After the witches come the deadly beauties. The trail of blood created by Churails, the Zindagi original series from Pakistan about a quartet of subcontinental avengers, leads directly to Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam.
The title suggest a pulp novel, the kind we might devour on a flight or a train journey. There is evidence to support the expectation: cruel men, wily women, murders, betrayals, unrequited love affairs, illicit romance.
Like Churails, Qatil Haseenaon Ke Naam sets itself up as a subversive feminist project. The Zee5 show uses noirish themes and devices to explore six inter-connected stories of righteous revenge.
But unlike Churails, we are in an invented world in which the regular rules of engagement and conduct don’t apply. In this fabulist space, packed with smoke and mirrors and heated colours and off-kilter characters, creator and director Meenu Gaur hopes to deliver escape through escapism.
The six-episode series has been written by Gaur and Farjad Nabi. Cinematographer Mo Azmi (who also lensed Churails) ransacks the colour palette and frames the characters in ways that reflect the show’s mildly surreal treatment.
The triggering incident is the death of Zehra (Eman Suleman), the second wife of the custodian of a shrine. The venerable Najji Shah (Saleem Mairaj) disappears after Zehra’s demise, leaving his first wife Mai Malki (Samiya Mumtaz) in charge of the shrine.
Four of the six episodes tackle the challenged faced by women. In the first, Mehek (Sarwat GilanI) is trapped in an abusive marriage. Liberation appears in the shape of a former suitor who is hired to kill her husband, but will he pull the trigger on his old friend?
In the second episode, the nurse Kanwal (Faiza Gillani) falls in love with a gangster. In the third chapter, the socialite Zuvi (Sanam Saeed), who is unaware of just how terrible a sculptor she is, tries to make a bad marriage work for her.
The series makes sure to reflect the many faiths that inhabit Pakistan. The country’s resident dowager actor Beo Raana Zafar (from Churails director Asim Abbasi’s acclaimed film Cake) plays a Christian who deals with a put-upon neighbour, his depressive and possibly psychotic wife, and a conveniently located drain. The final two episodes return to the problem of Zehra, whose slain corpse we saw in the first episode.
The show has several interesting ideas, not the least of them the imaginary setting that liberates the creators from following the usual rules of action and consequence.
It’s always good to look at too, whether focusing on location or human. The trappings are impeccable: top-drawer Pakistani acting talent, an excellent score, which includes an opening track by Ali Sethi, and richly atmospheric art direction and cinematography. The decorations help distract from the slack writing and shallow treatment of the very real dangers faced by women, whether Pakistani or otherwise.
The central figure of the shaman-like Mai Malki seeks to give a mythic tint to the narrative. One of the characters is even called Anarkali (Mehar Bano).
Songs are generously thrown into scenes to boost their impact, as though in a Hindi movie. The black humour, whenever available, trumps the overblown plotting and leaden pacing. The episodes often proceed slowly, and not for compelling reasons.
Some of the twists are telegraphed in advance, while other revelations prove to be banal. The show is as seductive as its attractive cast, but the telling falls short of ambition.