The ‘fair & foul’ of feminine content

August 16, 2020

Asim Abbasi’s witches, Churails to be exact, have swooped in on a blood-soaked broomstick, changing the way Pakistan’s censored and squeaky clean content looks.

The average Pakistani heroine on TV, essayed as a doe-eyed and submissive daughter, sister, wife or sister in law, gets transformed to an iron wielding, ass-kicking, unforgiving and intoxicated savage witch in Asim Abbasi's Churails.

“By the pricking of my thumbs,

Something wicked this way comes”

- Act IV, Scene I, Macbeth


William Shakespeare may have written these lines in the early 17th century, but Asim Abbasi seems to have given them a twenty first century perspective, recreating the churails with raunchiness, revenge and ultimate savagery. Releasing digitally this week on the online portal Zee5, the 10-episode first season of Churails swooped in on a blood-soaked broomstick and with a wicked wave of wand, changed the way Pakistan’s censored and squeaky clean content looked. The average Pakistani heroine, essayed as a doe-eyed and submissive daughter, sister, wife or sister in law, got transformed to an iron wielding, ass-kicking, unforgiving and intoxicated savage witch. Or bitch. Or as they chose to call themselves: Churails. The way they shape-shift: magic.

Damaged by family – mostly the men in their lives – four odd characters come together to start an undercover agency that aims to serve women who feel oppressed and severely short-changed by men around them. Cheating husbands, pedophiles, older men marrying underage girls, and even doting husbands living parallel, homosexual lives. It gets messy, gory, at times unfair and often uncomfortably real as none of it is sugar coated and sanitized, but it’s the honesty with which it’s written that strips one’s protective shield to reveal a conscience that is bloody welcome.

Batool, Nimra Bucha’s brilliant portrayal of a women who’s spent twenty years in jail for burning her husband’s private parts and then killing him with the same iron, is the most raw, real and disturbing churail of the lot. Having lost everything in life, she fears absolutely nothing.

“I never gave much thought to how scary or disturbing Batool’s portrayal should be,” Nimra spoke to Instep about the creation of her character. Batool turned out to be the scariest of them all, submissive to only the wanton urge to avenge. Ruthless vigilantism. Was it responsible story telling?

“I feel it is responsible storytelling; nobody will get up and go around killing people (just because Batool killed one man),” Nimra explained. “I think the idea that women needn’t always be on the defensive; why can’t they be more proactive in their lives? You can say that some of these things are metaphors and some of these things are about recognizing that there is injustice. In Churails we are not asking for justice, we’re saying that this is our right. We don’t want to wait for someone to give it to us. So it’s more about having agency rather than vigilantism and also recognizing your own anger and being a woman in a patriarchal society is so much about suppressing the anger.”

It isn’t easy being a woman in a patriarchal society, and less so being a young female actor on television in a patriarchal society. Mehar Bano, who’s done several rebellious roles including those in award winning short film Darling and highly acclaimed TV serial Mere Paas Tum Ho, plays Zubeida, the young hothead who hides boxing gloves beneath her burqa. Her love interest, the neighborhood hacker, is a doting boyfriend with which she has “done things” she tells a potential suitor her parents chose for her.

“Zubeida is more like myself as compared to the characters I’ve played on TV,” Mehar Bano spoke to Instep inbetween a flurry of promotions for the series. “We need to stop showing women as good or bad, we just need to show them as fully realized, ever changing, ever evolving human beings who have traits and virtues, who are flawed and have ambitions and motivations. Sometimes they can be right and at times they can be wrong; they are just people of their own accord. I think I have a lot of similarities with Zubeida, like being strong willed; she is empowered, she’s always evolving and wants to uplift other women. This character is very dear to my heart.”

Did the backlash her character, and herself as a female actor doing this role, ever worry her?

Nimra Bucha essays Batool, the most heart wrenching character in the quartet, with Asim Abbasi who proves his prowess as a writer and director with the sensitive portrayal and story telling.

“Churails is a groundbreaking story because this is the first time women are shown exercising their agency and people haven’t seen such a thing.”

- Mehar Bano, who plays the fiesty Zubaida.

“Being a public figure you come across weird comments and remarks and you do tend to end up imposing a kind of self-censorship on yourself,” she replied. “As a woman living in Pakistan you have to be so careful about what you say, what you do and what you wear because the world expects something of you and if you don’t they will cease to like you and follow you and that way you may lose your livelihood. But as soon as I got the role of Zubeida I knew from the get-go that this is what I wanted to do. I have done other groundbreaking characters, like the role I played in Darling which was so out there. I don’t want to live in a box; I want to live up to my true potential. And I can’t care of what people think of me. Sexuality is a topic that needs to be explored and as you said, Zubeida is shown talking about kissing and all, girls talk like this and have such urges. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg and I definitely want to do more roles that will stir controversy in a way that will spark conversation about how much agency we should be getting as women.”

The conversation Asim Abbasi starts is sparked by much more than the way the characters are written. It’s the execution, the ingredients that go into this bubbling cauldron of trouble-making content. Mo Azmi, Kamal Khan and Samiya Ansari all contribute to creating this series that is grim, gritty and yet so entertaining; it leaves one with a taste for danger. It doesn’t depress, which is what sets it apart from other ‘socially conscious’ dramas one sees on television. And what uplifts it further is the swashbuckling soundtrack. There’s the title song, composed by Taha Malik, written by honorary feminist Osman Khalid Butt and performed by Taha as well as Zoe Viccaji. And the sounds keep speckling into the narrative, never out of place but always outstanding. One also gets riffs of feminist anthems like ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda’ by all girl group Garam Anday. “Haramion kay baadshah…”

“We were expecting a lot more backlash, to be honest,” one caught Sarwat Gillani between TV interviews. “But the response has been overwhelming.”

Sarwat has played all types of, including regressive characters, in her career. As an artist she says she feels liberated by the opportunity to play Sara, while of suave politicial Jamil Khan, who she discovers has been sending dirty texts to women all over the world. A serial harasser, Jamil Khan – played brilliantly by Omair Rana – is caught and punished by his wife, who then uses his money and power to reboot and restart her own career.

“Over 18 years I have pretty much proven myself in doing different characters. I was done with playing the damsel, the girl next door or the vamp,” she spoke about Sara. “As an artist I was restrained by the stories we were telling. With Churails I have been very lucky to have been directed by someone like Asim, who had something different in mind. He helped us shed those typical nuances and portrayals we had been used to doing.

“I’ve always done different things and talked my mind and I have established myself as an actor, which allows me to say things that I should as a woman,” she continued. “As an actor, this was my unicorn. I talk about women rights, child abuse and laws that protect women. On TV we do it on a very superficial level. We were addressing real issues here; it was revolutionary work.”

Churails draws attention to the cracks in society, needless to say. Over ten episodes, we are taken into the backstories of all four central characters, and we are also given an entirely new sub-story in every episode. The series brings in several surprising and entertaining cameos, actors you’re used to seeing in a certain light on TV, portrayed in a completely unbelievable avatar. It all keeps the interest alive, not that there are any cracks in Asim Abbasi’s direction, that keeps you riveted, regardless.

Does it ever go over the top in terms of shock value? In certain areas it does. The inclusion of gore is at times an overstretched metaphor of how women feel when violated. The profanities do get repetitive and the display of alcohol seems unnecessary at times. Jugnu, played by Yasra Rizvi, is perhaps the most visibly offensive of all four churails. She smokes like a chimney, drinks through the day and wears her political incorrectness on her sleeve. Cuss-words drop like from Jugnu’s mouth like A bombs and she has no qualms in saying things that make people effing uncomfortable.

“Is she that controversial? No, not really,” Yasra Rizvi disagree, obviously very comfortable in her character. But then she’s never been new to controversy, she laughs. “Jugnu is drinking and smoking but she even doesn’t have a boyfriend,” she says. “Like any Pakistani girl, I was quoted asking whether I’d have to wear shorts skirts and/or makeout onscreen? That may have been a problem. But my character was not developed for masala; it was pure characterization and went with the story. TV ran out of characters for me a long time ago,” she reasoned, not that anyone would need an excuse to be part of this revolutionary quartet.

When it comes to Churails, Nimra, Mehar Bano, Sarwat and Yasra along with the entire cast are just the tools that helped tell Asim’s story. He’s the one who has pushed bars.

“This vigilantism that everyone is worried about is a surreal stroke in which he suggests that even this can happen; are you ready for it?” Yasra concluded. “All these stories are real and he uses them to question the way things are going. Is the world ready for it? Nobody has a problem with a system that isn’t cruel. It’s repeated injustice and inequality and cruelty that leads to vigilantism, which can be an after effect of what women have to suffer.”

The ‘fair & foul’ of feminine content