Category Archives: Animation

Why the ‘Burka Avenger’ Sparks Frustration: A Personal Opinion

Burka Avenger

I agree I’m a little bit behind with the news, as I only just found out about this new superhero on the block, the ‘Burka Avenger’. It is the story of a teacher at school, who decides to fight tyranny, crime and the like around her village and will be aired soon on a Pakistani TV channel. So what has sparked debate once again on Pakistani soil, this time about a character in a childrens’ animation? This super-heroine, in order to protect her identity, dresses herself up in a ‘burka’- i.e. the equivalent of the head-to-toe Muslim veil.

Many people defending the ‘Burka Avenger’ claim that ‘the animation effort should be praised’. This argument is beyond me, and completely separate from the issue here. It is supposed to be an animation for children, and for that, the responsibility on the heads of the creators increases. I don’t entirely believe that the creators have some hidden message beneath it all. No, it seems like whoever came up with the name of the show had one thing on his or her mind- ratings. Naming a character ‘Burka Avenger’ means it is sparking a forseeable controversial debate about a piece of clothing, which is controversial. Simply put, the show will have more viewers given this name. It could be for the same reason Veena Malik decided to shock people by appearing nude on the cover of some magazine; to generate interest in controversy, to gain attention and publicity in the media, or simply to earn a living. But, the deeper and more sinister reason could be that the only socially acceptable way to have a female heroine fighting crime is to cover her up in a burka. This is what I initially thought, however, once I watched the trailer, it seemed like the former reason better fits the situation.

The second issue, I guess, are the two groups arguing for and against the burka. The first one that asks, ‘Why cover her up in a burka at all?’; and the second one that says, ‘It’s a good show with a good message, never mind the burka’.

It is certainly distressing to see the latter argument, again and again; to stop complaining; to hear the same opinion that Pakistani liberal fascists are on the warpath, always criticizing etc etc. and so forth. But the fact remains that for one, burka has nothing to do with Pakistani culture, especially not the type the super-heroine is wearing. It originated and always was a part of Arab culture. Now again, this is quite a recent thing to try to do everything the perceived Arab way; to pronounce our ‘s’s like ‘th’s and replace ‘z’s with ‘d’s. We are not Arabs, note. We are South Asians, we are Pakistanis, enough with this identity transfer. I reject this notion of ‘pan-Arabism’. I reject the imposition of Arab dress, ideology, culture and language on Pakistanis. The thing is, if people are so intent on following this code, then the men should also wear checkered headdresses, yet it is only the women who are keen to garb themselves in this Arab garment. It is not the law of our country, it is not the dress of our country. It should, therefore, not be the dress of (probably) the first Pakistani-born and bred super-heroine.

The problem is that the people designing these concepts, on the lighter side of life, maybe do not know the power of mass media; and on the darker side, they are fully aware that the best way for acceptance of a certain thing is to put it on television and feed it to the masses. In any case, whatever the message might be- the girl fights crime, teaches all the good lessons to children- she is still dressed in a garment, which is the symbol of subjugation of women around the world, accept or reject this fact, or swallow it with a bitter pill, this is the truth.

I want to believe that the creators, instead, used the burka as irony; a woman who fights the patriarchy in the same costume intended for her submission. I think that underlying it all, this is the better message.

To many readers who are already aware of the ‘Burka Avenger’, it may seem like this piece of writing is another one by those so-called liberal ‘fascists’ who make up a small proportion of Pakistanis. Ever since the elections in May, there was a lot of criticism about the ‘Burger Bachas’ and the like, who were accused of supporting Imran Khan, being a part of the ‘band-wagon’, carrying DSLRs and so forth. A noteworthy observation would be that it was these same ‘Burger Bachas’ who took to the streets 2 and a half to 3 years ago in a cleaning initiative, where they tried to mop up dirty, trash ridden parts of the city of Lahore. It was a project done under the name of Zimmedar Shehri, as far as I can remember, meaning ‘responsible citizens’.

I see nothing to joke about in this constant criticism of the youth who end up going to the few good colleges and universities in Pakistan. It is the result of their hard work, most of the time. The University where I studied was giving many scholarships to many, many students. In fact, some of my friends studied their entire time there on fully-funded scholarships. To mock this intelligence is wrong, to mock these kids is also wrong. In a counter argument, I would ask the critics to think if it was better that the regular kid spent all day on the street, smoking cigarettes and hollering at girls going to the market, or spend a few hours hitting the books to improve his future. The story seems to be one of those ‘sour grapes’ type to me.

We do not study to Westernize ourselves. We have no liberal agenda, in fact, to fight for human rights is not a liberal agenda. If anyone insists on calling it an ‘agenda’, then better call it a ‘human agenda’.

Anyone looking for the Burka Avenger can watch the trailer (in English) here on YouTube. I do admit I was impressed, but I really wish the avenging angel was dressed more feminist-ically.

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Animation, 2D and 3D, works best when it has a distinct visual feel to it, a recognizable palette that forever after becomes synonymous with its name and characters, an array of shapes and motifs that help make it distinguishable from other features. Disney’s 1997 ‘Hercules’, for instance, had ancient Greece etched even into the chins and shins of the characters. In that remarkable work of art, if a pot broke, the puff of dust would be a series of lines right out of a Grecian Urn.

Disney's 'Hercules' (1997)

‘Pocahontas’ also had a very marked sensation of its own. Think ‘Pocahontas’, think bold symmetry and rich texture, think elemental forms and dramatic colours lifted from totemic masks. Inspired by a beautiful culture that strikes me as shy and strongly individualistic at the same time, its straight, heavy oaks and thick beams of sunlight provide a stunning backdrop to the story. These are animated films that my memory stored more in terms of the strong visual impression that they left than anything else. This is not to say that the plot or characterization were weak, it’s just that the first jolt of remembrance usually brings back the most basic, overall feel or flavor of anything. The details unfold only subsequently.

Concept Art from Disney's 'Pocahontas'

Where most animated features of today fail is this domain. They give you fast-paced action, smart-talking characters voiced (and completely possessed!) by celebrities, one-liners, fancy slow-motion sequences, sultry acoustic songs playing where, in the Disney tradition, a whole musical would have taken place, CGI gloss and crispness, a gazillion references to pop-culture, mini-parodies, mini-commercials…almost everything under the sun except for a good ol’ dose of defining, hard-to-forget visual imagery. Take ‘Shrek’, take ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’, even ‘Up’ to some extent. Entertaining. Not exactly memorable. You forget them like that Coke you just had.

And no, their being 3D has nothing to do with it. Hardcore animators like Glen Keane prove that; Disney’s forthcoming ‘Tangled’ is a 3D animation but as grounded in fine art as the 2D films from Disney’s golden age. Its entire feel is determined by Fragonard’s painting ‘the Swing’, a Rococo landmark, fresh and pretty like bright cream squiggles on a sunset-pink cake. From what I’ve seen of ‘Tangled’ stills so far, it’s apparent that this inspiration is never lost. There’s something of ‘the Swing’ in every shot. And, thankfully, the animators have not felt it incumbent on them to interpret 3D as realistic. There is a degree of stylization that has been missing for far too long from the screen!

'The Swing' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. 1767

Production still from Disney's forthcoming 3D feature 'Tangled'

In order to set a tone to a story and bring about any kind of coherence, you need to draw your colours, costumes, makeup, props and sets from the same well. If your story is set in Arab, your characters and architecture, even your skies and trees and flowers and bees need to assert that. If it is China, your tableau needs to have negative spaces as pregnant with force and mystery as those in the most familiar of Chinese watercolour landscapes (makers of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Mulan’, kudos!). If your tale has its origins in Celtic lore, you need to get that across unrestrainedly to your audience. You need to not just talk about the designs from a Celtic manuscript, you need to mould the stage and the actors in their shape (hail ‘The Secret of Kells’ for doing precisely this).

Animated films, like their live-action counterparts, need to really be set aside from each other in a world that is growing irritatingly reliant on second-hand storytelling and disturbing computer-generated realism at the expense of artistic achievement.