With Zee5's Churails, filmmaker Asim Abbasi has become an exciting new voice from Pakistan

Asim Abbasi's Churails — currently streaming on Zee5 — is what many will call a 'game-changer'. In a candid interview, the filmmaker expands on his fiesty series based in Karachi.

Tatsam Mukherjee August 21, 2020 08:13:16 IST
With Zee5's Churails, filmmaker Asim Abbasi has become an exciting new voice from Pakistan

Asim Abbasi's Churails is what many will call a 'game-changer'.

This becomes apparent in the second episode, when a runaway teenage girl is called back home by her parents because they 'miss' her. Hours after the girl has returned, it becomes sufficiently clear that the parents want to marry her off to a stranger. Just when the audience thinks that the young girl's fate is sealed, like a million others in the subcontinent, a handful of her accomplices’ barge into the apartment with masks on their faces and (toy) guns in their hands. The girl is making her way to the front door, evidently shaken by parents' duplicity when an accomplice pulls her back to face her father. Pointing the gun to the father's temple, she demands that he look his daughter in the eye and say 'Jaa Zubaida jaa... jee le apni zindagi'.

Creator Asim Abbasi's subversive nod to DDLJ's famous climax is not subtle, but his craft is what makes the scene soar. A frenetic song plays in the background, and the camera follows the gang navigating their way through the mohalla's narrow staircases. It's an adrenaline-charged scene that will 'entertain' viewers not just with its whimsical humour, but also its revisionist gaze.

"It was my version of this much romanticised trope in Hindi films, where entire subplots are spent trying to get the approval of parents... and that's okay. But there also needs to be a cut-off point where the individuals take their own life decisions. It (the scene) was the "Churails" taking a stand, that you will not force us to get married like this, we will get the permission to live life on our own terms... by hook or crook,” Abbasi says on a zoom call from London.

Born in Karachi (Pakistan), an 18-year-old Abbasi moved to London to pursue an undergraduate degree from the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE). Devouring '80s Bollywood films like Jaanbaaz and Khoon Bhari Maang during his growing up years, Abbasi quit his 9-year investment banking career and enrolled himself in the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS, London). Making his feature film debut with 2018's Cake, Abbasi has established himself as an assured and exciting new-age voice from Pakistan. In Churails, it all goes to the next level.

Having been toying with years’ worth of stray notes around subjugation of women, LGBTQI rights, the prevalent colourism in society on post-its and brief notes scribbled into his notebook, Abbasi first started writing the pitch for Churails in the summer of 2018. Getting approval for the pitch in August, 2018, what followed was some of the most intense writing sessions he'd ever done in his life. "The writing process was really fast because I was chasing deadlines. Even though it took me close to a year to write Cake, I knew I had to do this sooner because we wanted to go into production by 2019. I was writing 16-18 hours a day, every day for eight months. And you're spending all your time with these characters, so you're obviously going a little mad," Abbasi says about the hectic process.

With Zee5s Churails filmmaker Asim Abbasi has become an exciting new voice from Pakistan

Aim Abbasi, director of Churails. Image from Twitter

"Churails is a messy show, and I mean this in the best manner possible. Its ambitions are boundless, the show is unapologetic about its politics. There's more than the routine check on one's privileges, there's more than mere lip-service to equal rights. It wants to do right by everyone. Much like its two upper-class central characters, Sara (Sarwat Gilani Mirza) and Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi) who want to make the philandering men of Karachi 'pay' for their indiscretions, even the show's cinematic language starts out as something thriving on catty dialogue. Abbasi is aware of this, given how he finds a way to mention 'Desperate Housewives' in a throwaway line in the first episode. "The beauty of having full control over content (which Zee5 gave me), is you get the opportunity to experiment more often. You watch Ep 1 of Churails, and it's not the same show when you're watching Ep 7," he says.

Sara and Jugnu recruit Batool (Nimra Bucha) and Zubaida (Mehar Bano) to start an under-the-radar detective agency, called (what else, but) Churails, that helps the wronged 'trophy wives' reach a hefty divorce settlement, and also supports the vulnerable and discarded not-so-well-off women in society. The intentions are stellar, and yet life (like a series) hardly ever turns out exactly like we imagined it. There are no easy truths, the world isn't full of one-dimensional villains. Housing their detective crew behind an upmarket fashion boutique and the tagline Mard ko Dard Hoga, the 'Churails' soon find themselves battling women in denial about their husbands' infidelity, occasionally sauntering into circumstances way beyond their control.

"Look, there are lots of worries when you're writing a show like this. You want to be doing justice whether it's to the issues of women, the LGBTQI community or the class discussion. Even now, I'll hear that the show didn't push the class discussion far enough, it's obviously subjective. It depends on the baggage that the audience is bringing to the show. In Cake it was a very privileged POV, something I wanted to widen with Churails because I think oppression of women have many forms, and can be found in different classes of the society. It would be unfair to say that only working-class women suffer from oppression," says Abbasi.

Fully aware of the slippery slope he was on as a man writing about female rage, he was also sure of what the show shouldn't end up like. "I didn't want it to feel like it was written with a male gaze. There will always be noise from certain quarters, but I didn't want to be in a position where the show was fully shutdown because it didn't reflect women's issues or rage in any way whatsoever." And to keep his 'gaze' in check, Abbasi surrounded himself with ADs, a script consultant, who Abbasi describes as 'strong, smart women with lots of opinions' constantly questioning what Abbasi had written. "I felt this was always steering me in the direction of a complex truth... ensuring that I wasn't doing injustice to their stories."

We get a glimpse of the show's terrific intentions in episode four, featuring a tender scene in which the gay husband owns up in front of his wife. "It would have been far easier for me to show a vile, lecherous and straight husband, deserving a 'bad death' so to speak. But that wasn't morally ambiguous for me, I'm more interested in the grey area. I wanted to show where one person draws the line, and how that could be completely different in the case of another person." The fact that Abbasi doesn't make a 'villain' out of the gay husband is commendable. "I think a lot of these relationships are birthed out of societal pressures, where gay men are forced to marry women. They're not all necessarily bad, you know?"

Starting out as a frothy, subcontinent cousin of Big Little Lies, Churails surpasses most expectations with its many, messy detours. One that passes through a botched murder case, more than one subplot of missing women, a cancerous cosmetic product and a secretive prostitution ring run by the wealthy men of Karachi. For a show that brings up Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy through one of its primary characters, Zubaida (also an amateur boxer), it's not surprising how it ropes us in with a certain kind of promise and goes on to deliver something entirely unexpected. The latter part of the show, even though far-fetched, takes such a big swing... that it's hard to remain indifferent.

In a fabulously disorienting scene, Zubaida enters a party where the men wear animal masks (looking almost Lynchian), with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake playing in the background. It's an eerie scene where women are being auctioned based on the men’s definition of 'perfection' in physical beauty, like they were livestock. "I had planted small seeds of surrealism in the previous episodes, and the surrealism comes to the forefront in Ep 7. And of course, when you're thinking surreal, you always think about (David) Lynch. I'm a huge fan, and I'm sure many things that appeared in the scene might have looked like a nod to him. This episode is the culmination and subversion of everything we've been talking about. The overt references to fairytales during the show, how we dress Zubaida in that red dress to look like Little Red Riding Hood, with a wolf beside her. The montage where she’s getting ready is almost like a nod to Cinderella dressing up for the ball. I think all those elements were there, and there's a certain question about the 'reality' of this episode. We were going for 80% real, and 20% hyper-real," Abbasi speaks of his favourite episode.

One of the reasons why Asim Abbasi's Churails feels so sincere and rooted, is thanks to its first-rate casting. Sarwat Gilani Mirza's Sara is not only someone who gives up on her career in law to become the 'perfect' wife of a politician, but her looks and her privilege are brought up in more than one scene. Yasra Rizvi's Jugnu, nearly a Pakistani counterpart of a Swara Bhasker-template character, is the hard-drinking socialite best friend, showering her friends with a generous share of 'bitches'. Mehar Bano is earnest in her role as the baby of the group, often becoming the voice of young idealism, when the group becomes too comfortable while catering to the 'loaded' wives. However, one of the revelations of this show is Nimra Bucha, in the role of the mercurial Batool. Having served 20 years for bludgeoning her husband, Batool's steely stares become a monument in the show.

It's also interesting how Churails views the 'other' women in the show - those siding with the powerful men. It ensures that even though they're not fully etched-out characters, the show doesn't do disservice by omitting their agency. Even if it is with a line of dialogue. Like how a wife insist her husband 'eat the fucking pancakes!' or how a CEO recounts the many 'jobs' that have led her to this position of power.

There's an obvious affinity between Abbasi's projects and Hindi film music. While his directorial debut, Cake, primarily featured many classic songs from the 60s and 70s like Mohammad Rafi's 'Yahoo', his streaming debut features some eclectic choices of contemporary Hindi film songs like Da Da Dasse (Udta Punjab), Udaan title track and Kaala Re (Gangs of Wasseypur). "In Churails, the choice of Hindi songs was more situational. There were choices that were presented to me by my editors. One of my editors is Kamal Khan (also the director of the acclaimed Laal Kabootar) was the first one to put Kaala Re in the edit. And once, I saw it I said I absolutely need this. Something similar happened with the Udta Punjab song, thankfully they were all a good fit for the show."

Abbasi's projects could be labelled 'brave' given the general notion around the work coming out of Pakistan. Is the general public ready for the work that Abbasi wants to put out? "I don't know for sure, and frankly I don't know if we should be concerned about whether they're ready yet. Audience will get ready. You know, content is like legacy. It's not made for just today. To be honest, I think the audience has turned out to be much more ready than I had anticipated. Had you asked me this same question around two weeks back, I would've said 'I don't know'. But looking at the feedback we're getting for Churails, they were ready and they were waiting. Acceptance aa jaayegi, nazariye change honge. We just need to try and be as authentic as possible and hold a mirror to society."

Before Churails, there have been a spate of recent Hindi films and shows that have championed 'girl power', and treated feminism like a punchline. Unlike how every second line of Gunjan Saxena had a 'take flight' metaphor, Abbasi’s show is not as patronising. Addressing racism, classism, rights of the LGBTQI, Churails does become a dense show by the end. At a running time of 11 and half hours, Churails often meanders. Getting its name from the similar kind of homegrown folklore that we saw recently in Bulbbul, Churails digs beyond the obvious. It embraces the mess left behind by the best of intentions, and how most self-appointed heroes are riddled with doubts over the complex nuances of justice. It grapples with the many facets of truth, and that counts for its biggest win.

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