In Asim Abbasi’s feisty and furious web series Churails, an expose of all that is rotten in Pakistani society begins, appropriately enough, in a boutique selling burqas.
It’s called Halal Designs but what goes in its changing rooms cannot be described as permissible. The store in Karachi is actually a front for the clandestine Churails detective agency spearheaded by a socialite who has stumbled upon revealing photographs on her husband’s phone. Stung to the quick, and with memories of a previous misdemeanour returning to haunt her, Sara (Sarwat Gilani Mirza) enlists her childhood friend Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi) in her campaign for revenge. Jugnu, a frequently-imbibing wedding planner whose most recent job has ended in disaster, is a willing conspirator.
Fate brings two other women from the other end of the economic divide to them. One is Zubaida (Mehar Bano), a student whose clothes conceal boxing shorts. The other woman doesn’t bother to hide her identity. Batool (Nimra Bucha) is a proud convict, having served a long prison sentence for murdering her husband.
The quirky quartet, aided by Zubaida’s hacker boyfriend Shams (Kashif Hussain) and Jugnu’s assistant Dilbar (Sarmed Aftab Jadraan), recruit more women to their cause. The outliers who flock to this oasis of rebellion include a prostitute, a pair of ex-cons and a trans woman. Business is swift and lucrative, but the cracks appear soon enough. Why are we only helping rich housewives when our goal is to liberate all women, Zubaida wonders.
Abbasi, who has also written the 10 episodes, is always attuned to class differences and the realities of a world in which knowing your place is paramount. Affluence and influence bail out Sara and Jugnu when the going gets rough. As the plot thickens, privilege emerges as the enemy, the elephant in the room.
In hindsight, wayward husbands turn out to be the most innocuous offenders. As the Churails agency widens its client base, the secrets behind Karachi’s high-walled mansions open up trails that take the series from neighbourhood vigilantism to an all-out attack on patriarchy itself. The rot that the titular “witches” end up exposing runs deep. Child abuse, domestic violence, the trafficking of women, drug abuse – Churails rampages down the list.
The discovery of a wider conspiracy allows Abbasi to broaden his targets (they include racism and British colonial-style education). By the time Abbasi is done, masks have been torn off, reputations destroyed and the corpses have piled up.
The female justice league saga features a huge bunch of outspoken, jittery, witty and perfectly turned out Almodovaresque women, and is gorgeously lensed by Mo Azmi in Almodovaresque colours. Churails elegantly lands its kicks in the groin. Every location and production design detail adds flavour to the plot and the characters. The Hindi film references and eclectic soundtrack widen the show’s ambit beyond its setting. The vibrant shades and mood lighting create a sense of hyper-realism, which leavens the radicalism of Churails themes.
It doesn’t always work. The compulsion to pull together disparate narrative strands leads to questionable plot turns. As the secrets spill over, the show sheds some of its fleetness. Yet, in this universe by, about, and for women, the long-simmering insurrection feels real and relatable even when events take on a fantastical hue.
In a Thelma and Louise moment, Jugnu and Sara weigh their options. If we do this, there is no going back, Jugnu says. What is left to go back to, Sara wonders.
Abbasi directs his brood magnificently, eliciting heart-felt and effortless performances from the entire cast. Sarwat Gilani Mirza, as the housewife who sets off fires she is unable to control, Yasra Rizvi as the insouciant comeback queen, Nimra Bucha as the convict with a tragic back story, and Mehar Bano as a combative but soft-hearted puglist, won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Abbasi’s ability to create vividly alive and relatable characters was already evident in his acclaimed debut feature Cake. In Churails, the smallest of characters leaves a mark. Among the memorable operatives is a pair of middle-aged lovers and a trans woman who is fighting battles on many fronts. Another strand with its own pleasures is the relationship between Batool and a besotted policeman whom she calls “Boss”.
The gender war creates some fine male portraits. Omair Rana is very effective as Jameel, Sara’s smooth and sinister husband, as are Kashif Hussain and Sarmed Aftab Jadraan as Zubaida’s supportive boyfriend and Jugnu’s lovelorn assistant respectively.
We have to be the best versions of ourselves, Jameel lectures his family – words that equally apply to the cast and crew who throw heart and soul into Abbasi’s vision of a world that is led by witches and is better for it.