Does Kaliyan ring a bell? Or the character Uncle Sargam who featured in the popular puppet-based TV show in the late seventies? As it turns out, it seems that there are two types of people in Pakistan. The ones who grew up watching Uncle Sargam and the others who grew up hearing about the show he was featured in.
Needless to say, from only two channels (PTV and STN) in the seventies and nineties to multiple channels dominating our TV screens today, the medium has drastically changed in terms of its offerings. However, the dearth of children-friendly Urdu programming has always been a gap waiting to be bridged – and most of us, Millennials and Gen Z included, have grown up watching Western children’s shows, like Sesame Street and Barney.
Keeping this in mind, a new show for children in Urdu called Pakkay Dost made its debut on YouTube this September. It is a puppet show aimed at helping children learn through their formative years – and a pleasant addition to Urdu language-based content in the country.
The project is the brainchild of Bilal Maqsood, the co-founder of Strings. After dedicating 33 years to his iconic pop band, Maqsood decided to create content and music aimed at young children that would be both culturally relevant and educational, and give his young audience memorable songs and life lessons in Urdu in the process. “This is my passion project. After making music for decades, working for Pakkay Dost has given me a different kind of high,” he says.
Creating a show with puppets was not a difficult decision for Maqsood; ever since he was first exposed to Sesame Street, he has long wanted to work with puppets. His intention was to create a similar experience for Pakistani audiences. He says it took him almost two years to put together a team of 100 people and launch Pakkay Dost.
“I wanted to do something for kids, even when I was with Strings. As a child, I grew up with Sohail Rana’s songs and they still resonate with me.” In this context, he mentions Helicopter and Daak Babu, saying they keep him connected to his roots and culture.
Pakkay Dost’s script and songs are written by Maqsood himself. His inspiration for each episode comes from topics that are important to him. He stresses, however, that trying to change attitudes is not the main objective of the show; the focus is always on giving children “delightful” Urdu songs that teach them ethics and skills, such as caring, sharing and friendship. For example, the song, Main Bhi Rota Hoon (I Cry Too) normalises crying and he plans to explore additional themes in future episodes, such as racism and body shaming, which are often left unaddressed in children’s programming. He emphasises that although such unconventional themes may not be fully understood by very young children, they do remain ingrained, leading to positive character development. “The objective is to give our children nice, catchy Urdu songs, and although everything else is important too, you will not find the show becoming preachy.”
Maqsood initially approached the Rafi Peer Theatre for help in puppeteering, but they could not accommodate his request. Eventually, his search led him to Alison Ewert, a Canadian puppeteer whose collection of puppets synced with the essence of Pakkay Dost – “cheerful, delightful characters that kids adore.” Umer Adil (Executive Director at Hot Water Bottle Films) was the obvious choice when it came to directing, as Adil and his wife Beenish have plenty of experience directing children’s shows. Incidentally, Adil also plays the character of Mateen.
Once Maqsood received his eight custom-made puppets from Ewert, he set about finding the perfect actors that would match the puppets’ personalities. He found them after holding extensive workshops and auditions. He says that the process took longer than he anticipated because there is more to puppeteering than just moving dolls with strings. He wanted his actors to infuse life, personality and their unique voices into the puppets.
Usman Sheikh took on the role of Jagga, the grey monster with a penchant for jalebis. Ahsan Khan plays two characters, Lal Baig and Tufail and Shahzeen Khan plays Miraal, while Alizay Jaffer takes on the character of Bajjo, the wise and witty green monster, a character inspired by Fatima Surayya Bajia. (As mentioned earlier director Umar Adil brings Mateen to life.)
“I would not say that the actors have mastered puppeteering but they are really good, even if we still have a long way to go. And it is to the credit of their talent that they managed to pull it off like that.”
The response so far has been largely positive. “Children who are three or four years old want to meet Lal Baig; for some reason, he is their favourite character. Their connection with Pakkay Dost is strong and that is very encouraging.”
In Maqsood’s opinion, a strong pop culture is crucial for Pakistan’s young people and “such shows are important because they become a part of the country’s pop culture. Hopefully, children will continue to identify with Lal Baig and will want him featured on their lunch boxes, school bags and/or t-shirts.”
Predictably, putting the show together was not easy and the team had to tackle several challenges, from managing the size of the puppets and intricate sets to handling lights and audio – as well as financial constraints (it is entirely self-funded). Once the first season was completed (it comprised four episodes), Maqsood approached sponsors, many of whom had previously turned him down. This time the response was entirely different, and they wanted to buy it outright, but Maqsood declined as he wants to own the show and feature it on his YouTube page exclusively.
For Maqsood, Pakkay Dost has been a far more rewarding experience than anything he has done before. Here he acknowledges the role of his wife, Tina Maqsood, who provided unwavering support. He aspires to grow his family of puppets, create more songs and more elaborate sets, and elevate the show. “I envision this becoming a household name, with the family growing from eight puppets to 12 and eventually to 18, with bigger sets with more songs. Almost like the Sesame Street of Pakistan. That would be great.”