By Harshita Murarka Aug. 21, 2020
The Pakistani series Churails, brings to mind the fanciful adventures of another set of ladies – the ones in Four More Shots Please! – for how far apart the two worlds are. Despite its outlandish plot, Churails still feels real. It is in the soft-hearted moments of sorority that the Pakistani web series really shines.
“Since time immemorial it has been a woman’s innate duty to attract and having attracted to enchain…” exclaims a man while sizing up a woman in the latter half of Churails. He is making a pitch to a room full of masked men attending an auction where, instead of goods and antiques, women are up for sale. In this ghastly setting, women are brazenly referred as “celestial creatures”, while the men help women “discover the true worth of their duty”, that is, adhere to a set of fantastical notions of beauty. In pursuit of this fantasy of hourglass figures and perfect body symmetry, men mutilate women, their bodies, and their spirit, with impunity.
The scene is an OTT version of the kind of dehumanisation that dates back centuries… but not anymore. The churails are here. And it’s time to burst the racket where feral men hunt in packs, and give them a taste of their own medicine. So, what if that’s not what they had set out to do?
This forms the bulk of the 10-episode Pakistani web series Churails, directed by Asim Abbasi, currently streaming on Zee5. Set in Karachi, the web series follows the lives of four women who together start a clandestine detective agency to catch the city’s cheating husbands. Sarah is a super-rich perfect mommy who used to be a lawyer, Jugnu is a fading socialite who was once the biggest event planner in town, Zubeida an aspiring boxer, and Batool an ex-convict. What can these four women from different worlds possibly have in common? They are all reeling from the crushing impact of misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy.
It brought to mind the fanciful adventures of another set of ladies – the ones in Four More Shots Please! – for how far apart the two worlds are. If the women in Four More Shots Please! assert their feminism by jetting off to Istanbul to save their friend (only to have it turn it into a perfectly Instagrammable trip), the ones in Churails rescue a young girl from forced marriage. Despite its outlandish plot, the series still feels real – the issues it takes up are wide ranging and so is the treatment.
The web series follows the lives of four women who together start a clandestine detective agency to catch the city’s cheating husbands.
While Zubeida dreams of becoming a boxer, she lives under the thumb of an obsessively controlling father who wouldn’t let her go alone to college, let alone the boxing ring. Batool’s innocence has been smothered by the horrors of marital rape and domestic abuse. Sarah has to constantly put up with a patronising husband who says things like, “Tumhe kaun hire karega? And family law? Is it even law? NGO mei kaam kar lo part time”. Jugnu is carrying the baggage of her past coloured by a failed marriage with a black man and a thorny relationship with her father, navigating life by boozing and Birkin-ing.
The series is premised on a simple thought – “mard ko dard hoga” – put into action fuelled by suppressed angst simmering for years. They are joined by more churails: two lesbian con women, a hacker, a couple of sincere male allies, an aspiring actress, a sex worker, and a trans woman.
For an empire built on anxieties, weddings become the hunting grounds for clients. And in no time, the business grows. These women are fun and fierce and you jump on the rollercoaster as they bring to task abusive and errant husbands. But slowly, the complexities start to unravel and they realise they may have signed up for a little too much. They stumble. They face fierce resistance. But they also realise that if they don’t want to become a story, they need to get up and change it.
Moral ambiguities are grappled with and, in the process, the churails evolve. Sure, they had set out to expose cheating husbands but what if the husband himself is a victim of society? Love is love, they say, but not where a gay man must keep up with the pretence of normalcy – which is where the series takes a grotesque turn involving cannibalism.
In the world that Churails occupies, it isn’t just men who are made out to be villains. There are women who aren’t just apologists for abusive men but they also nurture and protect them, acting as the gatekeepers of patriarchy themselves.
But what’s most remarkable is that Abbasi does not put the mantle of social justice on the shoulders of outstretched, righteous men to save the damsels in distress, a pattern repeated in the recently released Raat Akeli Hai and Undekhi. Instead the narrative channelises female rage.
The series is premised on – “mard ko dard hoga” – put into action fuelled by suppressed angst simmering for years.
The power of female rage
Abbasi’s ambition is not just staggering but also unprecedented for the society it seeks to represent. Though Pakistani shows are usually lauded for strong women characters they cannot imagine their identity devoid of the ubiquitous crutches of family and marriage. In the process, they suffer the consequences of heavily skewed gender dynamics. Churails’ non-linear narrative, on the other hand, might be messy, but provides ample context to why the women refuse to be victims.
It is in the soft-hearted moments of sorority that Churails really shines. The women bonding and looking out for each other in tender ways – Batool rescuing Zubeida from her abusive family perhaps because she sees her daughter in her or locking up Jugnu’s alcohol because her addiction is unhealthy not cool – spreads the scintillating sparkle of sisterhood. A far cry from the scheming, plotting sisters and mothers-in-law that Pakistani series love.
Their lived struggles and triumphs resonate a lot more as opposed to the trials of the girls in Four More Shots Please! Siddhi could have been Jugnu if she’d decided to wield her privilege responsibly. In Four More Shots Please!, things happen in a flash, get resolved, or are dispensed with haphazardly. But in Churails the actions of the women come back to haunt them. They suffer the consequences of claiming what is rightfully theirs and you suffer with them.
Churails offers an insight into a society – anywhere in the subcontinent – that even now, cannot bear a woman who speaks her mind. And that’s precisely why it needs to be lauded. The audacity and novelty of the show for its milieu makes it a trailblazer. The profanity-laced, no-holds-barred approach to dismantling patriarchy is unique for a Pakistani show – so it’s an achievement that it even got made.
Churails is streaming on Zee5.
Harshita Murarka is a communications professional currently consulting with a UK-based agency. She has an inclination towards arts, culture and Hindi cinema which leads to occasional stints in writing.