The story behind ZEE5’s Zindagi

July 26, 2020

Instep speaks to creatives (from both sides of the border) behind the initiative under which five Pakistani series will be launched soon; Asim Abbasi speaks at length as the first look of Churails releases with this story.

First look of Churails featuring Sarwat Gilani, Nimra Bucha, Yasra Rizvi and Mehar Bano.

Pakistan and India share a strong history of cultural exchanges, which have historically had their fair share of complications. A major lapse in relations came after the Uri attack in 2016 that put a halt on the creative process, resulting in ban on artists as well as content (music, dramas, films) from both sides of the border. However, according to recent developments, Zee5 – an Indian Video on Demand service launched in 2018 – is all set to revive the exchange and stream original Pakistani content under its ‘Zindagi’ segment.

Zee5 is headed by Zee Entertainment Enterprise, the entity that conceptualized Zindagi TV, a channel that introduced an array of Pakistani dramas to Indian audiences between 2014 and 2016. Pakistani content has long been appreciated beyond borders and the programming resonated well with viewers in India. Zee5’s initiative Zindagi will serve the purpose in the digital arena.

The brain behind Zindagi TV, Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative Officer – Special Projects, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. shares, “There is a massive change in the content consumption patterns in the last few years and Zindagi is being presented on Zee5 in its phase 2 to cater to global audiences. Zee5 is an OTT platform that showcases a myriad of stories and we are bringing Zindagi to this platform to give the series a worldly window.

“At Zindagi, we all come with a strong belief system that art has been and always will be the biggest catalyst for cultural exchange. Stories have the potential to encourage people, world over, to look beyond boundaries and give them a sense of unity and togetherness. With ‘Zindagi’, we aim to initiate dialogue, to bridge divides and to just be able to tell great stories in collaboration with artists from South Asia,” Shailja told Instep in an exclusive conversation.

Reflecting on what led to this unanticipated revival of the cultural exchange, the CCO shared, “Digital platforms have brought the world closer together and we are now able to experience diverse cultures and narratives from across the world. Pakistan has such phenomenal talent that collaborating seemed like an obvious thing to do. What is really interesting is that though we are so similar in language, culture and ethos, there is a difference. We have grown together but differently. And that is exciting to explore – the similarity and yet the uniqueness. This collaboration in my mind would create a new space for South Asian content globally. I’m sure, it will encourage more platforms to come forward and do the same. It is great when such collaborations grow an industry and we feel proud to have paved the way and contributed in some way.”

Shailja, who also initiated Zeal for Unity that brought together six filmmakers each from Pakistan and India, feels immensely grateful and humbled to be able to tell stories that have a purpose beyond the narrative. However, she admits that with an immense sense of fulfilment comes a great sense of responsibility that goes way beyond just making a good show; she is deeply conscious of the fact that this is a unique opportunity and that together we need to make it matter.

From Pakistan, Group M Pakistan and Motion Content Group is at the helm of affairs and is proud to have made this dream come true. Speaking exclusively to Instep, Chief Investment Officer Ateeq Ur Rehman asserted with pride, “It’s never easy when you go against all odds to do something that has never been done in your market. We believe that as thought and market leaders, the onus is on us to continue pushing the envelope. All new projects and initiatives require passion and imagination coupled with a great team and we are proud to have both. The journey required a lot of efforts put in from the team whether it was Group M or Zee, or our talent fraternity, and the way we sailed through it was commendable.”

Considering this as a first step towards a territory the group hadn’t explored earlier, Ateeq Ur Rehman believes that content consumption has no boundaries especially in the digital space. “Pakistani content always had the potential to speak not just to the 2 billion people that understand the language but a larger global audience that shares similar emotions,” he furthered, adding, “While working with local talent, it was astonishing to see what can be achieved through them, if one gives them the right creative liberty to activate their passion points. We want all other like-minded people to now come together and share the same passion of creating content of international standards and help us build our media industry.”

Shailja Kejriwal, Chief Creative Officer
Special Projects, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd.

Under the initiative, five curated shows created by Pakistani directors will release over the last week of July across 190 countries with a focus on India, Pakistan, Middle East and the UK. A teaser indicating the arrival of the five series was launched earlier this month; revealed that Zee5 will present 1000+ hours of Pakistani content in the coming months with a subscription fee less than PKR 200 per month.

Here are the five original local series the world will get to watch on Zindagi…

Ek Jhooti Love Story

Shot in Karachi, Ek Jhooti Love Story is a social comedy penned by Umera Ahmed. According to director Mehreen Jabbar, “It deals with societal pressures and expectations, love in the age of the internet, etc. and while dealing with these subjects the tone and feel of the series is light and easy to watch. This was a genre that neither of us had really done so it was a challenge to get the tone just right! I have worked with Zee Zindagi on Lala Begum before so I knew the team well. They have always been very encouraging to showcase Pakistani stories and talent across the border and it was a relationship of mutual respect and creative collaboration.”

Speaking with reference to the creative liberty she had, Mehreen pointed out that the length of the series is based entirely on the story. “One is not forced to do 20-30 episodes so it’s refreshing then to think of stories that one really wants to tell without that pressure. And then it’s not subjected to the ‘ratings’ madness so one can explore genres and styles,” the director added.

Mehreen is of the view that Pakistan has so much talent that needs a wider canvas. “The arts always promote a deeper understanding and open eyes; we must not think in an insular way,” she asserted.

Ek Jhooti Love Story has an ensemble cast including Bilal Abbas, Madiha Imam, Beo Zafar, Mohammad Ahmed, Kiran Haq and Hina Bayat among others.

Mann Jogi

Featuring the incredibly talented Saba Qamar and Noman Ijaz in key roles, the highly anticipated series Mann Jogi is directed by Kashif Nisar while it is written by Saji Gul. According to the writer, the series explores gender roles beyond stereotypes with Noman Ijaz playing an effeminate man while Saba Qamar will be seen as a dominating woman. “It portrays friendship that is stronger than love,” shared Saji Gul, adding that most part of the series has been shot in Lahore.

Speaking of Zindagi, the writer shared that the new series will launch one by one later this year. “There is room to explore in-depth topics and experiment with story and character arcs while having a completely unique way of storytelling,” the writer explained the process. “It will have a much wider reach in terms of viewership and diversity. Once the series are launched and do well, the initiative will open more doors for Pakistan in the international market and will help change stereotypical representation of Muslims across the globe. It is a step in the right direction and a very bold one from Zee5 amidst the rifts that have been going on between the two states.”

Abdullahpur Ka

Directed by Anjum Shahzad, Abdullahpur Ka Devdas features Bilal Abbas Khan and Sarah Khan in pivotal roles in addition to Savera Nadeem, Noman Ijaz, Shahzad Nawaz and Ali Ansari. As the name suggests, it is a story of love, sacrifice and friendship shot in Karachi, Lahore and Bahawalpur. Written by Shahid Dogar, the story will be based on 13 episodes.

“There is a lot of creative liberty while creating such series and more margin to explore the subject,” noted director Anjum Shahzad. Refraining to reveal much about the story at the moment, the director added that gradually we will be able to create more stories for the web as online audiences begin to grow.

Dhoop Ki Deewar

With Sajal Aly and Ahad Raza Mir headlining the project, penned by Umera Ahmed and directed by Haseeb Hasan, Dhoop Ki Deewar is another exciting series to look forward to. The director did not reveal anything new about the project but in an earlier interview with Instep, he shared some exclusive details. Set against the backdrop of Kashmir and Pulwama attacks, the narrative includes everything families and kids of martyred army officers and jawaans go through on both sides of the border. With an ensemble cast including Samiya Mumtaz, Samina Ahmed, Savera Nadeem and Manzar Sehbai, Dhoop Ki Deewar follows the lives of two teenagers, one from India and one from Pakistan.

Asim Abbasi talks about Churails as the first look is revealed

The first original series to release on the platform is Asim Abbasi’s much anticipated Churails, with the official poster coming out tomorrow followed by the trailer next month. It features a group of women who open a detective agency to track and expose unfaithful husbands. Sarwat Gilani, Yasra Rizvi, Nimra Bucha and Mehar Bano lead a large ensemble cast that includes over 15 other actresses such as Eman Suleman, Sania Saeed, Tara Mehmood and Hina Bayat.

Churails is a story about women taking ownership of their lives and dishing out social justice as they deem fit. It questions the hypocrisy of all patriarchal societies that purport female subjugation and misogyny,” Asim Abbasi revealed in an exclusive conversation with Instep. “At its core, Churails is a story about power dynamics within gender constructs. A man’s attempt to control a woman, in particular her body, and the violence that is often inflicted on that female body in the name of obedience, respect and honour are often a result of a man’s fear of losing his dominion. I hope the show goes some way in communicating this to the audiences and helps men understand that to build an equitable society, where rights of women are upheld, we must forego this control and power, and allow women to be our partners in the real sense, by letting them live their lives unabashedly and freely on their own terms.”

The series is primarily shot in Karachi, with small portions shot in Hyderabad and London. As Asim developed it, he realised that this story needed to be longer than a feature length. At that time, Shailja Kejriwal got in touch with him through Motion Content and he pitched a number of ideas to Shailja and her team. They liked the synopsis of Churails and Asim was asked to present a pilot script and a series bible. The show was approved and commissioned on the basis of that.

“I believe Shailja has always been a big supporter of cross-cultural collaborations, and Zindagi in its original TV format, went a long way in connecting India with talent from Pakistan. Now in its digital reincarnation, Zindagi once again returns with the ethos of bringing people together, through a shared a cultural experience. Through Churails, or any of Zindagi’s content for that matter, if an Indian and a Pakistani viewer can find common ground, can see themselves in each other, can engage in a dialogue without feeling the need to box one other, that will be a step in the right direction,” added Asim.

Sharing his experience being a part of the initiative, Asim furthered, “All good art aims to bring light to the fissures that exist within our societies and the gaps that exist within our humanity. And in doing so, it hopes to make a very small contribution towards a more equitable, empathetic world. In that context, perhaps it’s true to say that all good art is political. But art, in no way, shares the same values as institutional politics. And as artists and storytellers, we should be focused on art that unites and explores shared realities, rather than political agendas that divide.”

Asim informed that the process of making Churails was extremely demanding, given that they were shooting in the summer heat, had an extensive cast and location list, along with multiple set-pieces and stunt/action sequences. “In addition, for the entire team who came from a film and commercials background and not local television, making long-form episodic format was a huge undertaking. But now with some hindsight and perspective, I believe making Churails has been one of the most creatively liberating experiences of my life. I have been allowed to create a show of international standards from scratch, to tell a story unflinchingly and honestly, and to never compromise on my vision. As an artist, one cannot ask for more.

“Because digital platforms are building content libraries that they will monetize over many, many years, they take a long-term view and in building their portfolio, they look for diversification. So, the rules of films (box office receipts) and television (TRP ratings) no longer apply. Digital content hence puts the trust and the reigns back in the hands of storytellers and allows space for alternative content, and increases the global reach of that content,” he explained.

Given that Churails revolves around deep-rooted concepts of patriarchy that dominate our part of the world, one wonders if the series aims to provide an alternate perspective to audiences who may or may not be ready for it.

“I believe, certain elements of Churails will resonate deeply with a large audience base but even if a portion of audience is not ready for this content, as a creator I always want to be one step ahead of mass acceptance,” asserted Asim, adding, “If we are only spoon-feeding audiences what they have already been fed before, or what we think will be most palatable for them, we are not doing our jobs. We have to be okay with dishing out uncomfortable truths and letting audiences decide whether they want to accept or reject those truths. And over time, just as norms change, so do audience’s tastes and opinions. You keep chipping away at something, and eventually it will give in. Or that’s the hope! If just one woman decides to live her life on her own terms after watching Churails, my work is done. If one man thinks twice before oppressing a woman after watching Churails, again, my work is done. You show the audiences reality in its all gruesome beauty, you move them, and you connect with them. And audiences digest that and reflect on it, and hopefully in the process, some of the blinders come off.”

Living between Pakistan and the UK has actually made Asim realise that despite cultural differences and varied mindsets, women and minorities (sexual, racial, ethnic) face similar kind of oppression the world over. “That oppression changes form and context, whether you are in a first world or a third world country, whether you are in a liberal setting or a conservative setting, but at its core it remains just that – oppression. In my writing, I always try to be culturally specific in my characterisations, but thematically universal. Hence, I believe Churails will have a universal appeal above and beyond the South Asian community,” he observed.

Last but not the least, Asim spoke about how cultural exports and cross-country exchanges are one of the main ways of initiating dialogue, and putting one’s own country on the global map. “We know we can make great dramas for local audiences. We can also make the occasional blockbuster film. But now it’s time to think broader, to cut across cultures and geographies, and tell stories that are thematically transcultural despite the narrative specificities. For me, Churails is not a just a Pakistani narrative. It is a Pakistani response to a global narrative – a rebellion of sorts, that demands that women all over the world must be treated with equality.”

“We have a plethora of talent in Pakistan, both in front of and behind the camera. We have fresh visionaries, with meaningful stories to tell. It is now time to push both our content and our talent even further to an international audience. A collaboration with Zee5 and Zindagi, with their global presence and mass scale, is the first, and a very monumental step, in that direction,” he concluded optimistically.

The story behind ZEE5’s Zindagi