The Pakistani carrier of Sesame Street is unpopular because it is filled with dull talking heads, duller government news, and unslick presentation compared to the Indian satellite channels. But besides putting on the occasional qauwaal or ghazal artiste who shine above the tacky sets, what PTV should be thanked for is Sesame Street in Urdu.
Even though the Sesame Street episodes are made for American kids, there is not much lost when they get translated and dubbed for our young audience. There is enough in the little stories, educational interludes and introduction to letters and numbers for children anywhere to learn and enjoy at the same time.
Sesame Street in Urdu reminds, by standing alone among all the programmes being beamed down on us, of the dreadful situation that exists in the Subcontinent—South Asia’s children have nothing good to watch on television even though they are hooked. And no one is doing anything about it. Even the media activists who call strenuously for public service content on the government and private channels are mostly calling for documentaries and other serious gown-up fare.
QUESTIONS: 1. If satellite television is a gift of the market and new technology, how come the pre-teenagers are being so completely ignored? 2. Okay, our media analysts and activists are unconcerned or too conservative, but what of Save the Children or Unicef— which even has a regional office for all of South Asia? Why are they looking the other way as South Asia’s unwitting parents shove their wards in front of the television set to ingest local and Western commercial trash? ANSWER: timidity, absence of creativity and caring, and an unwillingness to rock the boat.
Till such time that we wake up and force the production of good children’s television programming in each of our countries and regions, here’s an idea. We must start a campaign to publicise the Urdu Sesame Street that airs on PTV, and is so easily and ubiquitously available on cable. Even the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal should have no problem if Indian households start tuning in to PTV to watch Big Bird learning to count cookies as Cookie Monster devours them. Sure it is in Urdu, but at that target level, it makes no different if it is Urdu, Hindi or Hindustani.
If it is okay for Nepalis to make watching Hindi films a national pastime, and for everyone to hang on to every word said (and unsaid) by Hindi film stars and starlets, let there be no nationalistic pretence as to why Nepali children should not be served Sesame Street in Urdu. The government-owned Nepal Television has shown Hindi films for decades on end, so what’s wrong with this? Nothing, only that South Asia’s adults are in a time warp and have no understanding of a dramatically changed childhood need—for age-specific stimulation and excitement on tv.
What Sesame Street provides is everything that South Asia’s media barons have not bothered to give, “creative, innovative, engaging, optimistic and educational content that leverages children’s natural attraction to media in constructive and productive ways”. A Pakistani Silicon Valley millionaire, Safi Qureshey, seems to have understood however. And it is he who is behind Sesame Street in Urdu, together with Tahir Andrabi, an academic living in the US. Here is what else I have found out: the producer of the Urdu version is Ghazanfar Ali, the writer is Shoaib Hashmi, and the voiceovers are done by Khalid Anum, Najaf Bilgrami, Ahsan Rahim, Amna Khan and Amir Agha.
So, if all these good Pakistanis have found it worthwhile doing Sesame Street in Urdu, let the campaign begin to get people to watch the programme outside Pakistan as well. Later, we should get copyright clearance and start Sesame Street editions in Nepali, Bangla, Sindhi, and Asamiya. Once we get the hang of it, we can begin producing original children’s programming in Nepali, Bangla, Sindhi, and Asamiya.