Two years ago, Pakistani filmmaker Asim Abbasi made an amazingly assured debut with Cake. The feature film was a poignant family drama driven by its strong but flawed woman characters. The writer-director is back with an ambitious 10-episode web series Churails on Zee5. Set in Karachi, its four protagonists (played by Sarwat Gilani, Mehar Bano, Nirma Bucha, and Yasra Rizvi) together run a fashion store, Halal Designs, which specialises in conservative clothing. Covertly, they are detectives exposing husbands who cheat on their wives.
When the filmmaker, who divides his time between the UK and Pakistan, was toying with the idea of churails (witches) for a feature film, he realised that it could be a much larger story, something that can’t be told in a two-hour movie. When Shailja Kejriwal of Zee approached him, Abbasi pitched the idea and the series was commissioned by Zee5 soon after. Churails, which releases on the streaming platform on August 11, is the first Pakistani show to make a comeback on Indian screen after nearly four years. In this interview, Abbasi talks about giving a positive spin to the connotations of a churail, how fact is stranger than fiction and why his women characters are flawed. Excerpts:
In Cake and Churails, you have woman characters who was unafraid of speaking their mind. Is there any real-life influence?
I have grown up with strong women and their influence has seeped into my writing. My mother is an alpha female whereas my dad is soft-natured. I have four sisters too. I am blessed to be able to tell stories about women and for women. I wish more women were telling these stories. Until we change the whole paradigm and the number of male and female filmmakers is equal, men need to be allies.
Did the idea of subverting the horror film tropes inspire Churails?
Since childhood, I have heard the term churail, used for a woman who has left her husband or is working and doesn’t want children. I wondered how to change the perception about the word that has a negative connotation. Take all the qualities traditionally associated with a churail, such as aggression, sexual liberation, standing up for theirs and other’s rights, these are all positive qualities. So, I thought of giving a churail, a positive spin.
Similarly, the burqa is historically seen as a symbol of oppression. In Churails, burqa is a metaphor. It like the cape of superheroes. When protagonists of the show wear a burqa, it is a choice they are making. The burqa helps to protect their identity when they are operating as sleuths.
Have real-life incidents of violence against women made it to the script?
Absolutely. I have not narrated the exact incidents but have found ways of filtering them. There are some stories that become very prominent half-way through the show. They do have real-life examples. During my research, I came across a female-led detective agency in India that is doing something similar as the protagonists. Often, I would think of a situation and during my research I would discover that a similar incident had taken place. There are instances of women being pushed to such an extent that they had to take extreme measures and retaliate.
Both in Cake and Churails, you have woman characters who question the idea of motherhood?
It is okay for a woman to say that she doesn’t want to have a child at a certain point in life or for another woman to say that motherhood is taking everything from her. If you are a mother, it a taboo to express that you love something else more than your child. If you start a conversation and bring a character to the forefront who chooses not to go through pregnancy or decides that she after giving some years to motherhood she wants to pursue something else, the audience might be encouraged to voice their thoughts.
Did you receive any backlash for Cake, especially for showing women smoking or a woman calling her sister lesbian?
I had to fight tooth and nail to keep the word ‘lesbian’ in the movie. With Churails, I am pushing that boundary. Some amount of backlash was there too for showing women smoke. I had shown flawed women, who have made bad decisions. Being flawed is human nature. The fact that the audience rooted for them even though they were flawed is something makes me keep going for such characters. We must get rid of the binary of having Sati Savitris on one end and vamps on the other.
Is the show in some way a soul sister of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a female vampire movie set in Iran and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour?
I have watched the film. However, the major inspiration for Churails are several books and movies that come under ‘monstrous femininity’. Australian author Barbara Creed writes about them in the book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. The subversion of horror films tropes was another trigger for the show. What are horror films? They are films ripe with symbolism and metaphor, designed to get a message across. A lot of those tropes have been borrowed and put in the real environment. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night falls in that category. Recently, I watched Bulbbul (written and directed by Anvita Dutt), which is in a similar category.
Did you consciously work on having a female gaze?
I did not want women to say that I was not representing them or telling their stories truthfully. My sisters and my wife have been my sounding boards. I have never lived in a female body. I have not experienced the helplessness of a woman when she is rudely touched by a man on a street. I try to bridge this by spending time with women who can tell me their experiences. I hope there is not an iota of male gaze in the show.
In Cake, you have characters humming popular Hindi songs. How did Hindi cinema influence you?
Musicians and artistes cut across borders. Their work unites us, something politics fails to do. My family listened to old Hindi film songs while we were growing up. So, I needed those to be part of the film. Cake is an ode to my family (It uses songs like Baharon phool barsao from the 1966-movie Suraj and Piya tu ab to aaja from the 1971-movie Caravan).
Even though in the ’80s we didn’t have a cinema culture in Pakistan. I grew up watching pirated VHS cassettes of Hindi movies. Later, I gravitated towards alternative cinema even though I watched a lot of mainstream movies. Eventually, when I left my banking job to take up filmmaking, I wanted to tell stories that matter.
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