The nuanced female-fronted web series ‘Churails’, which chronicles the tale of four fierce burqa-clad women taking on the patriarchy, seems to be bursting with rage.
There’s so much bottled-up anger in this Karachi-set series that it would make Betty Broderick — the scorned American housewife who killed her emotionally abusive ex-husband and his new wife — seem tame.
The immersive 10-episode original series is directed by British Pakistani filmmaker Asim Abbasi and is streaming on Zee5 Global. It trains the spotlight on four deeply flawed but fabulous crusaders from different walks of life and takes on bold, controversial themes.
This disjointed group of vigilantes — united by the wrongdoings by the toxic men in their lives — join hands to launch a detective agency to nab philandering husbands and help troubled wives.
So, what’s the common thread between a hardened child bride-turned-husband killer (Nimra Bucha), a rich wife of a philandering politician (Sarwat Gilani Mirza), a glamorous socialite often labelled as Karachi’s Kim Kardashian (Yasra Rizvi), and a burqa-clad repressed boxer (Mehar Bano)?
“It’s their anger of those belonging to a marginalised community and gender … ‘Churails’ explores the idea about how much you can push someone before they bite back,” said Abbasi in a Zoom video interview with Gulf News.
“It’s not my personal anger. I am born a man sitting comfortably living a privileged life. The series shows the anger of everyone not sitting in my chair. The rage in them kind of comes in different forms for all of them,” said Abbasi.
The show, which has rapidly amassed a huge fan base, also explores touchy issues like marital rape and paedophilia. The director was keen to explore gender bias and the power dynamics between men and women in that region. He wasn’t alone. The lead players in this well-cast show were also on the same page.
“I wanted to be a part of a courageous script like this … I have never read a story that was so honest and which reflected social issues like this series does. Many series just tap these social issues on the surface and move on. But in ‘Churails’ we didn’t do that and the issues that we have talked about here takes a lot of courage to put out there … It was an unusual opportunity for us actors,” said Mirza on the same Zoom call.
Mirza plays the rich and polished partner of a suave politician who seems to have it all together. But her suburban bliss is shaken when she discovers that her husband was flirting with over 70 women on the sly.
We also learn that she is a trained lawyer who even defends her husband’s sexual misconduct claims and questions the survivor, until she catches him cheating red-handed.
For actress Bucha, who plays the tobacco-chewing husband killer, the title was intriguing enough.
‘Churails’, roughly translated as wicked witches, has a negative connotation and is used to label scheming mothers-in-law or sly daughters-in-law.
“I was very curious to read something that was called ‘Churails’ and I was blown away. I kept turning the pages to see if something would go wrong and I liked everything about it. And to tell you the truth I did not really think much about how it’s now described as Pakistan’s first feminist series … What I loved was that women were doing and driving the action in ‘Churails’. They were the protagonists, they were the heroes and they were the villains,” said Bucha.
Her back story is a violent one — she’s a marital rape survivor who kills her abusive husband by smashing his head with a hot iron and burns his private parts when he threatens to molest their young daughter.
However, director Abbasi — whose credits include the acclaimed film ‘Cake’ — makes it clear that he did not set out to make a male-bashing, men-as-monsters saga.
“My intention was never to be the flag-bearer of feminism … The themes in this show are feminist in nature, but it was always about the literal story and not the thematic implications of it,” said Abbasi breaking into Urdu.
Each episode explores the cases that the women take on and the complications that come with it. Their front is a harmless, aptly-named fashion store called Halal Boutique.
For actress Bano, the thing that drew her to this bewitching series, which has triggered an avalanche of dialogue on feminist fables and toxic masculinity, was more visceral.
“There is a lot of anger and rage in real life that I had to suppress a lot, but by playing Zubaida I was able to channel all that suppressed rage that I have carried within me all my life. Zubaida is just someone who acts immediately as soon she feels she has been wronged. She’s action oriented … I feel her rage in my bones,” said Bano. In one scenes, Bano reacts in a bestial fashion as she beats up a stranger who harasses her.
“When he winks at her, her immediate reaction to it was so animalistic like she just bangs that guy’s head on the desk … I feel like that is the kind of rage that every young woman has felt at some time in her life when she see in the audacity with which women are allowed to get away and perform these lewd acts like eve-teasing,” said Bano.
For those wondering, she isn’t a trained boxer but her dancing helped her pull off the part of an angry pugilist with panache. Her boxing teacher was a man who trained women from marginalised communities and lower strata in self-defence.
“So I met all those ferocious women who wouldn’t bat an eyelid and would kick a man to the curb if they were to be wronged … Zubaida’s character is also a thumbs up to the women who actually want to stand up for themselves. It is a very uplifting character,” said Bano.
While the series is not reductive or doesn’t deliberately try to paint men as monsters, the women resorting to extreme violence is disturbing. Is killing someone justified, no matter what the provocation?
“‘Churails’ is a morally ambiguous show and people have to realise that. It doesn’t take sides. If you are taking sides as an audience, you will also know that we are trying to confuse you and throw you off,” said Abbasi.
“For instance that mutton nihari scene [where an adoring housewife kills her husband and then proceeds to enjoy a dish of mutton nihari], we genuinely built that man to be a very loving, gentle person — extreme care is taken to show him as a nice person and we want to make you feel that the nihari incident and his killing is not justified,” he adds. Their intent was to make people think.
In comparison, Bucha’s character Batool killing her abusive husband seems more justified.
“Such confusions that I throw in the audiences’ minds is consciously and cautiously done. It was deliberately done so that they can go back to the drawing room and have the conversations that is going through your head right now,” said Abbasi.
All the actresses on his crew also believe that it isn’t often that a woman gets to play such complex, layered roles. They agree that they are often offered roles where the women is getting beaten up. As Mirza puts it, the women are leaders, but they are also failures.
“That’s what I love about my character Sara. I love that she is a leader when it comes to uplifting other women, but she’s also a failure … Sara was a very real-life woman in my eyes. She’s a woman that I see around me every day,” Mirza said. “She’s a woman who does her best in her career and her personal life, but she falls and falters like every woman out there.”
Don’t miss it!
‘Churails’ is streaming on Zee5 Global right now.
Did you know?
Director Asim Abbasi was called the ‘mother churail’ and was like a strict school principal on set.
“I want this show to nudge men to be more empathetic and show how they should become gentler and move away from the alpha male, toxic masculinity that they are brought up with. I want them be more accepting and be more open to sharing the power and the privilege that comes with just being born a man,” said Abbasi.