Singing in the Zia Era, Burka Avenger and Beyond

Hanniah Tariq talks to Haroon Rashid – the socially conscious power behind the animated series

Singing in the Zia Era, Burka Avenger and Beyond
Burka Avenger, Pakistan’s first 3D animated series, is a breath of fresh air in a country that placed 148th out of 149 in the Global Gender Gap Index 2018 report from the World Economic Forum (WEF). With strong female protagonists and socially responsible messages, it has undeniably become a favorite among Pakistani as well as international audiences. Since its inception, the beloved show has won a series of prestigious awards for both its production quality and progressive content. It was the Winner of the Peabody Award in 2013, nominated at the International Emmy Awards in 2015, won the Prix Jeunesse International “International Gender Equity Prize” in 2013, the “Best TV Show” on the Asian Media Awards in 2014, the “Rising Star Award” in the Canada International Film Festival in 2013 and the International Gender Equity Prize in Munich, Germany – to name a few. The title character was even named one of the most influential fictional characters of 2013 by Time magazine.

Behind the inception and success of this phenomenon are a multi-talented individual and his team at Unicorn Black – a multimedia production and tech solutions company. Haroon Rashid is a gifted singer, musician, composer, producer, recording engineer and social activist. Those of us born in the 1980s and ’90s knew him as the frontman of Awaz, one of the most popular bands in a time when music was not accessible in the way we know it today. To those who know him personally, he has always been a shining example of a sincere yet funny, thoughtful and socially responsible person.

Born in London to a New Zealand opera singer and a Pakistani father, music appealed to him from a young age. There was always music in the house, they always had a piano, and his mother sang all the time. By the time he was nine, he knew he wanted to be a musician. “I was a huge fan of the Beatles at the time. When my mother told me that they perform, play the instruments, compose and write songs, I decided I wanted to do the same.” But there was very little access to music growing up in the 1980s. So, whenever his parents went abroad, he would request them to record the British show “Top of the Pops” on VHS for him. He would watch the episodes again and again and regularly tuned into short-wave radio for the BBC Top 20 Charts to feed that part of his soul.

At 13, he got his first acoustic guitar and started taking lessons. When he was 14, he formed his first band at school. True to their name, “Idiosyncrasies” played at school functions all through their teens when music was actively discouraged in Pakistan. As a teenager, he was also very fond of breakdancing and had a crew. They were challenged by another team to have a dance-off in Jinnah Supermarket, which they accepted. When the two groups started dancing a large crowd gathered to watch. These were hundreds of people gathered in General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, when an ordinance banning the assembly of more than five people in public was in effect. Suddenly, the police rushed into the gathering and started a baton charge. “The crowd dispersed, and I ran along with them grabbing my younger brother’s hand, who had also come to watch. That’s the kind of experiences we had growing up under the regime,” he says today.

After graduating, he went to study Business Finance in the US, but his passion remained music. “I would dream about writing songs, recording and releasing albums. I had diaries full of lyrics for different imaginary audiences”. Returning for a holiday during this time he met keyboardist Faakhir Mehmood in Islamabad. They stayed in touch, and when he returned after graduation, they formed Awaz with guitarist Asad Ahmed in 1992.

Recording their first music video on the song “Jan e man,” which Haroon had composed at 16 the hopeful young band sent it to various local channels. But no channel seemed interested, and they were quite discouraged, seeing no path open to their music. ‘The head at NTM at the time even told us that we really shouldn’t quit our day jobs!” he quips goodnaturedly about the time. Then one day, a host on MTV Asia, which had just launched, asked the audience to send their requests to the channel. “And I thought I do have a request. My song!” he says and proceeded to send a letter stating that they were an upcoming band in Pakistan. Aware that they only played English songs in those days, Haroon also wrote that one billion spoke Urdu or Hindi, so they should play the video. Ten days later the song played on MTV, Awaz got their big break and everything changed overnight. “The lesson I learned was that if the right channels either don’t exist or are closed to you one has to be a little creative and find your own way to achieve your dreams. Throughout my career every time I saw roadblock, I would try to find a new route to get to my destination.” And get there they did. Borne out of the musically limiting 1980s, they went on to release three extremely popular albums selling more than 2,000,000 worldwide.

Jumping from musician to acclaimed producer was a surprisingly organic path for him. “There are two sides to that. One is the creative conceptual aspect, and the other is the technical production aspect. I was always very interested in the production of the music videos, which we had done for decades. I was fortunate to work with some great directors over the years. I would always sit with them during the edit and was interested in the production. So I got a lot of knowledge through experience” he says. When it came to the creative conceptual side, something like Burka Avenger with a strong social message was nothing new to the artist. “That started early even with Awaz, where we tried to make sure that we released songs with socially conscious messages like ‘Mr. Fraudiay’”, which is anti-corruption. In solo work, I tried to concentrate on peace messages. So that has always been close to my heart. I thought that we have this huge platform with millions of listeners and fans who we were able to reach with our music. And things were changing in Pakistan, and the situation was deteriorating, and you felt you had to comment. You couldn’t just sit back and ignore it. You couldn’t just be an entertainer for the sake of it. So these two things came together” he says.

In 2010, he was reading about girl’s schools threatened by extremists. “That, of course, made me very angry like most people all over Pakistan. I was very aware that female literacy was a huge problem and that we need more girls’ schools. I tried to imagine a female school teacher in that situation. What kind of options would be open to her in Swat, for example? How would she fight back?” he wondered. From there, the concept developed into the Burka Avenger. He felt it had the potential to make a compelling statement against extremism while at the same time touching on topics of women’s empowerment. Hence his background, interests, as well as current events came into play when he started working on the concept for a movie. As a musician and someone who was making videos for decades, it came naturally to him.

“Around that time, there was a massive boom in apps. So I thought maybe instead of making a movie which could take years I could start small and develop an iPhone game called Burka Avenger”. The concept was a scenario where extremists are attempting to attack a school and the Burka Avenger is trying to defend the school by throwing books and pens at them. Researching about how games were marketed he saw that many games had short animated videos to promote them. So, Haroon came up with the storyboard, sat down with a local artist and began working. “I went to the studio and recorded the theme song for it, which is this same theme song in the show today. I did some voice-over sound effects, and we animated the basic two-minute video together. But when I saw the final product, I felt it was so powerful with so much potential. That’s when I knew that the way to go could be an animated TV series”. From there it was just a matter of putting a team together.

However, there were other aspects to creating the series. “I was aware that the concept and the word Burka has many connotations. International events like the headscarf ban in France in school, the situation in Pakistan, and all the subtleties of that”. But he had grown up loving comic books and reading about superheroes. “One of my favorites was ‘Daredevil’ who wore a devil outfit, but he was a good guy. And Batman who was a scary bat, but he saves people. And so that’s how that concept of a superhero wearing a Burka, a disguise, even though it has negative connotations of being sometimes used to subjugate women came about”, he explains.

The first episode was finished sometime in May 2012. Then in October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban. “Everyone at the studio was stunned. It was like life imitating art at that point and an eye-opener. It strengthened our resolve to continue going. At the time, many said we should launch the animation immediately but I wanted to finish all the episodes. It didn’t feel right doing it at that time” he says. Now when people compare, he reminds them that Burka Avenger is fictional. Malala is real and the way she’s standing up for human rights makes her a great living symbol.

Burka Avenger, now in its fourth season, has run on multiple channels in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Indonesia. “It’s had great viewership internationally. It was dubbed in Hindi and run in India, which is a great source of pride for me because a lot of times Indian content is coming here. It is great when Pakistani content goes there”. The future holds a return to his first love for the artist. It has taken over five years, but he is finally back in the recording studio. “Actually, I’ve never stopped writing songs. I’ve been writing all along because that’s something I do for pleasure. Some people do crossword puzzles; I like to sit in the sun and imagine lyrics and melodies and then put them together.”