The trailer of Churails, a Pakistani original produced by India’s Zee Zindagi spread like wildfire on Pakistani Twitter a few weeks ago. There were outcries of “yahoodi saazish” and “sasti feminism” when people saw female superheroes clad in burkas giving men a piece of their mind. Meanwhile some resorted to the “RAW agent-theory” and brought up arguments about how collaboration with Indian producers was reprehensible and disgusting (while conveniently ignoring Pakistan’s collaboration with China amidst the treatment of the Ulghiyur Muslims).
On the other hand, I was delighted when the Churails trailer was out and saw four unapologetic women whose goal in life is not to trap their husbands. Four women who are celebrated for being unapologetic and not being punished at the end of the show by dying or having tuberculosis? This sounded so refreshing from the weeping mess I witness on Hum TV everyday that I had to subscribe to Churails and support the content.
One of the biggest joys of Churails (apart from the delightful cinematography of Mo Azmi) is the characterisation of women. For once, they are treated like the normal, flawed humans they are without falling into the trap of the Madonna-whore stereotype shows like Humsafar have engraved onto our TV landscape. While most progressive shows resort to the creation of unrealistic superheroes with excellent bodies and effortless altruism, the four Churails are anything but perfect. All have their moments of vulnerabilities and pure selfishness, and the journey of these four women in discovering themselves is what makes one want to invest their time in Churails. Sara’s oscillation between vendetta and saving other women, Jugnu’s grogginess and her struggle with alcoholism (which is not deemed empowering under the disguise of elitism) and the difficult choices that Zubaida and Batool have to make in order to survive their family’s choices and their traumatic pasts makes you relate to all these women at some point. The Churails tribe comprises of all sorts of women – middle-aged queer lovers, computer geeks with a knack for hacking, sex workers and trans women, but at no point in the show is an idealistic notion of sisterhood propagated which transcends these differences: rather, the Churails have their own internal conflicts and fights as these women learn to address their privileges and flaws. The show also gives us memorable male characters in the form of Shams, Dilbar and Boss who support their women loyally from the backseat without any displays of toxic masculinity (although I wish all of them were not motivated by romantic bonds to the female protagonists).
The word, “Churail” which is often used to describe uncontrollable and feisty women, is unapologetically reclaimed by these women. They disguise their covert operations under a “halal” boutique shop and use their pots and pans to defend themselves when they have to. The art direction adds a feisty, funky vibe to the whole show while satirical one liners like “Mard ko dard hoga” and “Men and pets are not allowed inside” add comic relief to the otherwise dark-themed Churails.
The second biggest achievement of Churails was the fact that this was the first mainstream representation of queer people in Pakistan. Rather than resorting to tokenism and reducing these characters to their sexuality, Asim Abbasi raises important questions about the place of marginalised communities in Pakistani society through subtlety and moral ambiguity, for example, how does one come to terms with a gay man who cheats on his wife? Churails does not shy away from addressing the patriarchal bargains women have to make in order to advance in a capitalistic society. In one particular instance when Jugnu confronts the CEO of an exploitative brand, Jalwa, the CEO unabashedly recounts her journey of sexual exploitation to achieve class mobility and says she doesn’t regret her choice, making the audience wonder “Did she really have a choice?”.
Some people have argued that Churails fails to take into account the classism and misogyny exhibited by elite women in Pakistan, however, I felt that there were several instances in the show where it was shown how the working class Churails were always the most vulnerable. As Dilbar rightly points out to Jugnu, he had to get his leg burnt down in order for her to even consider his romantic pursuits. Sara forgives her husband’s past and comfortably crawls back into the safety of his arms and her cavernous mansion whenever things get out of control. Jugnu is perceived to be an upper-class obnoxious, super-rich alcoholic who is frequently homophobic, fatphobic as well as classist. She does not employ Batool out of the goodness of her heart, as she blatantly puts it, “Tumhari jaisi aurat saste main ati hai” (A woman like you comes cheap). It is true that post the fifth episode, Churails becomes too invested in the storyline to investigate the dynamic within the show or even the character development of the mini-Churails but it does not give the audience a rosy image of elite women.
There is also a lot of symbolism scattered throughout Churails which only adds to the visual delight, men dressed as beasts are running the city’s beauty industry, Zubaida’s red dress alludes to The Red Riding Hood and thus, foreshadows her doom and food which in South Asian households, symbolises a woman’s charm, is used by women to punish and control men.
The show encapsulates multiple themes and issues such as child marriage, motherhood, reproductive rights, colonialism, colorism, forced marriages and sexual exploitation, however, at times it feels like its trying too much. For example, the insertion of Jackson’s character and the question of race felt out of place and forced. The storyline of Churails loses some of its charm as it completely transforms its format from the sixth episode and sometimes the script also seems to portray a superficial image of Pakistan (for instance, the part where Jugnu drinks in public without a care, even though possession of alcohol is very endangering in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – let alone brazen displays by a woman in broad daylight, or when Sara talks about lucrative divorce settlements in a country where most women don’t even know they have the right to divorce).
Despite these flaws, the very fact that this show got made and Pakistani filmmakers were given the opportunity of saying what they want without the fear of censorship or the menace of TRPs is an achievement in itself. Churails is a must-watch if you have an appetite for unapologetic women kicking patriarchy’s posterior. I genuinely hope that Churails paves the way for more revolutionary content from Pakistan and perhaps, for better relations between Pakistan and India. Having said that, with the Pride of Performance being awarded to a sexual harasser (Ali Zafar) this year in Pakistan, it is clear that we need much more than just feminist shows from people in the TV industry to take a step for women’s rights.
Featured Image Source: Indian Express