In Asim Abbasi’s acclaimed film Cake (2018), a man teasingly calls his sisters “witches” for ganging up against him. Abbasi’s new web series Churails is spilling over with female mischief-makers and misfits who, although not related to each other, join forces to smash the patriarchy.
Set in Karachi but designed to speak to audiences all over the world, the 10-episode series will be streamed on Zee5 from August 11. Four women, each a survivor of some form of violence and male entitlement, form a clandestine detective agency that gathers the dirt on philandering husbands. Two of them are from the ultra-wealthy set, one is a working-class boxer, and the fourth has served a prison term for murdering her husband.
The agency is disguised as the Halal Designs boutique. Its sales staff are actually private investigators and its changing rooms are where incriminating information and payments are exchanged. Stories of subversive sisterhood emerge through the case studies and the individual accounts of the feisty founders.
Churails is already being described as a subcontinental Charlie’s Angels. “It’s not really Charlie’s Angels but it’s fine – the show does have a bit of flamboyance and whimsy but that slowly starts to fade away into something more serious and sinister,” Abbasi told Scroll.in.
Beneath the bright colours and wicked humour seen in the trailer is an exploration of “women’s rage” that is the result of having to deal with centuries of abuse, injustice, neglect and condescension, the 40-year-old filmmaker added. “I want to tell stories about stronger women, aggressive women because they need to be aggressive,” he said. “You have to understand where that rage comes from, what the starting point.”
Abbasi, who raised in Karachi and now lives in London, initially planned Churails as a movie. He soon realised that he couldn’t compress its ambitious ideas into a two-hour narrative. “The natural inclination after Cake was to think about doing my next film,” he said. “These thoughts had been festering with me for a very long time, and when I actually started writing it, it came very quickly. What I realised was that this was a much bigger story. It needed that extra space for all the characters and the theme to develop and for me to have a thrilling and suspenseful plot that was purely entertaining as well.”
Around the time Abbasi was working on the script in 2018, he was contacted by the Indian company Zee Entertainment, which was looking to relaunch its channel Zindagi TV. Zindagi brought acclaimed Pakistani and Turkish television shows into Indian homes, but suspended operations after the 2016 terrorist attack on an Indian Army camp in Uri in 2016.
Zindagi has now been reborn on the Zee5 streaming platform, where it will deliver “1000+ hours of curated and created content” through “fresh new shows which will be thought provoking, with a bold multicultural narrative”, a press release stated.
“There was complete creative freedom from Zee5’s side,” Abbasi said. “It was really refreshing to have the reins in your hands, to be given the power to keep your voice and not to alter it. That pushed me through the shoot, which was demanding and intense. We had about three to four months, and these are long, 55-minute episodes. It was gruelling and there were days where I was like, I am going to fail, but what got me going was having a team around but also the faith that Zee5 had put in me.”
Churails is the perfect show with which Zindagi can vivify itself – the plot is universal, the actors are familiar from Pakistani television, and the director has acquired a loyal fanbase after Cake was picked up by Netflix in 2019.
Cake, inspired by Abbasi’s own experiences, dissects the tensions between three siblings in a wealthy family in Karachi. Its subjects are not restricted to Pakistani society – the generational gap between parents and children, the rivalry between sisters, the ugly side of economic privilege, repressed desires and unmet ambitions. Cake gave starring roles to the Pakistani stars Aamina Sheikh and Sanam Saeed and earned warm notices for its nuanced and sensitive examination of the dreams and desires of women.
Cake was produced by the Bollywood studio B4U Motion Pictures, but that wasn’t the movie’s only Indian connection. Its editor is Aarti Bajaj, who has edited several Hindi films. The family in the movie is of Sindhi heritage. The matriarch is a big fan of old Hindi film songs. The multi-faith characters, including a Christian male nurse, and the theme of class divide equally resonate on the other side of the border.
Churails too contain references to Hindi cinema. Bollywood songs share the sonicscape along with Pakistani tunes. The dialogue refers to Indian personalities (the nickname of the convicted killer, Batool, for instance).
While Abbasi didn’t consciously set out to wave the flag of Indo-Pak bonhomie, the huge love he got for Cake from Indian viewers was overwhelming. “The response from India would occasionally make me teary-eyed,” he said. “Those boundaries do not exist beyond politics. There was no one pressurising these people to find my email and telephone number and message me.”
India and Pakistan have “shared cultural realities and a shared way of living”, Abbasi noted, as well as common problems, including the suppression of women. “Anyone sitting in India would not feel the story or these women are alien to them,” he said.
Abbasi moved to London when he was 18 to study at the London School of Economics. He worked as an investment banker for nine years and switched to filmmaking in 2010. Alongside making a bunch of well-received short films, including Whore and Little Red Roses, he set up the company Indus Talkies “with the purpose of making feature length films that focus on Pakistan and diaspora themes and bring authentic stories to world cinema audiences”, according to his website.
Pakistani cinematographer Mo Azmi worked on Little Red Roses, and he has also lensed Cake and Churails. The film and series follow different styles, Abbasi pointed out. Cake relied on static and dolly shots in keeping with its contemplative nature. Churails is bursting with pop colours, jittery frames and distorted close-ups to bring out the mildly fantastical and adventurous nature of its premise. Azmi is also a co-producer on Churails.
“Mo is always trying to give new visual life to scenes,” Abbasi said. “We wanted to have a this world and that world and an anywhere and everywhere kind of feel. Karachi is a character but we didn’t want it to feel like just a Karachi story. Mo and I decided on an 80:20 ratio, where 20 per cent was hyper-real, slightly pushing the idea of reality. This happens not just in storytelling but the visuals as well, the decor and set design. This world exists and doesn’t too.”
The balancing act extended to the treatment of heavyweight topics, including child abuse, domestic violence, marital rape, financial debt and the discrimination faced by homosexuals and transgender people. “I didn’t want anything to feel preachy or draw attention to itself,” Abbasi said. “Sexuality is addressed in a very normalised way. These things are a part of life, what it feels like to have and not have privilege. But at the core, you can be bound together in this sisterhood in a patriarchal society, in a society that propagates oppression. But I don’t want women to think that I am taking away their stories. The purpose is to be an ally. I hope there are 10 more Churails.”
The proudly wicked women are played by actresses with wide-ranging experience in Pakistani television and theatre. Sarwat Gilani Mirza is Sara, a former lawyer whose seemingly enviable life – a handsome and wealthy husband, three adorable children – turns out to be hollow. “I had always seen a bit of Sara in Sarwat, and I knew she had great acting chops as well,” Abbasi said.
Meher Bano, whom Abbasi described as having a “small, feisty personality and a firecracker in real life as well”, plays Zubaida, who secretly purses boxing lessons and gets walloped by her father when he finds out.
Nimra Bucha is Batool, who has served a 20-year prison sentence for killing her husband. “Nimra has this hardness as well as softness, and can use her face in a very nuanced way,” Abbasi said. “Batool’s character has very little dialogue. A lot of emoting and communicating happens through her eyes and facial movements.”
Finding the actress to play Jugnu, Sara’s childhood friend and a hard-drinking and potty-mouthed wedding planner, was harder. “We auditioned a lot of people,” Abbasi recalled. “Yasra [Rizvi] is a poet, she speaks very proper Arbi-Urdu. I had approached her for a cameo. She had the spark I wasn’t finding in anybody else.”
The profanity in Churails, most of it spouted by the outspoken women, might come as a shock to Indian viewers who flock to Pakistani shows for their mellifluous and poetic Urdu speech.
“TV drama [in Pakistan] is regulated by actual regulators and self-censorship,” Abbasi observed. “The fear of alienating audiences that stops them from taking risks.” Churails is aiming for a global viewership while being rooted in Pakistan, he said. “The profanity comes not from the idea of having abusive language but more from the fact that you have to authentic to the characters.” This is how women across classes might speak in real life, he added.
Does Abbasi’s distance from Pakistan help? Is he able to cast a sharper eye on his native land because he doesn’t live there anymore?
“I make at least two or three visits home a year,” Abbasi said. “My wife and kid are here [in London], but I think I remain very rooted in my culture in Pakistan and in the growth of that country and how I change stereotypes and break cliches. Distance helps with everything, it gives you perspective. Perhaps the stories that I would be telling would be different if I lived in Pakistan – I can’t say. Cake came from my experiences of seeing my parents grow old. After Cake, I was spending a lot more time in Pakistan, and seeing a lot more examples of the disparity that exists.”
So far and yet so close – out of that dual-edged view has emerged a series in which women wear burqas and throw off their metaphorical veils to embrace their unbridled inner selves. As Zubaida says in Churails, perhaps speaking for women all over the world, “My inner witch has always been out of whack.”
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