As the promotional materials for Asim Abbasi and ZEE5s Churails started buzzing around social media – I found myself terrified.

Terrified at the politics of four upper class actresses donning burkhas as vigilante costumes, terrified of yet another attempt at the commodification of a feminist movement precariously close to a damning commercialisation, terrified of having to put up with yet another man’s take on what ‘women’s empowerment’ should look like, terrified of the consequences of a man with multiple allegations of harassment playing a lead role in what was being marketed as the industry’s feminist awakening.

Admittedly, there was also a sense of exhilaration making attempts at anchoring itself in the stormy waters of my feminist terror – burkha clad avengers taking over the screens of an Indian video on demand service? Yes please, give me more of the stuff of Hindutva nightmares.

Deeper down, there was a feeling I can only describe as … a yearning? Hope that maybe, just maybe I’d have the opportunity to feel seen by a story from my city, about my women, fighting our struggle.

Were my hopes and trepidations validated by the 10 hours of television that is Churails? Yes, and yes.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Meet the witchy fab four

Asim Abbasi opens windows into the lives of four women: Sarwat Gilani’s ‘Sara’, who gave up a career in law to be a politician’s doting housewife, only to learn that he’s been sexting 75 different women; Yasra Rizvi’s ‘Jugnu’, uber rich, homophobic, struggling with racist tendencies, alcohol dependency and abandonment issues; Nimra Bucha’s ‘Batool’ a recently freed convict, who served time for ironing her pedophiliac husband’s balls and brains; Mehr Bano’s ‘Zubaida’ who copes with an abusive father and a patriarchal home with after school boxing and six-pack-boy tinder-ing.

Still not sure how exactly they all crossed paths but okay...
Still not sure how exactly they all crossed paths but okay...

In the first episode, mostly for the sake of plot, but also because of the various abusive men in their lives, the four are brought together by the writers of the show. One thing leads to the next (and I’m still figuring out how), the fab four decide to start a business through which they avenge ‘wronged women’ – the limited definition of which is laid out by Sara - women with cheating husbands.

More things happen: Sara confronts her husband and blackmails him into giving her property, on which she sets up ‘Halal Designs’ an undercover detective agency guised as a burkha boutique.

And then for some reason, the fab four decide to bring nine new members on to their crew (which they name ‘Churails’): two doting male allies, their allyship cemented by their feelings for two of the fab four; and seven supporting stock characters: from Meher Jaffri’s tech savvy, hacker ‘Laila’, who [to no fault on the actor’s part] doesn’t seem to have a character or a purpose beyond pushing the plot forward every time there is a need for seemingly unprocurable information, to bashful sex worker ‘Munni’ played by Amtul Baweja, ‘Baby Doll’ played by Zara Khan, ‘Sheila’ by Mareeha Safdar, ‘Resham’ by Shabana Hassan, and ‘Pinky’ and ‘Babli’ a lesbian couple brought to life by Bakhtawar Mazhar and Sameena Nazir.

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These are the women who not only save the day, but also save the show. They fill the screen with their audacity, their snark, their compassion – doing the most with characters that should have been written with more thought and purpose.

Zara Khan, especially, saves what could have quite easily come across as a token handout to intersectionality, by turning her trans character ‘Baby Doll’ into an iconic feminist badass, who oozes cool, is unafraid of vulnerability and never misses a beat.

The feminist catharsis is not just limited to moments of raw vulnerability, the most catharsis is to be found in the endless badasser-y – domestic abusers having their ass kicked, ‘mard march’ types being beaten with hockey sticks by the burkha clad feminist brigade, an abusive father put on gun point till he gives his daughter the freedom to live life on her own terms.

The fab four too, after a few hiccups in the first few episodes, turn their somewhat choppily written characters into memorable trailblazers. From Nimra Bucha’s unnerving silences, to Sarwat Gilani’s vulnerable determination, Yasra Rizvi’s sultry nonchalance, and Meher Bano’s reliable, sincere unabashedness – the women of the show, save a script that rather unfortunately, privileges gimmick over depth, ‘cool’ over compassion and plot over character development.

In a race to set up the aesthetic of burkha clad avengers, giving ‘dard’ (pain) to ‘mard’ (men), the show creators rob us off the opportunity to connect with important characters who are well thought out, but carelessly written. That, is perhaps, Churails biggest failing – it leaves its women hanging.

I wanted to take a moment to sit with Sara after she found out that her husband, a man she had entirely given up her aspirations for, was sexting 75 different women behind her back, while policing her behavior to exemplify perfection. I wanted to watch her anger brew, I wanted to feel what she was feeling, I wanted to revel in her rage.

Instead, I was expected to blindly buy into her commitment to be a ‘churail’. Which – what does that mean?

Long live churails?

What does it mean to be a ‘churail’? The promo materials for the show give us the following definition: ‘Wronged women looking to avenge themselves.’ But are Churails merely ‘wronged’ and vengeful women? Or are Churails, ‘scorned’ women, ‘bad’ women?

Within the first hour of the show, our protagonists decide to become ‘bad’ women, in an attempt to subvert the expectations and the abuse that had been inflicted upon them – perhaps, in a desire to challenge respectability politics, to make the personal political, and to speak the ‘bad feminist’ language being pushed forth by feminist movements like the Aurat March or Girls at Dhabbas, Asim Abbasi misses the point.

Becoming the churail is the struggle, accepting that you are a churail is the struggle – and it is a struggle faced by an entire movement pushing to change the vernacular of feminist resistance in the country. The ease with which our protagonists side step that struggle is the first red flag, the first moment of distrust from the narrative of ‘empowerment’ the show promises you.

In a race to set up the aesthetic of burkha clad avengers, giving ‘dard’ (pain) to ‘mard’ (men), the show creators rob us off the opportunity to connect with important characters who are well thought out, but carelessly written. That, is perhaps, Churails biggest failing – it leaves its women hanging.

Things take a radical turn for the better in Episode 4, through which Asim Abbasi has gifted us with some of the best television to come out of the country in recent years – although the problems I highlighted earlier are still present, Episode 4 left me wanting to overlook them.

Sarmad Khoosat, through his guest role, brings to life same sex love on Pakistani screens in a way it has never been depicted before: two half clothed men, holding each other tenderly as they sway to music, hidden away from a world that doesn’t allow them to be themselves.

When one of their wive’s (played by Sania Saeed) opens a door into their world, based on information given to her by the Churails, Asim Abbasi successfully complicates the premise of ‘resistance’ fueling the show till that point: protecting the sanctity of marriage as a feminist cause. He navigates the complex hierarchies of marginalisation with nuance – and yet, just as he is on the brink of a powerful breakthrough, he falls into the trap of leaving the issue hanging, in a race to get to the next plot point.

Don’t get me wrong – the show gets a lot right when it comes to the representation of same sex love, but to not critically and explicitly engage with a leading character’s act of homophobic violence is an injustice to the show and the community it hopes to represent.

Encouraged by Batool – who compares Khoosat’s character to her pedophiliac husband – Sania Saeed’s character, in one of the show’s goriest moments, murders her husband, chops of his leg and cooks nihari with it.

And while Batool’s actions haunt the crew and land them into a lot of trouble, her inclination to draw comparisons between homosexuality and pedophilia are never critically engaged with, nor is Sania Saeed’s character’s decision making process or psychological state ever revisited.

Both actions exist within the show for their utility to push the plot forward. Their societal implications, consequences on character development are never explicitly explored beyond the ways in which they expose the Churails to public anger.

Don’t get me wrong – the show gets a lot right when it comes to the representation of same sex love, but to not critically and explicitly engage with a leading character’s act of homophobic violence is an injustice to the show and the community it hopes to represent.

Homophobia, admittedly, appears out of character for Batool, who’s two closest friends prior to the creation of the crew are the lesbian couple Pinky and Babli - so you could, perhaps, put it down to a lapse in judgement connected to her traumatic past.

The gore in Churails isn't for the faint-hearted. Pictured: Nimra Bucha
The gore in Churails isn't for the faint-hearted. Pictured: Nimra Bucha

But as audience members we are unlikely to instinctively do that, since we are only told of Batool’s past, and the trauma she accrues over 20 years of prison time is never given any meaningful space in the narrative.

A leap forward in the right direction

Having said all that, to deny that Churails embodies a monumental moment for representation in Pakistani television would be a gross injustice. Asim Abbasi and Mo Azmi [cinematographer, producer] have undeniably made history with this TV show, and given so many the opportunity to feel seen and validated by a visual narrative, a luxury very rarely afforded to Pakistani women.

A closing scene in the penultimate episode brought me to tears as the characters coped with the possibility of losing one of their own, and Meesha Shafi’s ‘Mein’ swelled in the background, in what felt like a haunting nod to the #MeToo movement in the country.

The feminist catharsis is not just limited to moments of raw vulnerability, the most catharsis is to be found in the endless badasser-y – domestic abusers having their ass kicked, ‘mard march’ types being beaten with hockey sticks by the burkha clad feminist brigade, an abusive father put on gun point till he gives his daughter the freedom to live life on her own terms.

Taha Malik does a phenomenal job with the music selection for the show – showcasing a range of young Pakistani talent, and producing a deliciously wicked original score for the series, with Zoe Viccaji on vocals. A celebration of young Pakistani talent is not just limited to the aural – from cameos to art design, the series does an excellent job of platforming emerging voices, setting an important precedent within the industry.

And Mo Azmi, as always, delivers the very best – crafting a visual language that subverts, distorts, subjugates and corners its subjects in rhythmic tandem with the beats of the narrative.

On a parting note - I found myself appreciating the writer’s commitment to highlighting that a feminist struggle challenges systemic oppression: a question of gender inequality cannot be separated from questions of class disparities or racial inequalities.

But instead of illustrating the ways in which various forms of oppression intersect and manifest in the small ways, in the lived everyday – the series loads up on spectacle, much to its detriment.

It builds itself into a position from which it is unable to meaningfully part with the complexities it sets up – to the extent that in the last episode, Jugnu holds up a T-shirt that reads ‘once you go black, you never go back’, in a particularly cringe worthy attempt at acknowledging her growth after her latent racism is shown to become cause for a divorce with Jackson, her black ex-husband.

The misogyny of the ‘big bads’ is also linked to a colonial hangover which unfolds in the second half of the series, taking us in a plot direction which often distracts from the core issues being put forth in the show.

The antagonist – along with being a misogynist and a liar, is also a member of the political establishment, an unfaithful husband, a sex trafficker, a murderer, and a member of some sort of men’s cult with links to a British boarding school.

Having said all that, to deny that Churails embodies a monumental moment for representation in Pakistani television would be a gross injustice. Asim Abbasi and Mo Azmi [cinematographer, producer] have undeniably made history with this TV show, and given so many the opportunity to feel seen and validated by a visual narrative, a luxury very rarely afforded to Pakistani women.

Patriarchal cruelties don’t always come packaged in endless spectacle – in fact, the show’s fixation on building spectacle, gets in the way of the relatability and accessibility it manages to build in the first half.

If a second season is to follow, it would be interesting to see the show strip down the bulk and divert more focus on politicizing the personal. Because in bulking up, in making the bad ‘bigger’ – the show absolves its characters of the uncomfortable inconsistencies in their personal politics.

While the show creators successfully enable audiences to antagonise rich men, they give their rich women a bit of a free pass, which results in an imagining of Karachi I find difficult to recognise – a Karachi in which rich women are not complicit in casteism and problems of untouchability, a Karachi in which rich women are willing to question their class loyalties and give up their men and associations to power – an aspirational Karachi, sure, but, a Karachi which currently feels far beyond our reach.

The privileged 'churaiks' aka Jugnu and Sara are given much more leeway
The privileged 'churaiks' aka Jugnu and Sara are given much more leeway

Perhaps the solution to a number of these problems lies in casting the lens inward – in recognising the fact that ‘women’s empowerment’ in the industry might begin with women being given the space to shape what that looks like. We’re getting past the point where having a handful of female ‘consultants’ cuts it – open the doors of the writing room, share creative space with women, pass the mic. That is what the best kind of allyship looks like.


Aiman Rizvi is a writer from Karachi with an interest in gender, representation and resistance politics. She tweets @aimanfrizvi

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