Other than our problematic favorite, Aladdin, growing up, I didn’t see myself represented in the animated films that I watched. Like most people I know, I vociferously consumed Disney cartoons, which ranged from Beauty and the Beast to Cinderella, and never once batted an eye at their depictions (or lack there of) of race and gender.
I think part of the problem was that we didn’t really have much of a choice when selecting the animated films we watched. However, children growing up in Pakistan today aren’t just limited to Pixar and Disney. They have Waadi Animations.
In 2015, Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy worked with her team at Waadi Animations to develop and release Pakistan’s first ever animated film, Teen Bahadur. The story revolves around three children, Kamil, Saadi, and Amna, who decide to take on gang leaders, who, aided by the supernatural villain Baba Balaam, terrorize their communities. Their bravery and valor allow them to gain superpowers of their own, which help them in their quest for justice.
An action-packed, hilarious, and fun movie, Teen Bahadur isn’t just a must-see for its plot. With a landscape similar to the city of Karachi and dialogue entirely in Urdu, children in Pakistan are able to see themselves represented in the animated films they watch, perhaps for the first time.
Chinoy emphasized this in an interview with The Guardian discussing the film. “We have taken special care to ensure that the story remains very local,” she says, “from the way we have designed our characters, to our dialogues and our script. We want children to see characters who look like them and talk like them on the big screen for the first time.”
The importance of seeing yourself represented in the media you consume cannot be understated. Numerous studies have found that children are adversely affected when they don’t see themselves reflected in the media they engage with. In fact, when children from underrepresented and marginalized communities only see themselves represented negatively they begin to lose self-esteem.
Given how impressionable young children are, it is absolutely imperative that we focus on ensuring that they see themselves reflected in books, television shows, and movies. Moreover, there is clearly a demand for such media. Teen Bahadur was the highest-grossing animated film in Pakistan ever and its success prompted the release of a sequel, Teen Bahadur: Revenge of Baba Balaam, in 2016.
The Teen Bahadur franchise has galvanized the nascent production industry in Pakistan. Perhaps in a nod to the franchise, the country’s first hand-drawn animated film, The Glassworker, is now slated to be released in 2019. However, unlike Teen Bahadur, this new film appears to have a glaring drawback. As exciting as it is to see Pakistan’s film and animation industry grow, it is important to note that, although entirely in Urdu, this film seems to be set in Europe.
While this film may be a step in the right direction, I personally believe that language is not the only factor crucial to representation, and filmmaker Usman Riaz’s decision to use the setting to make the film relatable to “animations audiences” centers the experience of Western communities. Despite my qualms with the premise, however, I’m still curious to see how this story unfolds, and hope that other films will be more cognizant of the intricacies of representation issues in the future.
Issues surrounding representation are particularly important to me. As a Pakistani woman currently living in the U.S., I am bombarded with Western images of submissive, oppressed, Muslim women in need of a savior. Unfortunately, the situation in Pakistan is not any better.
In many Pakistani television shows, patriarchal notions of gender roles remain, and working, married women are often portrayed as selfish villains. Recent trends and films, like Teen Bahadur, are particularly heartening and give me hope that children, especially young Pakistani girls, will grow up knowing they can be and do anything.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Aladdin. Although a slow process, animated films and cartoons have become increasingly diverse and representative. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.