Friday, September 19, 2014
SPECIAL EDITION: "BURKA AVENGER" INTERVIEW! A DISCUSSION WITH ADI ABDURAB, THE HEAD OF WRITING FOR "BURKA AVENGER", PAKISTAN'S BIGGEST SUPERHERO.
I've always been willing to discuss anything regarding the entertainment world on this blog, although I didn't particularly imagine that would include children's superhero cartoons, that originate in Pakistan. That said, I try not to pass up too many opportunities and when I had the chance to discuss "Burka Avenger", the groundbreaking and award-winning TV show with the show's Head of Writing Adi Abdurab, I took advantage. What him, and the rest of the crew on the show are doing, is quite amazing with the first 3-D animated superhero in Pakistan, "Burka Avenger". She (Yes, a female superhero) has become famous worldwide, as a symbolic answer as Abdurab puts it "to extremes of the world". A powerful message especially in a county where such extremes like the right to women having an education is still being fought. For this SPECIAL EDITION blogpost, I got the opportunity to take some time and talk with Adi Abdurab, about "Burka Avenger", his journey and role on the Peabody Award-winning program, and what the future might hold for the series. We talked through instant messaging on Facebook, we were acquainted with each other through a mutual friend, and the conversation below is corrected from the original for grammatical reasons, as well as to present the interview in a more smoother way, with only brief, irrelevant and/or uninteresting exchanges between us taken out from the original discussion.
ME: I'll just start with an easy one, who is "Burka Avenger"?
ADI ABDURAB: There is a simple answer and a slightly longer answer, which would you like first?
ME: Start with the simple than go to the long.
ADI ABDURAB: The simple answer is that Burka Avenger is Pakistan's first superhero. She is a girl who has no super powers, is a highly trained martial artist and the answer to the extremes of the world. The long version is that Burka Avenger is the answer to a bunch of questions. Can women be superheroes without the revealing clothes? What role has education battling extremes, can a message designed for a specific country spread across the globe and can all of this be presented in an easy to digest package for children in such a way that they influence their environment. "Burka Avenger" talks about issues that are not common in the mainstream environment, women's right to education, not becoming a runaway, child labor and freedom of choice in how we live our lives. And, as a former business student, I feel works as a case study on how a show can come up from nothing (from the last place you'd expect) and take the world by storm because it hit all the right touch points at the right time. Does that answer your question?
ME: Very much so. It also leads me into my next questions, what are your responsibilities on the show, and how did you get to work on it? In other words, how did you get from business student to "Burka Avenger"?
ADI ADBURAB: I had my own insignificant little blog where I used to write jokes and create random comics. It was mostly hit and miss. I was an IT manager for about 6 years at the time. A friend of mine was in the animation business, at the time, we talked about working on something together and I wrote some stories for him. He liked the ideas, none of them made it to film unfortunately. He was called in for an interview at Unicorn Black Animation Studios (then called Mango Animation). He did no take the job, but when asked if he knew a writer, put my name in for recommendation. I was called in for an interview along with other writers and we were all given this outline on which were to fashion a story. The outline (in summary) was that there are these extremists who are going to threaten a girl's school. There must be kids, there must be side-kicks, funny little characters and menacing villains.
ME: Is that the one that became the first episode?
ADI ADBURAB: Sadly no, my first draft was rejected because I introduced 20 characters in there and the production pipeline was not ready for that many assets. But they liked where I was going with it and hired me. Then after a few meeting with the other writers, we whittled down the story to what you saw on TV.
ME: Ah. Yeah, 20 characters in an animation cartoon, that can be a bit much.
ADI ADBURAB: At the time, I just had ideas for stories; I didn't even know the technical aspects of writing a script. But, some reading and research, I picked up on all that and I nailed it by the 4th draft. After two episodes, they liked my work; the made me the head of writing. They tried out a few people for sound direction, then they trained me in heading up pre-production and here we are.
ME: Oh wow, you do a lot on the show.
ADI ADBURAB: I'd like to look at it as doing everything I can.
ME: That's a great way of putting it. How many writers does the show have, and how many episodes have you written?
ADI ADBURAB: The show has 1 other writer and one consultant. The other writer is primarily responsible for gags, you can look him up, he's famous on Facebook "Comics by Arsian", the consultant was a part-time writer, she used to fine tune some of our scripts, such as going overboard with comedy or action. She'd remind us that we're not making "Simpsons" or "Legend of Korra" (who was an inspiration for some of out characters), and helped steer us back...-
COMICS BY ARSIAN LINKS ARE BELOW:
https://www.facebook.com/comics.by.arslan (FACEBOOK PAGE)
ME: You've practically beaten me to my next question here; so since this is Pakistan's first superhero, does "Burka Avenger" have any superhero influences, and in Pakistan in general, just how popular are superheroes/heroines with the public, or is this a very new concept there?
ADI ADBURAB: Yes, "Legend of Korra" had just come out when we started work and saw it as our benchmark of a strong female lead. We also looked at the darked themes of "Batman" to design some of our shots. Our head of animation, a huge Batman, TAS, and Justice League fan, used to watch their action sequences all day before coming up with a storyboard. It is a bunch of ideas assembled from similar shows. So super heroes in Pakistan aren't exactly a new thing. There is a Commander Safeguard, who is basically a mascot for a soap, but they created some very interesting animated shorts featuring the adventures of Commanders Safeguard. We also used to get cartoon regularly, so the audience had been well educated since the days of "Voltron", "Thundercats", "Silver Hawks", etc. We didn't have such an uphill battle with the idea of a superhero.
ME: Wow, "Voltron", that brings me back.
ADI ADBURAB: It does us all. The ones with the cars was ridiculous; I remember laughing about the gags they made on "Robot Chicken" about that "Voltron".
ME: I never liked the one with the cars either. I'll have to look up the "Robot Chicken" one through, I haven't seen that one yet. I've seen others, but not the "Voltron" one.
ADI ADBURAB: Do check it out, you might like it.
(Adi sent me the link to the "Robot Chicken" "Voltron" parody, and I watched it as we continued talking; it was pretty funny. The link is below.)
ME: Moving on, the show's creator is Haroon, a very famous pop star in Pakistan, how hands-on is he with the show and what's he like to work with?
ADI ADBURAB: He is very hands on, sometimes, short of taking the computer from you and doing it himself, he does it all. Sometimes it presents a challenge to fully create, but at other times, it makes things easy. Having been a pop star, he had some great ideas for soundtrack and that still happens to be one of the show's highlights. He is a very understanding person; I've seen people storm off after huge fights, but he never made it personal. "Mixed feelings" is the most apt phrase to describe that relationship. Being Head of Writing, most of my job involves going back and forth between him almost all the time.
ME: I see. Well, the music for the show, is very prevalent, it's also very catchy and iconic already, so it's definitely impressive.
ADI ADBURAB: Yes, the music is definitely the highlight; it's lead into the launch of another Black Unicorn project called Taazi.com, a platform to hear music legally for free. It's picking up nicely in Pakistan.
ME: Oh, very cool. You talked a bit about the education aspects; it's a core theme of the show. It's obviously very important for you and the show, why is that, and just how prevalent a message is that on Pakistani television, especially compared with other animated/children shows?
ADI ADBURAB: There is a mentality common to the Southeast Asian Sub-Continent that still holds on to the notion that women are inferior being. This is limited to the underdeveloped areas of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. To counteract that, we that "Burka Avenger" would present an opportunity to influence these minds both directly and tangentially, and hopefully it will help the cause of making education available to everyone. Other shows speak of generic issues of empowering women, which is great, but we felt that, with this, we need a new approach and we realized that there is no greater asset to a nation than literacy. I hope that answers the question. I feel like I may have repeated myself a few times there.
ME: You probably have, but it does bare repeating. Especially is Pakistan, just looking up the statistics on literacy, especially among women; it's a bit startling for a westerner, so it's a very big message you're sending out.
ADI ADBURAB: It is heart-wrenching for us as well.
ME: I can kinda imagine, but not quite. Just a couple more questions, how long does it take to produce an episode?
ADI ADBURAB: It depends on a few things, such as number of assets, the locations and backlog. Sometimes it takes 3 weeks, sometimes 6. The quickest we have done an episode was 2 weeks, which was basically a recap episode.
ME: You also mentioned wanting the show to spread across the globe, in a way it's done that already, but are there any prospects/chances that "Burka Avenger" will start airing on U.S. television soon?
ADI ADBURAB: Yes, there are definite wheels in motion to bring the series stateside. Insh-Allah, we will solidify a plan and announce the big news,... soon.
ME: Hmm. Very interesting. We will keep an eye out for that.
ADI ADBURAB: I'll be sure to let you know as soon as something solidifies.
ME: I'll be waiting. Well, that's all the questions I had, thank you very much for doing this with me.
ADI ADBURAB: Not a problem, I'm happy to talk about "Burka Avenger".
ME: And congratulation, on the many awards and accommodations the show has received, especially the Peabody, big congratulations on that.
ADI ADBURAB: Thank you very much, it was a surprise for us, as well as a humbling reminder that anything can happen to anyone.
ME: Thanks again for granting me this time.