Zee5's Churails isn't what you think it is. The Pakistani series is presented as a fun, spunky tale of an unlikely group of women coming together to start a covert detective agency to catch cheating husbands. But in reality, it's far darker and more ambitious.
Over 10 long episodes, writer-director Asim Abbasi uses this story to explore social issues ranging from colourism, racism, gender equality to human trafficking and beyond. What's more, Abbasi's sprawling series changes structure, direction and genre every few episodes to the extent that the show that begins feels like a far cry from the one that ends. The one film old director made his debut in 2018 with the acclaimed family drama Cake, currently streaming on Netflix.
Arguably ZEE5's best show yet, Churails is the result of Zee Entertainment relaunching it's Pakistani channel Zindagi TV on streaming. Over a Zoom call, creator Abbasi spoke to me about the show's winding structure, his love of food metaphors, why he's surprised people are binge-watching it and how Big Little Lies served as his own film school for long-form storytelling.
What's the response to the show been like so far?
It's been great so far but in extremes. I think people are either going crazy loving it or hating it and that's fine. I'd rather not be in that lukewarm area. It's good to see that people are really getting to the depth of it and trying to get in my head and figure out the fairytale references and metaphors and stuff like that. But of course, there is also the anti-feminist groups who don't like the fact that women are not shown as oppressed.
In many ways the show felt like three seasons in one. It starts out as this playful story about catching unfaithful husbands, then it becomes a dark drama and ends as almost a thriller. Were you worried about how people might respond to the changing structure?
No, it didn't because that's the beauty of the web. I wasn't scared about whether people will struggle to put this in a box. I don't want them to put it in a box. I'm sure there are people who are also going to have story issues with it and that's fine. It's a very risky structure in terms of storytelling. It refuses to fall under one category. I take you on a fun ride then I try and screw with you. I even break my own rules when I make you feel like I'm going to tell you one new story every week but episode 5 onwards I change it. So there is a lot of my own indulgences in there.
But I'm so shocked that people are binge-watching it. I designed the episodes to be very long, so I thought this would be more along the lines of HBO prestige dramas where you watch an episode or two every few days. But the number of people who've binged it is crazy, even I couldn't do that.
I'm so shocked that people are binge-watching it. I designed the episodes to be very long, so I thought this would be more along the lines of HBO prestige dramas where you watch an episode or two every few days. But the number of people who've binged it is crazy, even I couldn't do that.
I read that ZEE5 greenlit the show after you submitted the pilot. But the show that starts is very different from the one that ends. Did they know what they were signing up for?
Yeah, I was worried! (laughs) Every time I would send in an episode for approval, I was worried they'd be like 'this has gone somewhere completely different'. For episode 4 in particular (which features a woman cooking and eating her husband) I was really scared they would say 'okay this can't happen'. And again with episode 7 with the prostitution ring. Those two were my big worries but they liked it. I think to get that level of support and creative freedom from the executive gives you a lot of confidence. I don't think you get that even with the international platforms.
The show touches on so many social issues, like gender equality, class, colourism and racism. What was the germ of the idea for the show? Was it the story of these four women or the statements you wanted to make?
It's very hard to separate the two. I think it was all these themes that I have grown up with and seen in my life that I've been trying to grapple with whether its colourism or oppression of women.
I knew the starting point and endpoint. I knew it would end up on a personal story and I knew I wanted to do prostitution ring but the animal mask thing came later because the idea of subverting fairy tales was very important to me, like Zubaida's dress being red like Little Red Riding hood and things like that.
And people will think it's strange for a filmmaker to say this but I wasn't really striving for nuance with this. I've done that with Cake. This had to be over the top and loud and out there. So the heavy-handed use of metaphors was deliberate.
My favourite character was Jugnu. She was just a joy to watch and had so much going on beneath the surface. Do you have a favourite?
I don't think I have a favourite, I think I have parts of me in all of them so it's difficult. It's interesting though, I'm getting a lot of love for Jugnu especially from India so I wonder if there is something to that. But I think it's a fantastic performance from Yasra Rizvi, she's the one actor who did the most homework on her character.
Jugnu was also a lot of fun to write because I got to include a bit of myself in it and be very open with what I was trying to say. The most rewarding to write was Batool because she had very little dialogue and so much had to be conveyed through her face and eyes. It was exciting for me to figure out how to communicate what she's feeling.
I think Sara was the most complex to write because she has the most rage simmering inside her that's covered in this facade of perfection. She's the one who doesn't have a sense of identity for a very long time. She goes from housewife to reluctant leader but she only really comes into her own in the last episode which is her big transformation. With Batool or Zubaida, their rage was out there, but with Sara, it would spurt out in small moments, so it was harder to execute.
Let's talk about how you used food to convey these strong moments throughout the show. Whether it was Sara cutting the sausages in the first episode, KK being forced to eat the pancake or, of course, the wife cooking her husband's leg in the 4th episode.
It's one of those things I'm attracted to. I'm not a big foodie, but (I like) writing about food. They were all different metaphors, a sausage is self-explanatory, the pancake was more about showing this wife who appears to be very sweet but has this dominating impact on her husband. Jugnu's uncle eating steak was more foreshadowing of the hunt that was to come, and the main one like you said is episode 4.
People say that a way to keep a man happy is through his stomach, so these women who are housewives get so hung up on feeding their husbands because they think it's the only thing that's going to make them happy. With Shehnaaz we established very early on when she's in the Churails fitting room that she loves cooking for him, so again it was that subversion thing. She ends up eating the one thing she loved the most.
My favourite scene was the one in the last episode where you see Sara and Jamil finally face off. One the one hand it's the vigilante leader meeting the criminal mastermind, but it's also husband and wife finally confronting each other with everything out in the open.
That's without a doubt my favourite scene from the show. It was a lot of fun for me to execute because it's a big ensemble cast and we had so many big set pieces, with the mob and the big fights and chase sequences. But this scene allowed me to go back to what I love – just these two people in a room. It's like the excitement of when a studio filmmaker goes back and makes an indie film. One of the first things I scripted was that wide shot of the two of them sitting there while the maids come in and clean. That's exactly how it was written and how I imagined it and seeing that was great.
It's also the most important scene for Sara's transformation. The passing of the gun to Batool is almost like the end of privilege for her. It's the moment you realise that you made all the decisions so far, Zubaida and Batool were always seen as the brawn and Sara and Jugnu the so-called brains. They tried to create this inclusive group but there is stuff to be said about how it's not really inclusive, privilege always stays with you.
I thought Batool's romantic angle with Inspector Jamshed was really unexpected but delightful. Where did that idea come from?
Inspector Jamshed was an interesting one for me because he was lecherous but also very loving. And that's how Batool's is and she needed to meet a man on her wavelength. It can't be someone clean and simple. It wouldn't work and if it was someone terrible like Iftikhar or KK who she would probably kill with an iron. So she had to find that middle ground and I found this to be the most unexpected love story. I think those are the most exciting. The ones where you don't expect people to have a connection or between people who don't like having a connection but they do. If you're the kind of person who falls in love easily, then it's boring.
I went back to Big Little Lies a lot because all the scripts are available, unlike with most shows where they only release the script for the pilot. I studied the arcs a lot and how they moved to help me figure out when to plan setups and when they're going to have payoffs in certain episodes. I basically went to my own mini long-form film school with the scripts of Big Little Lies and a bunch of others.
It's clear you were influenced by Big Little Lies. What were your other references for the show?
Because this was the first time I was doing long-form storytelling I watched as many female-oriented shows I could get my hands on. So yes, definitely Big Little Lies, even though I didn't really like season 2. I went back to Big Little Lies a lot because all the scripts are available, unlike with most shows where they only release the script for the pilot. I studied the arcs a lot and how they moved to help me figure out when to plan setups and when they're going to have payoffs in certain episodes. I basically went to my own mini long-form film school with the scripts of Big Little Lies and a bunch of others.
I also watched Sharp Objects just because of the way they used imagination. I watched Killing Eve, there's also a brilliant British show called Happy Valley which is a great thriller.
I get the sense that Churails designed to be just one season. Is season 2 on the cards at all?
I don't know. I wrote it this way because I wanted a satisfying end to this story but there were a few trails I left open like Jamil left in the basement. Obviously that is not a long term solution, because he's a politician and a known figure and people will start asking questions at some point. That was also KK's kid in the UK and who his real father is. I sort of hinted at the answer in one of the final scenes when you see his adoption certificate, but none of the Churails know who the father is. But now that Churails is an established private detective agency it'll be interesting to see how these women now live and where the story goes.