Pup­pets Of Eth­nic­ity

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TELE­VI­SION - By Shikha Ku­mar

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.”


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.


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

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