With few options for TV programmes, movies or theatre, children are left with poor quality of entertainment

How TV abandoned Pakistan’s children

Why are there no children’s programmes or cartoons rooted in local culture and context on TV?

by Shahrezad Samiuddin

Whether they invest in their children’s education or not, Pakistani families, regardless of their social class do invest in a television as soon as they can. Walk into a Pakistani home on any given evening and you’re likely to come across entire families glued to the screen, watching the latest squabble between politicians — the quality of which is reaching new lows in terms of language and the level of negativity and anger being displayed. That or it will be the latest TV drama featuring a man torn between two weeping wives, which seem to be standard local entertainment for most families. What is conspicuous by its absence on local television channels is quality programming for children that is culturally relevant.

A vocal proponent of children’s programming, Khalid Anam, who has been associated with children’s theatre and TV programming for most of his life, is deeply troubled by the glaring lack of quality programming for children. “What, for instance, is there on TV for a 12-year-old child to watch? Apart from sitting with his parents watching politicians argue, what options does he have in terms of local programming?”

Anam, who studied children’s theatre in Germany and was involved in the production of the children’s show Khul Ja Sim Sim, which was the local version of Sesame Street, laments the fact that children usually end up ‘making do’ with badly dubbed and often violent cartoons in the name of entertainment. Exposed to violent programming, dubbed in a language which is not their own, and content which is not relevant to their cultural or social environment, is hardly conducive to a well-rounded upbringing.

Mahvash Faruqi, an educationist and co-founder of Zambeel Dramatics, which presents riveting and dramatic readings of texts for both adults and children, says, “It’s sad that there are no local quality programmes for children and therefore they have no option but to watch cartoons and children’s programmes from across the border. The content of these is often not suited for our young audience. We have our own rich resource and abundance of children’s stories in Urdu, which many of our children’s authors have published, and these can be turned into wonderful stories for television, but no one seems interested in catering to children.”

Anam believes that Pakistanis as a nation “have abandoned our children” and the result is obvious to anyone who surfs our TV channels in search of wholesome entertainment for their children. The only show that comes to mind is Burka Avenger which while locally produced was funded by USAID.

On the other hand, there has been some effort — which is still far from adequate — in theatre and film to create quality entertainment for children. Groups such as Thespianz Theatre have put on highly successful shows which have been written and adapted by local writers, laying to rest the belief that there is a dearth of writers who can write for children.

TV channel owners and producers wield considerable power and can be agents of change who can impact the situation positively.

There are also reasons to be optimistic when it comes to films: in May 2015, 3 Bahadur became the first locally-produced animated feature to be released in cinemas.

Photo by / White Star
Photo by / White Star

“All of our content is imported ... thus our youth grows up with mentors and heroes that are far removed from what they see around them in real life. My generation grew up watching Ainak Wala Jin, Uncle Sargam and Sohail Rana’s musical shows on television, but the new generation doesn’t have local heroes to look up to and whatever they have is either from the West or India,” says the film’s director and producer, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy.

With no quality programming on television that is rooted in local culture, Pakistani children are deprived of TV shows that address their unique needs and their issues. In a country where literacy levels are shockingly low — Alif Ailaan’s recently released report shows that 41 per cent of students drop out from primary schools, more than half the girls never go to schools, over 70 per cent of 5th graders in Sindh cannot read English and the average student in Balochistan barely completes four years of schooling — TV channel owners and producers wield considerable power and can be agents of change who can impact the situation positively.

As an audio-visual tool of communication that attracts both the literate and the illiterate, TV can serve a powerful function as a tool to support and reinforce the curriculum being taught in school. In shows, such as the iconic Sesame Street we have an example of a TV show for children that is educational, entertaining and hugely successful all at the same time.

A study conducted in 2015 on the impact of Sesame Street on American children found that the famous show “delivered lasting educational benefits to millions of American children — benefits as powerful as the ones children get from going to preschool.”

Researchers at the University of Maryland who conducted the study found that children who watched Sesame Street were more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age. And this effect was more pronounced when it came to boys, African-Americans and children who grew up in disadvantaged areas. If there were any doubt about the value of using mass media to complement education and school, it is put to rest by the impact of quality educational programmes such as Sesame Street.

So what is stopping Pakistani channels from producing quality programmes for children?

The main hurdle cited by TV channels is the high cost of producing appropriate programming and the lack of talent available to produce such shows. Faisal Tamanna, President Marketing and Sales, ARY Network said, “Finding the appropriate talent to produce a high-quality programme for children is very difficult. We cannot just use any writer. We will need a writer who has specialised qualifications, is possibly involved in education and in tune with the requirements of a programme for children. Such a programme will have to be developed from scratch as there won’t be a reference point, so more work, effort and hence more money will be required. For a private channel, the return on investment does not make sense. Also when you do find passionate people to do something like this, it doesn’t make financial sense for them either.”

“Thirty-five percent of the Pakistani population is under 15 years old, yet the advertising spend on them is just three per cent which mostly ends up with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And both these channels are using ready-made content with easily recognisable characters, which requires little in terms of marketing. PTV is doing some work in this area but they are obliged to as a government-run channel,” he added.

Without the will of the channel and without advertisers backing them, quality programming for children remains a distant dream. However children’s author, illustrator and educator, Rumana Husain, is not buying this argument, “Surely, much like in the good old PTV days, at least half of the numerous private channels that we have now could dedicate an hour to children’s programmes. I am sure we have enough willing and talented people in the country who would work on programming for children. Having spoken to a couple of channel owners about it in the past, I was told that they cannot find any sponsors for children’s programmes. I can only say that some things must be taken on without commercial consideration — earn from the mindless morning shows and the endless cookery shows. Children cannot be put on hold. We need sensible, contemporary programmes for them that are educational and entertaining. It is now or never,” she says.

Burka Avenger, one of the few Pakistani TV shows for children, is foreign funded -Photo by / White Star
Burka Avenger, one of the few Pakistani TV shows for children, is foreign funded -Photo by / White Star

Anam also draws attention to the general neglectful attitude towards Urdu and Urdu literature, as being part of the problem. He believes that Urdu literature for children can serve as the basis for TV programming for them. “Nobody talks about the work that Allama Iqbal or Sufi Tabassum or Shoaib Hashmi have done for children in Urdu. Instead we teach our children ‘Humpty Dumpty’. Actually we are all Humpty Dumpty and we have had a great fall!”

“Children are growing up rapidly these days, they don’t really believe in miracles now.” — Faisal Malik, Thespianz Theatre founder

by Images on Sunday staff

After graduating from the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), Faisal Malik set up his theatre company, not only for implementing what he had learnt, but also to introduce innovative and unique performing arts in Pakistan. “I grew up with a dream to promote a soft image of our country through cultural activities,” says Malik.

Nouman Mehmood joined him as associate director and during their seven-year association, they’ve worked well together churning out numerous plays under the umbrella of Thespianz Theatre. So far their company has produced over a hundred plays, more than 75 string puppetry plays and 110 theatre and motivational workshops, both in Pakistan and abroad.

Images on Sunday recently caught up with Faisal Malik to talk to him about the challenges of creating theatre for children, the paucity of entertainment for children and what plays draw in the crowds.

Photos provided by the writer
Photos provided by the writer

Q. Is there a demand for children’s theatre?

A. Yes, people are so demanding these days; parents want ground-breaking entertainment for their children. We generally follow the unique demands for children’s entertainment: we recently made Ali Baba Chalees Chor in string puppetry at the request of a private school. After making this play we have been asked by tens of schools and festivals to stage this unique string puppetry play for them. We have done approximately 40 performances of this play in various schools all over Pakistan.

Q. Do you feel entertainment catered for children (TV, theatre, and movies) are in decline quality-wise?

A. I personally feel that there is no quality entertainment for children in Pakistan. That’s the reason we introduced string puppetry in 2010 in a modern manner. We’re aiming to teach children about Pakistani art and culture plus folklores through this form of theatre.

People are so demanding these days; parents want ground-breaking entertainment for their children. We generally follow the unique demands for children’s entertainment.

Q. What kind of work is currently being produced in children’s theatre?

A. In Pakistan, only one or two organisations are working for children’s entertainment and Thespianz Theater is … one of them.

We initially used English children stories for theatre plays. After that we adapted a well-known motivational play, Who Moved My Cheese? written by a famous writer from America, Spencer Johnson. In the adaptation Pappu Ka Paneer, we taught children about motivation and struggle through a most entertaining mouse character and a hen character with two dwarves. We staged this play several times. We have completed 15 performances of it in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

We designed a cartoon play Chulbuk Chori in collaboration with the Oxford University Press which was made to raise anti-book piracy awareness. Chulbuk Chori completed eight performances in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar and played in front of an audience of around 7,600 children from government and private schools.

We also introduced a very unique theatre play Uth Oye that has 12 cat characters … and teaches children about the harm of cigarette, drugs, alcohol, etc.

Q. Most producers, actors and directors tend to stay away from children’s theatre. Why do you think this is so? And what can be done to attract better talent to the field?

A. Most producers, actors and directors prefer to work with adults but they forget that all adults were once children. What led me to work with children is that they are our future. If we can teach them in their childhood, they will implement what is taught in the future.

Q. How do you go about choosing content for children?

A. We are usually careful about choosing content … mainly we build our plays by working with local Pakistani writers and our own writers, Muttahir Ahmed Khan and Nouman Mehmood. We also choose content on demand from well-known Pakistani children’s stories and turn that content into an ethical and moral lesson for children.

Q. What can be done to make children’s theatre more thought-provoking and intelligent?

A. As I said earlier, children are growing up rapidly these days, they don’t really believe in miracles now. They want the logic behind everything and they love to ask questions.

Children love innovation … and we are busy introducing innovative and quality entertainment to appeal to children e.g. when we were creating Ali Baba Chalees Chor we were facing a little difficulty in creating Ali Baba’s cave which could be automatically opened by saying “Khul Ja Sim Sim”, my team researched on the mechanism and we made … an automatically opening cave.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Bringing drama back

Theatre isn’t just entertainment; it can be a learning tool as well

by Uzma Mazhar

Photos provided by the writer
Photos provided by the writer

In the classroom, Atif Badar the theatre teacher is busy with his pupils. Today something has caught Badar’s attention — a new student Irum is extremely shy and quiet.

Today’s class is about using expressions in a given acting scenario. Badar writes some words on the blackboard and explains each with his own facial expressions of sadness, anger, irritation and happiness. During this exercise, he notices that Irum is listening but not showing much interest and not participating at all in the ongoing activity. In the next exercise the teacher decides to involve Irum as he knows that she is an introvert.

The next exercise is storytelling — Badar starts a story and asks his students to build up the story in their own words. The exercise begins with children participating enthusiastically but the story comes to a halt when it is Irum’s turn. And here starts the teacher’s plan to make Irum participate. He coaxes her to complete the story but she is hesitant.

While the other children ask Badar to let them complete the story, he tells his students that the only person who knows a befitting end is Irum. But if she is not willing to share the end, they would move on to another activity. Lo and behold after a minute, Irum speaks up and the children applaud her effort.

Is theatre a tool to enhance communication skills? Irum’s story proves it. In addition, studies show that children who are exposed to drama learn better. Drama activities improve reading comprehension, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and school attendance. Involvement in drama courses and performance has also been shown to improve students’ self-esteem as well as their confidence in their academic abilities.

Aaisha Kidwai points out that theatre has made her son more expressive and given him a positive attitude.

Theatre in schools is valuable for students of all ages. However, teaching theatre as a medium is not common in Pakistan. Some schools may have a drama circle, but there are only a few schools that teach theatre as a subject.

Photos provided by the writer
Photos provided by the writer

After directing more than 80 theatre plays for his school along with scripting some original plays, Badar takes theatre passionately. According to him the value of theatre in a child’s educational life is two-fold: “According to Albert Einstein, imagination encircles the world and I would say that theatre is the best proof of it. Theatre is an effective way to express an idea. It is an expression, a creation. Every human being has an artistic sense and theatre brings out this artistic sense into the open.

“Over a period of time, I have observed that children have the capability of picking up things faster and are easy to mould as well. With this inspiration, the classes in my school were initiated to promote various hidden qualities of the children and build their confidence level,” he points out.

Badar believes that it is the best tool to bring out a child’s potential in a fun and creative manner. He mentions that through workshops he has introduced theatre as a means of teaching to his fellow colleagues as well. It is quite obvious that there is a dearth of imparting theatre knowledge in our schools. The general notion is that drama is at best a nautanki, meaning that a child is whiling away their life in frivolous activities. Disagreeing, Badar is of the opinion that more and more schools should introduce theatre in their curriculum for the simple reason that drama makes children use their brains and to think outside the box.

“Theatre is not a frivolous activity, because by working closely with classmates a child learns about human relationships, discovers more about traditions in their own culture and others around the world and learns decision-making, how to evaluate a situation, and it also gives a sense of social awareness and issues plaguing the world today,” Bader elaborates. “In turn, drama inculcates a healthy dose of confidence needed for good living.”

Most of the parents in our society believe that theatre is a mere extracurricular activity. In order to seek an answer to this notion we talked to a few parents whose children have participated in theatre activities. Laique Sultan and Aaisha Kidwai, agree that studying theatre has given their children both confidence and an ability to face the world.

“Theater is a universal language! It’s a method of communication, expression and a great stress reliever,” says Sultan.

“It teaches one to understand better, giving an overall improvement in all aspects of one’s life. It has greatly benefited my child and he looks forward to his classes.”

Kidwai agrees with Sultan, pointing out that theatre has made her son more expressive and given him a positive attitude. “He can understand situations more efficiently. His dress sense along with his body language has improved a lot! Secondly, introducing theatre in schools as a life skill subject is a great step by the school administration. Theatre is indeed a great skill to learn,” she says.

Theatre, particularly for children, fires the imagination; gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 31st, 2016