ISLAMABAD: “In Pakistan, you can’t just do entertainment for entertainment’s sake. There’s got to be a message,” says Aaron Haroon Rashid, the creator of Pakistan’s first animated superhero series, Burka Avenger.

On Thursday, Haroon and the team from Unicorn Black – the production house behind the internationally acclaimed cartoon series – unveiled a special episode released to coincide with World Polio Day. The show has already received a plethora of awards – including a Peabody Award and an International Emmy nomination – and has also garnered a great deal of international attention.

Haroon said the idea of doing a polio special came to him when he recently had to get inoculated before a trip abroad. Scriptwriter Arsalan Naseer – popularly known as the social media sensation Comics by Arsalan – developed the idea a couple of months ago.

The team is currently working on the second season of Burka Avenger, which is slated for release sometime in December. If animation director Taha Iqbal is to be believed, the production values of the new season will be a big step up from the first.

Team behind award-winning cartoon Burka Avenger unveils World Polio Day special

“We originally had a six-channel syndication deal to broadcast this special episode. But at the last minute, for no apparent reason, our backers pulled out. Now, just on our own, we’ve managed to secure airtime for the polio special on eight Pakistani channels, including PTV,” Haroon said.

The action sequences, in particular, are reminiscent of comic book superheroes such as Batman and Catwoman. Mr Iqbal told Dawn that he was a big Batman fan and “if this wasn’t a children’s show, I would have taken it to the next level and made it grittier and perhaps more violent”.

He also said that he wanted the show and the character to have its own identity, which was why he opted for a Manga/Anime style of animation. “Even though Anime such as Captain Majid were made in Japan, its most famous incarnation was the Arabic version. We thought that the Manga style was most palatable to audiences around the world, but still we tweaked a few things, such as the way the eyes were drawn,” he said, explaining the visualisation of the characters.

Even though the show deals with real-world problems, such as gender issues, Ahmer Naqvi, who co-wrote the series with Arsalan Naseer and Haroon, said that being a children’s cartoon, the plot for Burka Avenger was quite formulaic. “There’s a good guy and a bad guy. The good guy needs to stop the bad guy,” he said, adding that it was a challenge to keep themes simple enough so that children could grasp key concepts without having to think too much about these things. “Obviously, electoral reform is not something a child would be very interested in. So we have to make sure that the themes we pick are relevant,” Mr Naqvi said.

Given Haroon’s extensive work as a musician, several members of his team come from a music and sound design background. Ahmed Ali, who was responsible for the series’ sound design, told Dawn, “With films, one needs to be as close to reality as possible. But with animations, there’s a blank slate and a chance for us to go crazy with it.”

Animation director Taha Iqbal, who has previously worked on the Commander Safeguard campaign – one of the first major animation projects to come out of Pakistan – said that with Burka Avenger, the producers had tried to capture the culture, the lingo, the architecture and the feel of Pakistan quite vividly. “Even the landscapes are modelled on some real places in the beautiful northern areas,” he said, adding that a lot of research had gone into the development of the visuals.

Mr Naqvi described Halwapur – the fictitious city where the cartoons are set – as Anytown, Pakistan. “It is an amalgam of Lahore, Karachi and little bit of the scenic beauty of Islamabad thrown in for good measure,” said Mr Iqbal.

The special episode features regular Burka Avenger characters: the title character and her alter-ego Jiya, Immu, Ashu and Mooli the three friends who are at the centre of the story, as well as the villain, Baba Bandook.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2014