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'Churails' review: A feminist vigilante show from Pakistan we must celebrate

This spunky new series created by Asim Abbasi is about a group of women who band together to take on abusive men

'Churails' guns for the patriarchy in style
'Churails' guns for the patriarchy in style

The greatest witch-hunt scene of all time is in the 1975 classic, Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Some villagers, eager to burn an alleged witch, decide that witches must surely be made of wood, since wood, like witches, is used for burning. “So how do we tell whether she is made of wood?" asks a blowhard, leading to a most unforgettable suggestion: “Build a bridge out of her."

That idea, however loony, is no more absurd than witch-hunting itself, better suited to medieval illiteracy but something that shamefully continues to dog us. Even this week, our national media and social networks are haranguing an Indian actress and forcing her to assure us that she is not, in fact, a witch.

Churails—a spunky new Pakistani series, streaming on Zee 5— wants to take back that particular c-word. Four women defiantly proclaim themselves churails, pulling on multicoloured hijabs to hand out retribution to the male of the species. They belong to different worlds: There is a wealthy lawyer, an out-of-work wedding planner, a boxer from a poor family and a convict who spent decades in prison for murdering her husband. Behind the facade of a retail boutique, they create an army of women to take on abusive men—from straying husbands to exploitative fathers.

The show is mad cool. Created by Asim Abbasi, director of the critically acclaimed film Cake (Netflix), the 10-episode series takes this dynamite premise and has a blast. The characters are compelling, the vibe between them is fantastic and rightly shape-shifting, the cinematography is deliciously showy, and the dialogues crackle with an irrepressible energy. As our heroines head into murkier territory, it becomes evident Abbasi may be retelling actual stories of deviance and oppression, filtering headlines through his comic book-y narrative. These ninjas are gunning for the patriarchy with style.

Sara knows style. An affluent woman who quit practising law in order to play a picture-perfect wife, she wonders about returning. “Main hoon na," says her husband dismissively, emphasizing how little she needs to work. She agrees, but sighs: “Aaj kal main thodi kum hoon (There is less of me these days)." Sarwat Gilani Mirza is lovely as the exquisitely dressed but conflicted leader of these women, a mother who tells her children not to have chocolate in the morning but bites into a bar herself because, as she explains, sometimes mothers deserve it.

The best lines come from Jugnu Chaudhury, a hip-flask-toting wedding planner with abandonment issues, who instructs annoying brides to “go get your Sabya on". The constant pop-cultural slang may have grated if not for Yasra Rizvi, who plays Jugnu with an effortlessness that makes her flippancy seem authentic.With her detached air, Jugnu proves to be an unlikely voice of reason. She appears casually homophobic at the start of the series, but after hiring trans people and lesbian convicts, her world view seems to expand. She also gives the best nicknames: She calls the intense murderess “Phoolan", and it is bloody perfect.

The others call her “Badi Amma". Batool, played by the magnetic Nimra Bucha, has a traumatic past and a mercurial temper, and the actor brings a weariness to her zeal. It is Batool’s slow-burn ferocity that holds the show in place as it deals with darker and darker stories, and she is that rare thing, a true narrative wild card, a character you can believe capable of anything. Batool is a woman of action who doesn’t even attempt discretion. The boutique within the show—the storefront hiding this rampaging coven—is named Halal Designs, but there is nothing lawful about these ladies.

According to Wikipedia, Zubeida means “soft-bodied" and “like cream". The Zubeida of Churails is a spunky young boxer (who loathes her own name) who faces extreme oppression from a slipper-flinging father. Played by Mehar Bano, she comes across as sweet as she is tough. Despite her bravado, she finds it hard to argue with authority. She tries to ward off a potential groom, for instance, with pictures of her chiselled boyfriend. The groom is instantly impressed, comparing him to Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff.

It’s thrilling how we drink from the same pop-culture well. Our cousins from across the border may be different in many ways but their references are as relatable—and as Bollywood—as can be, and this vigilante series serves as a stylish reminder. In the second season of Sex Education (Netflix), a few punished high-school girls are tasked with finding common ground. At long last, they realize the only thing they all share is that at some point, they have been harassed by men. These disparate avengers are the same.

Cinematographer Mo Azmi creates something slick, stylized sequences cutting through the lush and seamy universe of this increasingly fearless show. Flashbacks are high-contrast, bathed in pink and red, memories and lies looking different. There is, however, overkill in terms of metaphors involving plastic dolls and women created from the rib of men, too literal and portentous for a show this clever.

Each episode is nearly an hour long—I watched four episodes ahead of release for this review and can’t wait to dive through the rest—and they lose some snap in an attempt to lecture, to shock, or to spell out too much. The first two are a treat, unleashing this startling and original premise, but after that, while characters and intrigue remain, parts of Churails, melodramatic and simplistic, start to resemble lesser television. How I wish the episodes were 45 minutes long.

Churails slays the vibe. The way the women talk, and how that evolves as they do. The way girls brandish pistol-shaped lighters to threaten people, while men cower behind laptops, wearing shirts that say “Fearless". When clients come to hire these warriors, they sit behind confessional-type walls with big, post-box slits that give away only their eyes—like burqas. These are special witches. Not only do they cast a spell, they build a bridge.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.


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