US to fund $20m remake of Sesame Street for Pakistan

Sesame Street characters pose under a "123 Sesame Street" sign, November 2009 in New York City The show will be set in a Pakistan village and be mostly in Urdu

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The United States is funding a Pakistani remake of the popular TV children's show Sesame Street.

In a new effort to win hearts and minds in Pakistan, USAID - the development arm of the US government - is donating $20m (£12m) to the country to create a local Urdu version of the show.

The project aims to boost education in Pakistan, where many children have no access to regular schooling.

The show is to be filmed in Lahore and aired later in the year.

"The programme is part of a series of ventures that is aimed at developing the educational infrastructure in the country," Virginia Morgan, a spokesperson for USAID, told the BBC.

"Education is one of the vital sectors that need help in Pakistan."

The show will be set in a village in Pakistan - rather than the streets of New York - with roadside tea shop and residents sitting on their verandas.

The remake will star a puppet called Rani, the six-year-old daughter of a peasant farmer, with pigtails and a school uniform, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Drama in a dramatic age

The Rafi Peer group has been a leading light in Pakistani theatre for nearly 30 years. The group has been in the news in the past for its off-the-cuff productions - but also for the threats it has received.

In 2008 its highly popular World Performing Arts festival in Lahore was bombed. Although no-one was injured, the attack set back the arts in what is regarded as the country's cultural capital.

This was followed by an attack on the troupe's cafe in the city. Despite this, owners Faizan and Imran Peerzada have remained committed to bringing Sesame Street to audiences across Pakistan.

In an recent interview, the brothers said they planned to ensure the show would reach rural homes, with as many as 600 live performances planned over the next two years.

Targeting five to nine year olds, the series will run on Pakistan national TV and regional language channels.

Sesame Street is not entirely alien to Pakistani audiences - the original version ran on local TV during the 1990s.

But it could only be understood across the limited, Westernised section of Pakistani society.

The Rafi peer theatre group, which is producing the local version in collaboration with Sesame Workshop, hopes to change that.

In an interview with a local edition of Newsweek, Imraan Peerzada‚ a writer for the new series‚ said the protagonist was a brave and daring girl.

"She will represent what little girls have to go through in this gender-biased society," he said.

He said her journey would inevitably touch on Pakistan's ongoing fight with militancy, but would not directly refer to religion.

"We don't want to label children‚" he said. "The basic learning tools of literacy‚ numeracy‚ hygiene‚ and healthy eating have to be in place first."

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