By Sonya Rehman
We’re sitting on a sunny patch of grass at Peeru’s Café – the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop’s food joint located far out on Raiwind Road, in Lahore. The compound also hosts the Workshop’s office space as well as their colourful Museum of Puppetry. Even if you were born and brought up in the city, you’d still be compelled to walk around and take photos – given the colourful aesthetic sensibility of the place.
It’s a Friday and Yamina Peerzada – part of the Rafi Peer Theater Workshop (RPTW) – has an extended lunch break from the studio where she and the rest of the ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ (Sesame Street Pakistan) team have been hard at work shooting episodes for the localized version of the popular US-based television show. She’s dressed in a snug black jacket, a black knit cap, jeans, sneakers, and greets me with an enthusiastic smile.
Much has been said and written about ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ – such as whether or not the project will eventually make an impact on Pakistan’s future generations, by way of its educational content that is to aid and condition young Pakistani children. But apart from all the dissemination and intellectualization, one thing is for certain: ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ sure will provide good quality entertainment for children tuning into local television.
In 2008, having graduated with a Masters in Screen Acting from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Peerzada performed in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where she put up a one-woman show for 21 nights.
“I practically grew up in festivals,” she says with a laugh. Peerzada hails from a family of puppeteers and artists, and throughout school found herself in the midst of festivals, puppet shows et al.
On her return to Pakistan after grad school, Peerzada acted in two local television serials for both PTV and ARY Digital, but from 2011 onwards, she has had her hands full – literally – performing her endearing, chubby, 6-year-old puppet, Rani, for ‘Sim Sim Hamara.’
In August 2011, puppeteer Nyanga Tshabalala, part of ‘Takalani Sesame’ (translated as ‘Be Happy Sesame’ in Venda) – the South African version of Sesame Street – flew in to Pakistan to train the ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ crew of 10 key puppeteers for two weeks. After which, the RPTW took over in their training.
Apart from Elmo, all the puppets that feature in ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ have been made in Pakistan by the RPTW. Infact, initially for a year, Peerzada served as the Creative Manager for the project and took part in the conception and building of the puppets with the RPTW’s puppet-building team.
“I didn’t know that I’d be playing Rani before the auditions, so when I got selected I thought; ‘oh I know her!’ Maybe that’s why I feel so close to Rani,” Peerzada says affectionately.
“Although she’s 6, she talks like she’s 8 or 9,” Peerzada states grinning, “Because sometimes I forget how young she really is. Rani’s really enthusiastic; she’s very curious and wants to know how everything works! She asks a ton of questions, infact we even have a segment in the show called ‘Rani’s Questions.’”
Given Peerzada’s naturally husky voice, speaking like a 6-year-old with a high-pitched voice must be quite a challenge. “It is,” she says, “I think my voice has become hoarser because we’re in the studio practically all day!”
Sadly, local television shows for children are few and far between. Peerzada states that the main reason for this is due to the lack of investment in productions targeted towards Pakistani children. “I remember when I was growing up there was a local show called ‘Ainak Wala Jin,’ and ‘Uncle Sargam,’” the latter of which, Peerzada states wryly, “was more like a political satire targeted towards adults.”
“With the funding [from USAID] we’re able to put up a show that I don’t think has ever been done in Pakistan before – on such a large scale…I mean we have about 200 people working on this project with us.”
Even though ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ only went live in December, 2011 (on PTV Home airing Saturdays at 5:30pm), the overall packaging of the show – from the content to the puppets and the colours-that-pop set design – seems highly promising.
Concerning the show’s content, the Content Head and Education Directors sit with the show’s writers for content and script development. Once complete, the translated scripts are then sent to the Sesame Street headquarters in the US for review and feedback.
“If the production looks a certain way, children will be attracted to it,” Peerzada says while speaking about the show’s packaging, “It has to be up to international standards for kids to want to watch ‘Sim Sim Hamara.’ I mean if you do a shoddy job, they’ll change the channel because they have access to other foreign channels like Nickelodeon, Pogo, you name it.”
Coming back to Rani, “in many scenes we’ve shown her wearing the local government school uniform,” Peerzada mentions, “to encourage Pakistani girls to want to go to school.” However, Peerzada does clarify that Rani’s school uniform wasn’t to enforce going to school, but rather to encourage education that can even be learnt in one’s own backyard – just as Rani does, on the show.
Because through Rani, Peerzada explains, education doesn’t only come from going to school, but also through a child’s own curiosity, experience and questions posed towards adults.
Towards the end of my interview with Peerzada, we take a quick walk towards the Museum of Puppetry which features the RPTW’s own puppets in addition to foreign puppets sent in from different countries around the world.
Walking downstairs to the ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ workshop and two tailors are seen hard at work tailoring outfits for puppets. In the adjoining room, post production work for the show is well underway.
The tailoring room is small, with colourful outfits, buttons, rolls of cloth and other bits and bobs spread out and stocked on the tables. In the glass cupboards that line the walls, feathers, bundles of puppet fur, hair and half-complete, bald puppets are displayed.
Rani’s little uniform is hung on one of the clothing racks as well, along with her tiny school bag. And as I look around the room, in the midst of all this colour and creativity, wishing I were 6 again, I am hopeful that ‘Sim Sim Hamara’ will eventually prove to be a successful project for the children of Pakistan.
The Friday Times