Churails, witches, pichal peri, these terms all have similar connotations. The grotesque woman, the fallen woman trying to seduce and torture young men. Asim Abbasi’s latest offering, a web-series titled Churails, essentially attempts to appropriate the term in the streets of Karachi. The show has a lot to offer in its ten-episode long run. We’re told the narrative of not one, but multiple churails in this carefully constructed female fantasy of sorts. It's the women who’re doing all the hunting and trying to dismantle patriarchy as best as they can. What they do realise on their way, along with the viewers, is that it's so deeply entrenched in society, it’s a system so complex, that fighting it comes with real world consequences, which turn morality on its head.
The show follows the journey of the quartet from Karachi, a set of four women brought together by chance, who set out to right the wrongs of cheating husbands. Their store, Halal Designs, that sells burqas, is a mere garb for their detective shenanigans. The quartet consists of Sara (Sarwat Gilani), the perfectly dressed quintessential politician’s housewife, Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi), an infamous event planner and a socialite, Batool (Nimra Bucha), a murderer who spent twenty years in prison and Zubaida (Meher Bano), the youngest of all, who hides boxing attire under her burqa.
All these women, in the search of some purpose and filled with rage, set out to actualise a utopian pursuit — to hold the men of Karachi responsible for their misdemeanours. They’ve been wronged by society and finally want to take control. What begins as a heroic endeavour unravels into a messier truth, punctuated with gruesome murders and shady parties hosted by the elite. However, what comes to light is a power nexus that may never be so easily dismantled in reality, but the burqa-clad vigilantes, with their hockey sticks and boxing gloves in Churails are tenacious and stop at nothing. It’s unfettering to view all the colourful burqas as tools that the women are in complete control of.
What Churails does effortlessly is the construction of its female identities. Despite the plot going slightly awry in multiple places, each woman is created as a character of her own and not as a foil to any male counterpart. One instance that struck me the most is when things get out of hand and Sara is arguing with her husband, Jameel. At one point she retorts saying she needs her career more than Jameel, and even more than her kids. It's something that truly belongs to her. She fearlessly even sheds the identity of being a mother, an identity that is usually essential for women and is considered to be sacrosanct. Her toxic relation with Jameel on the other hand, also builds for one of the most interesting aspects of the series.
These women are feisty and rebellious, but also come with their own set of flaws and often don’t have all the solutions — their course of action doesn’t have any righteousness involved. The storytelling doesn’t preach, Asim’s narrative is aware of the fact that these women will make mistakes and gives them the space to do so. Sara isn’t scared of reiterating her lapse in judgement. Batool’s rage nearly exposes and leads to public wrath towards the group. What her actions also spark in the larger frame of affairs is the outing of a closeted gay husband, despite the group’s vehement disapproval to reveal this particular detail.
The wife then goes onto murder the gay husband upon hearing Batool’s words of approval, and also in her violent fit cuts a piece of his leg for her Nihari. However, this grotesque scenario deeply sidelines queer identity in a group which otherwise tries to be inclusive — the churails also recruit a transwoman to work with them, the Pakistani khwaja sera and a lesbian couple. Batool’s rage stems from the injustices meted out to her that makes her paint all men in the same colour, but the narrative falters as it ignores the injustice to the gay identity and the stigma that surrounds the homosexual community. The inclusive stance then seems slightly tokenistic considering the khwaja sera’s and the lesbian couple’s identity struggle in society isn’t explored with as much gusto as that of others. There’s a lot more that one desires from this situation in terms of intersectionality. Although, I also can't deny that it was extremely satisfying to watch a transwoman play one onscreen.
L: Sarwat Gilani as Sara ; R: Yasra Rizvi as Jugnu
The show also falls prey to the most common trope for web-series these days — trying to take up as many social causes as they possibly can. Class relations aren’t explored as complexly amongst the female protagonists for a show that attempts to make a scathing comment on the debauchery and hypocrisy of elite society. There’s instances when the women acknowledge class and tensions arise. Sara and Jugnu eventually recognise their privilege, as they walk deep into the bylanes of their co-worker, Sheila's hometown and are made aware of the depressing position of its bangle-making community. Yet they never truly engage with their precarious position and revel in it as Sara rejects Sheila’s presence and refuses to even try and contextualise her decision making. Further Jugnu and her ex husband’s race issues are merely glossed over.
The cinematography of Churails, on the other hand, is top notch, the colour palette adds to the intrigue and the art direction is impeccable. The screenplay isn’t bereft of riveting metaphors. The little prologues in the beginning depicting the consumption of women, don’t paint a very pretty picture but do drive the point home. The Bollywood quips here and there make the show relatable to an Indian viewer, but further the situations do so too. The streets of Karachi could very well be the streets of Delhi at night. The non-linear timeline does make the plot-line fuzzy, and despite the long episodes, the whodunnit mystery in the last episode isn’t exciting. It’s rather predictable — the Lacanian quote and hinting towards his very complex objet petit a, shifts the focus away from the protagonists and onto the antagonist. An exploration of his psyche would have fared better through the ten episodes, rather than just in the finale. What also left me particularly uncomfortable is how the actor playing the antagonist has charges levelled against him for sexual harassment.
The Churails artwork by Samya Arif
Churails isn’t without its flaws but it should be consumed for its brilliant performances and the bodacious characters these women play — all actors live the characters to the fullest, turning them into ones that resonate. It’s definitely a starting point for healthy discourse to begin around feminism and intersectionality, as Asim’s screenplay manages to bring forth the marginalised communities to the mainstream in a country that refuses to even acknowledge their existence. However, being a churail is just the beginning, there’s a lot more to be done on both sides of the border!
The show is now streaming on Zee5.
Text Unnati Saini