Puppets Of Ethnicity
The Indian and Afghan versions of the US kids show, are changing the world, one muppet at a time
SALAAM!” SHE beams chirpily, popping up on the screen. Dressed in a yellow salwar, 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, recently introduced Zari in the fifth season of Baghch-e-Simsim, its Afghani version. If Zari’s teaching children about courtesy in one episode, she’s asking a female doctor all the right questions in the next. In a country ravaged by decades of war, and with one of the lowest female literacy rates, she’s become a shining mascot for education and empowerment.
While Baghch-e-Simsim has been on air since 2011, it was in August last year that the team first toyed with the idea of a local muppet. The show’s production units in Afghanistan and the US worked together to conceptualise Zari’s appearance and personality.
“We wanted to incorporate 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. Taiman’s family moved to India when the civil war began, and subse- quently to the UK, where he did his masters in filmmaking. “While I was lucky to leave, many others weren’t. Through the show, I could give back and positively impact kids and adults.”
THE HANDS BEHIND ZARI
While Zari delights children across Afghanistan, two women share an even more special relationship with her. Sima Sultani and Mansoora Sherzad are the puppeteers voicing her in Pashtun and Dari.
“Zari makes me happy. When she laughs, every problem disappears,” says 23-year-old Sherzad, an arts and music major at Kabul University. She has never done puppetry before. But she went for the audition on a whim, after seeing an ad in the local paper. “Getting the call back was surreal. I didn’t know I was going to get famous,” she adds.
The lively Sultani, 18, says that 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 women also travelled to India earlier this year for training at the show’s Indian version, Galli Galli Sim Sim. “In Afghanistan, we often live in fear. It was nice to see how respected women are in India. But I love it when through Zari, I say, ‘Children, I will meet you again,’” says Sultani. Being female puppeteers in Afghanistan is not without its risks, but the women have unflinching support from their families. “Through Zari, I want to show Afghani children that they are free, have a right to learn, and 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 over a decade. “Back then, TV puppetry was fairly new in India. The voiceover and characterisation process was so intimate. Putting your soul in an inanimate object and bringing Chamki to life was overwhelming,” she says.
Over the years, Javed has travelled the country, promoting gender equality and better school attendance in rural heartlands. She recalls a poignant moment when she met a farmer living in a straw house, in a mountainous region near Sohna. “He and his four daughters tuned in to Chamki’s adventures via a semi-broken radio player. His daughters’ school was in a neighbouring village, and when transport became a problem, he and other villagers hired a tempo. Chamki had taught him that learning should never stop.”
As Zari becomes a messenger for peace and education 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.
Chamki (top) and Zari (right) stand for girl power; puppeteer Sima Sultani (above right) learns the ropes