I was afraid to watch the brand-new web series Churails that is being streamed on the Indian platform Zee5. Not because I’m scared of witches, but because I’ve suffered through several iterations of shows that claim to celebrate “strong female characters” only to misrepresent them: either shaping them to be so unassailable that they’re unrealistic, unrelatable, or then breaking them down too cruelly, as if to prove a point about the absurdity of the idea.
I’m halfway through Churails right now and I can say: I’m not afraid anymore. But that’s me. Men, I think, will feel differently. But more on that in a minute. Let’s backtrack.
Watching Churails is a surreal experience for one reason besides its fresh (for Pakistani entertainment, anyway) approach to telling stories about women: it is surreal because it’s the product of cross-border collaboration at a time of historic non-cooperation between India and Pakistan.
Creator-director Asim Abbasi says he started writing Churails as a film, realised it was too meaty for a 120-minute feature, then further realised his vision for a raw, profanity-laden web series would probably not be palatable to Pakistani censors.
Enter the streaming platform Zee5 and producer Shailja Kejriwal. Zee5 is a reimagining of the popular Indian channel Zindagi TV. The channel had much success with screening Pakistani dramas like Humsafar in the past, so it makes sense that Zee5 would look across the border for content. And in the absence of indigenous streaming services with the vision and nerve to host a show like Churails, Zee5 provided a good home. Perhaps the only home.
And as of this week anyone with internet access can watch Churails on Zee5 for a fairly affordable sum, taking Abbasi’s vision global.
So what is his vision exactly?
I would describe Churails as a slightly outsize, noir-ish rendering of a very specific genre of female fantasy: the fantasy in which men who do bad things to women actually get the fate they deserve.
You’ve had this fantasy before; perhaps you’ve daydreamed it over lunch. You know the one I’m talking about. It’s the one where you smackdown your sleazy manager or cheating spouse with a breathtaking verbal assault, deprive him of the money or peace of mind he earned from exploiting your hopeful presence and then ride off into the sunset with a pack of girlfriends to start your own business and generally be a boss.
Churails follows four women and their chosen associates who band together to do just that. We meet Sara, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom who discovers a secret about her husband. She’s friends with Jugnu, a glamourous, trash-talking wedding planner whose business is suffering just enough to let her consider an alternative career. They cross paths with Batool, a hardened murderess recently released from prison with a heart big enough to rescue Zubaida, an aspiring boxer from an abusive family.
The crew hatches a wild plan to help the women of Karachi deal with the men in their lives who ail them. They call themselves the churails. They use a boutique for modest clothing as a front for their sleuthing and quest for justice. They put each other first. They rough up the men of Karachi and make them fear a brightly coloured niqaab. Somewhere along the line they get found out, and the series moves forward and backward in time to piece together just what went wrong. A thriller, basically.
It is this reliance on the fantasy genre – or as Abbasi calls it, an “imagined reality” – which allows Churails to succeed where other ventures have fallen short. I’m contrasting it specifically to Verna, Shoaib Mansoor’s much anticipated 2017 film starring Mahira Khan, which was touted to champion strong women but ended up being a painfully improbable depiction of a rape survivor. Verna’s flaw was that it tried to straddle two genres: the docu-film and the fantastical entertainer. In doing so, it fell into the gaping chasm of sad, bad cinema.
Churails has definitively picked a side, and it’s better for it. The team behind the web series seems to understand that a single show needn’t try to solve every cinematic or social concern at once. Also, the mode of the fantastical is a pretty effective vehicle for telling stories about women given how most desi women are shape-shifters and chameleons, living multiple lives at once, switching personas in an instant depending on whether their audience is extended family, associates on a Zoom meeting or a cranky toddler who just wants mama.
Which is why I am wary of labelling it, as some others have done, a series about “female empowerment”. I definitely felt empowered watching the series, and I would venture that those who participated in creating it feel the same way too. But the sense of empowerment I feel takes place at a level beyond the tangible, at a place where my deepest associations with womanhood and its expectations are recognised or challenged. It is a place anti-feminists cannot access or understand by virtue of their lack of discernment and absence of sense of humor, so I would rather not even involve them in the conversation by referencing their favoured object of loathing that there are intent to misunderstand, that is, “empowerment”. Churails is for us, not for them.
Churails’ consistently stylised unreality is helpful also in how it allows us to chuck our disbelief out the door and buy into the characters. It helps that they are balanced characters brought to life by thoughtful exposition. Even though the events in the web series occasionally flirt with the ridiculous, they are grounded by women who are not so moral as to be saintly superior and not so savage as to be distasteful. They’re flawed, they’re real. They have complicated reactions to tricky situations just like you and me. Showrunners ought to take this as a lesson: caricature events, not people.
It makes sense when you know Abbasi reached out to female script consultants to achieve this happy balance. Churails lists Zahra Mirza, Anam Abbas and Amna Soomro as consultants, and Abbasi is quick to point out that the cast offered insights into the narrative and characters. As a result, I felt the show’s female characters were centered in their own experiences rather than brought to life only as counterpoints to a man or dominant culture... relative to other desi dramas, at the least.
I hope similar collaborative efforts are normalised in the future. The show’s credits read like a comprehensive list of Pakistan’s rising talent, and the end product reflects the benefit of having multiple perspectives, influences.
This is not to say Churails is without its flaws. In the first episode, I did find a few moments to be heavy-handed in explaining why these women were so angry with the world. Some characters appeared to not possess the language to articulate their experiences, a lapse I suspect is caused by poor translation of an English phrase into Urdu. A certain type of critic will see an abundance of visual and thematic references to other famous films of a similar genre, and may view these nods as imitation.
Class differences, though addressed, are highlighted less than they ought to be (though their absence may be part of the fantasy). Additionally, a key villain in the show has recently been accused of misconduct offscreen, which makes for uncomfortable, if ironic, viewing. I wonder how this will be addressed going forward.
However, if the only good thing that comes of Churails is that exceptional Pakistani female performers get a boost in visibility, I’ll be happy. Actors Sarwat Gilani, Yasra Rizvi, Nimra Bucha and Meher Bano are wickedly addictive apart, but when they come together they’re even better. As a group they possess that indescribable frisson called chemistry. Give them fat contracts and cast them in more projects please.
Anyway. At the outset I mentioned that I’m not afraid of Churails anymore. That’s because in some small way I identify with what I’ve seen. Churails depicts a wide-enough range of female experience to boast of a little something for every woman without devolving into tokenism.
Equally important: when I watched it, I had fun. And I got a feeling that the performers were having fun too. Having fun while female is itself a radical proposition, which I enthusiastically support, so I encourage you to watch the show and have fun too. Invite friends over, make a party of it.
I do wonder about the men though. When the men watch it, will they have fun? On one level I don’t really care, but if I had to guess I’d say the average man will have a problem with the show. In Pakistan it doesn’t take much for the average person to have a problem with cinema, we’ve banned enough films and books to know that.
I believe one reason Churails will make men uncomfortable is that it brings to life the potent male fear that if women were to wield the same power over men as men have wielded over women, women would treat men as savagely as men have treated them. It’s only natural that men would tremble before this fate, for it is an ugly one.
In this way, when the churails punch a harasser in the face or extort a serial cheater, their behaviour reflects back at men the worst of what they have done – slaughter women for having desires, punish other genders simply for existing, manipulate, lie, steal and dismiss unpaid labour as unimportant while profiting from it in droves.
Will this depiction force the average male viewer into a reckoning? I don’t know. And at the moment confronting male discomfort is not my priority or concern.
I’m off to watch another episode and have a little more witchy fun.
Hamna Zubair is a Pakistani writer and former culture editor at Dawn.com.