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'Churails' | When burqas become superhero capes

Viewers of Pakistani dramas will agree that their themes have been far more progressive than local saas-bahu fare. But really, nothing prepared us for 'Churails'

Directed by the London-based Asim Abbasi, ‘Churails’ on ZEE5 is an important milestone in the South Asian cultural landscape.
Directed by the London-based Asim Abbasi, ‘Churails’ on ZEE5 is an important milestone in the South Asian cultural landscape.

Sara Khan likes her chocolate. Amid some of the tensest moments of Churails, she is shown delicately biting into a bar, its foil and paper cover neatly rolled back. That’s her style. And this show knows style.

I can’t get enough of Churails but having finished the 10-episode series, I must satisfy myself in anticipation of the ripple effect that I hope this Pakistani production will bring to our TV mix.

Directed by the London-based Asim Abbasi, Churails released on 11 August to rave reviews (we carried ours two weeks ago). The show marks the revival of Zee Network’s Zindagi channel but this time on its OTT platform ZEE5. Zindagi, a channel popular for its Turkish/Pakistani content in India, was shut down soon after the 2016 terrorist attacks in Uri.

Set in Karachi, Churails is led by four women, each with her own experience of some form of male violence or entitlement, who form a detective agency and vigilante group to give abusive men what they deserve—pain, with Mard Ko Dard Hoga as their motto. The cast is diverse: Sara (Sarwat Gilani), a former lawyer and now trophy wife; Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi), a single and successful wedding planner never seen without her hip-flask; Zubaida (Meher Bano), a college girl who secretly pursues boxing lessons; and Batool (Nimra Bucha), an ex-convict who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering her abusive husband.

The language and hard edges of Churails mark a big departure from the Pakistani shows that have long been popular with Indian audiences with their cultured protagonists and general tehzeeb. Most regular viewers of Pakistani dramas will agree that their themes have been far more nuanced and progressive than local saas-bahu fare for a long time. But really, nothing prepared us for Churails.

In an interview, Shailja Kejriwal, chief creative officer–special projects, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, tells me that when they decided to do original content for Zindagi back in April 2018, Abbasi’s Cake had just released to great acclaim.

They approached him and Churails was among his many pitches. She took the call to go ahead because “the time was right to tell a story like Churails". What drew Kejriwal was that the story highlighted multiple themes like sexism, patriarchy, colourism and misogyny, “all within the format of a story laced with humour". Also, she says, “the single image of burqa-clad women reclaiming their power was enough to tell us that this story needed to be shared".

Right from the title credits—where busy Riot Grrrl-type pop imagery meets the Pakistani-American rapper and record producer Taha Malik’s anthem of feminist rage—Churails is ambitious in how much it wants to pack in. Its references go from the Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night to The Handmaid’s Tale to Ocean’s 8. Churails is bursting with references to Bollywood, tributes to punk rock bands on T-shirts, and every feminist talking point that might have been in the news in the recent past, taking care to be inclusive across spectrums of class and gender.

Pakistani journalist Hamna Zubair describes 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". And sure enough, profanities, retribution and even blood, flow very easily on this show.

Sometimes it is all too much, like the bizarre Freudian sequences in pink and red that punctuate the series: little boys shooting water pistols at a girl, a rib being broken off to create Eve. But as #MeToo demonstrated only recently, sometimes you need to throw decorum and tehzeeb out of the door and go all out to make even a small tilt in a heavily skewed playing field. Sometimes, like Sara’s daily chocolate bar indulgence, we do need too much.

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