Frame by frame

October 18, 2020

Beyond controversies and conspiracy theories, looking at Churails from an art lens

There has been hoopla pertaining to a recent web/TV series. I don’t want to waste the word count delving into controversies and conspiracy theories. So, I will say that I saw Churails with an art lens - the images, frames, light, mood, person, costume, space and attention to detail in the frames kept me attentive and engrossed throughout the ten episodes – enough to contact the anchor person, the production manager who made this art happen in those frames. Upon a phone conversation which turned into a very fulfilling open discussion - thanks to Aarij Hashimi, he shared how the clarity of the makers, “twenty percent surrealism and eighty percent realism” injected the creative process of his team.

My art/film historical gaze became confirmed on that comment and I will be looking at the art, visuality and aesthetics of the production through the windows of five chosen surrealists. “Super-realism” as I explain to my undergraduate students for simplification is an art movement that was born between 1910 and ’20. It’s an avalanche of the subconscious or a shameless yet sophisticated manifestation of the world of dreams, so inevitably it’s grounded in psychology and psychoanalysis. Surrealism can bring in front of us, in all forms of art, ugly or beautiful - what only happens in dreams. The poet André Breton wrote the surrealist manifesto in 1924 in Paris and since the movement emerged from the West, so did the five surrealists. This does not mean that there has never been surrealism in South Asia, global /Pakistani contemporary art has retakes on it and our region’s history has art forms embedded in animated empathy and surrealism, but the use of ‘terms’ has been different.

The four female protagonists namely Jugnu, Zubaida, Sara and Batool have their parallel and isolated worlds which were created to every inch of vivid speculation with a sense of inspirations and key words. Churails are women subject to societal vulnerability and trauma but destiny brings them together to carve a new super reality - their own surreality.

Man Ray - the surrealist/dadaist created his rayo-graphs without the camera by placing everyday objects of photosensitised paper and exposing it to light. The rayo-graphs inspired all the surrealist poets and painters for their lucidity and capacity of transformation. The series Churails has an inherent sense of art in its environment; the objects and visual commentary of contemporary art narrate the characters. Jugnu, an elite wedding planner with a heart much heavier than the ‘fallen chandelier’ that ruins her career weeps when she holds a postcard sized image frequently, to me it appeared to be a postcard with a Man Ray rayo-graph print until on a closer look later, it was revealed that it’s an ultrasound of a life within her that she had to let go. The exposure and transience of light, its angular landscaping on the objects and masks is Mo Azmi’s cinematographic genius according to Aarij and the visuals themselves assert that. There is voyeuristic, surveillanc-ed, X-rayish continuity in the spaces. Amidst Jugnu’s majestic hoarding of objects in her curated jungle of art and collectables - the looker, the gaze, the eyes are obvious in their space of power, to see and reveal more.

Rene Magritte - a revolutionary surrealist investigator of space - among many other works, Magritte changed the weight, size, context and medium of small bells in his work and made them float in vast landscapes, juxtapositioning and questioning the preconceived notions of our senses. Aarij is an architect by training who has also transitioned into art production. All the main spaces were occupied as blank canvases initially, the Halal Design shop and office space floats within circles, from a hexagon to an octagon in the basement. The main idea is a beehive, the textures, patterns, women vigilantes on the walls are dedicated to celebrating each woman in the Halal Designs team. The circular forms reveal evolution and eternity and that remains the fate of the studio even after it is subjected to hate and fire, it continues in other forms. Film Noir has been another inspiration with its somber urgency and tension. Upon asking about the allegorical balance of spaces the workmanship is credited to the cinematographer and how the odd balance of spaces, almost Magritte-ish in vision, blank and filled, less and more, hidden and revealed is based on conscious artistic choices. The frame for Zahid Mayo’s art with dogs in play, appear in conflict if not observed closely - it works not just as a background but also as a narration and an ambience to an important encounter between two characters.

Max Ernst - in his work Capricorn 1948, a gigantic sculpture with the phallic symbol King Spector wears a funny looking mask. The surrealist/dadaist guru Ernst engages with unexpected pairings of things, these offer a dark comedy of sorts. Sara’s home which centers on key words such as restraint and layered, is like a house of cards, pristine and manicured like its dwellers but waiting sly, like the calm before the storm to erupt. Adeel uz Zafar’s works on display are also lost like this home, lost in their own wrapping symphony. Jameel’s bird bath with a trophy of a dead body under it - or Iftikhar Chaudery’s (Jugnu’s uncle) colonial capsule of a study/home are all lost and found in a battle of gender or class hierarchy. Childlike innocence and a sinister overtone walk together in this Alley. Zubaida’s gown at the escort ball and Jameel’s wolf mask can be excavated through a Red riding hood fairytale folktale, history that finds itself in predators disguised as immediate family members. Sara confronts Jameel in front of a relief work with a carved out dense forest.

Dorothea Tanning - I see the final essence of the scenes, almost a liquefying effect that resonates with Tanning’s paintings and the melting and evolution of music, light, costume/wardrobe in Churails. Iris Apfel for Jugnu, Looney Toons Tasmanian devil for Zubaida, Gayatri Devi for Sara and Batool’s real life self for her character have been the inspirations for these characters. Aarij also mentions how Asim Abbasi’s script in itself was his inspiration to work on this project. Nothing else was required. The character wardrobes in their ‘bohemian and carefree’, corporate and reserved, cold yet endearing, sweet and brutal personas blend in with the narrative and the abodes.

Louise Bourgeois - last but not least Bourgeois’s theatrical, animated, unapologetic, entrapped, caged, spider titled Maman is a surrealist wonder, the spider that rose above the buildings in our childhood dreams seems to have stepped out to mark a centre, of cobwebs or beehives in the most disturbing or beautiful sense, the choice is always ours.

The author is a visual artist, writer and researcher based in Lahore.

Frame by frame: looking at Churails from an art lens