Director: Asim Abbasi
Cast: Sarwat Gilani, Yasra Rizvi, Nimra Bucha, Meher Bano, Omair Rana
Cinematographer: Mo Azmi
Editor: Kamal Khan, Kamran Shahnawaz
On the face of it, Churails ("Witches"), a ten-episode Pakistani series directed by Asim Abbasi, has a playful premise. Four Karachi-based women start a secret detective agency called Churails – with the tagline "Mard ko dard hoga" – to punish the city's abusive and cheating husbands. Sara (Sarwat Gilani) is the trophy wife, Jugnu (Yasra Rizwi) is her best friend and boozy divorcee, Batool (Nimra Bucha) is the foul-mouthed ex-convict, and aspiring boxer Zubaida (Mehar Bano) is the baby of the gang. Together, they become hired vigilantes for jilted housewives; coloured burqas become their superhero capes. For the first few episodes, it's all Ocean's Eight, spunk and style for the patriarchy-smashing avengers. Their facade is a boutique store. The confession-booth setup to conceal their identities even has a strategic hole for them to hold the hands of nervous clients who arrive with cash and difficult details. (A nice play on how women tend to project the sins of their husbands onto themselves).
But to recognize how unique Churails is, it's essential to understand a recent trend in Hindi cinema. Some of the most effective films have used male stories – and male "genres" – as a smokescreen to explore female rage. Gulabo Sitabo uses a slice-of-life comedy, Bulbbul uses a gothic period-horror tale and Raat Akeli Hai uses a hinterland whodunnit to disguise feminist narratives of wronged women. Churails goes a step further and uses a feminist narrative as a smokescreen to explore the real-world consequences of female rage. Like the boutique store, the attractive premise is a front for a sinister one. By the third episode, it starts to dawn upon both the characters and the viewers that it's never as simple as becoming burqa-clad vigilantes in South Asia – or anywhere for that matter. Cops, politicians and mobs crash the party. By the fifth episode, the honeymoon phase is over. By the seventh, a larger conspiracy comes to light, and the story zooms out to reveal their little planet in a big universe.
None of this is by accident. The narrative is not afraid to deconstruct itself to show that righteous ideas may be fun on paper, but the moral complexities are real and crippling. For instance, what if a cheating husband is actually gay? What if society is the reason he leads a double life? The women make mistakes. They bite off more than they can chew. More than once, we hear Sara admitting that they didn't think things through. More than once, the characters' personal lives distort their rhythm. It's not easy to watch a story jump tracks and timelines and ecosystems. But it's necessary. In a way, Churails tries to say that a long-form series, unlike a film, cannot afford to use feminism as the hidden twist. When the women themselves take the spotlight, the task becomes half as cinematic. And, at times, twice as rewarding. Once we make peace with the fact that the girls are chasing the truth rather than being the truth – that they are the conflict rather than the resolution – Churails makes sense. We have no choice but to know them. To understand their presence. To accept that they are fearless but flawed.
It's no surprise, then, that Churails borrows from the HBO series, Big Little Lies. The memories have that distinct visual grammar. The class disparity of the "Karachi Four" mirrors that of the Monterey Five. Churails, too, unfurls as a story being told in an interrogation room. At one point, a display of casual sexism by a child also offers a hint of his parents' marriage. The similarities are uncanny, but I like that Churails adapts these themes within the context of its culture. It's why the series is longer – because the environment is messier. The corruption is chaotic. One detour offers a glimpse into the predatory world of fairness creams, another into the glamour industry and high-class prostitution rackets.
It's no surprise, then, that Churails borrows from the HBO series, Big Little Lies. The memories have that distinct visual grammar. The class disparity of the "Karachi Four" mirrors that of the Monterey Five.
Bollywood is a recurring reference point: A lady forces an abusive father at knifepoint to say, "Jaa, ji le apni zindagi" to his daughter. Another girl goes undercover and pretends to be a starlet named 'Aliya Butt'. As a result, even the treatment is loud. For example, Sara blackmails her husband while slicing a sausage on his breakfast plate. Zubaida, the youngest, wears a lot of Superman and Batman t-shirts. The name of their boutique, Halal Designs, is reflected in how some of the male characters are slaughtered like meat: the blood drains from their bodies through slashed jugulars. The metaphors don't hold back either: A missing girl is held hostage in an empty cosmetics factory. When a hero and villain confront each other in a trashed room, a maid is first called in to clear the mess – not even their privilege can puncture the moment.
Asim Abbasi's debut, Cake, was tenderly disruptive in how it explored the modern Pakistani woman as a daughter of time rather than society. With Churails, he slices that cake into layers: she is now also a friend, lover, sister, boss, mother and prisoner of time. The performances blend into his writing. The actresses are mentally always on the move, but there's a stillness to each of them – especially Sarwat Gilani as Sara and Nimra Bucha as Batool – that allows the series to meander with a sense of purpose. There's also some method to Abbasi's craft. The striking cinematography, where characters rarely occupy the center of the frames, reflects the cornered status of the churails. (Or people aren't where they're supposed to be). Even the background score is eclectic – piano, strings, jazz beats, rap – as if to mirror the spontaneity of the plot; no tune is repeated.
But the director's niftiest touch comes when Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake scores a scene featuring animal masks and flesh trade. Beasts are selling beauty. In other words, princesses are being turned into swans by evil sorcerers. Yet, Churails is the haunting ballet of witches. Its beauty is what sells the beast.