity, anti-discrimination, cleanliness, et cetera. This was created and directed by Daniyal Noorani and co-directed and produced by myself. Our talented Unicorn Black employees did a hundred percent of the work at our Unicorn Black production house.
Us: Your fans have been waiting for a new Haroon album for quite some time now. Can we expect a new release from you anytime soon?
Haroon: I have three albums waiting for release. One, of course, is the Burka Avenger OST. One is an Urdu Haroon album. And one is an English one. So look out for a lot of songs and music videos coming soon. I have been working hard.
Us Magazine, The News - 30th August, 2013