Pakistan’s First Web Series Is Making Noise for All the Wrong Reasons
When Pakistan’s first web series, Churails (Urdu for “witches”) dropped on the streaming service Zee5 in August, it raised eyebrows. The show’s social commentary made it clear that it was here to make some noise.
While many admired the 10-episode series for not shying away from bold subject matter, the series drew flak for its messaging which some thought was not in sync with the tradition and culture of Pakistan.
The series tells the story of four women who start a secret detective agency called Churails that helps women expose their cheating husbands. In the process, the women detectives encounter dark secrets of the entertainment industry.
In a supposedly controversial scene, the CEO of the company the women are looking to expose describes that she had to give her boss a handjob to move up the ladder. Another scene that has garnered attention shows a woman, on discovering that her husband is gay, kills him and cooks nihari (stew based dish) from his flesh.
The casting couch scene and the mention of handjob caused Pakistani authorities to ban the series in October, but removed the restrictions within two days. Earlier this month, the State Bank of Pakistan instructed all banks in the country to stop online payments for digital content from India. Effectively, the order means that viewers in Pakistan will not be able to subscribe to content hosted on Indian OTT platforms like Zee5.
VICE World News caught up with the show’s creator Asim Abbasi and first assistant director, Zoobia Anwar, to chat about the show that blasted open so many doors.
VICE World News: Churails sounds provocative. Is that why you locked this title?
Asim Abbasi: It just felt like a natural fit when I was writing it. We wanted to take ownership of a word that had been used in a derogatory way for women. The whole idea of the show was to take ownership of such labels.
Zoobia Anwar: I had very different feelings about the word pre-project and post-project. Recently, a friend of mine called me churail, and I said, ‘yeah, proud to be one’. Especially in Urdu when you call someone a churail, it is a slur, but now it has a different meaning for me.
Considering that the script is non-conventional and there was a possibility of backlash, how easy or difficult was it for you to get actors on board?
Abbasi: Surprisingly, people were very willing to come on board! They did of course ask if this was really getting made. I don’t know if I lucked out with the type of actors I got. Everyone who gravitated towards this project was very very keen to do it.
What were your thoughts when the show got banned?
Abbasi: There’s been a lot of very public stuff that’s happened in the aftermath of the show. I find it silly. In a way, it ended up working in our favour because every show has a life cycle and Churails’ life cycle was coming to an end. The loss [of potential access to projects with Zee5 and other streaming platforms] is more for Pakistani actors, filmmakers and technicians. Also, in this day and age, what does a ban actually mean? It’s available on other websites. It can be accessed through a VPN. You’re making piracy rampant in your country.
The casting couch monologue was cited as the reason why the show got banned. Were you prepared for the reaction that scene got?
Anwar: Plastering that scene all over social media made that scene accessible to people who wouldn’t normally have had access to it. At least when I read it, that was never the part that made me raise my eyebrows or think that this could offend people. There were other things, like I thought maybe people could have issues with our portrayal of homosexuality or other aspects of the show but at least for me, this was never something I thought people would have a problem with because when we saw it, it was always in the context of the scene.
Abbasi: It also showed the hypocrisy of our society, in that you completely overlook the fact that this woman is talking about all the sexual favours she had to extend to get her foot in the door, but you just latched onto the fact that she used the word [handjob] she did rather than tiptoe around it. I read a couple of comments that said, she could have just said ‘I had to sleep with people’. I wonder why should she say that when she wasn’t actually sleeping with people.
Web shows face flak for including cuss words and nudity to get eyeballs. There is a school of thought that a decent show can be made without these ingredients. How do you respond to that?
Abbasi: I agree completely. But I don’t think I was putting in cuss words to make this show more palatable or to appeal to a certain kind of audience. Yes, would 20 more people see it if there were no cuss words? Sure. But I was being told to cater to those 20 people? No. I was being told to cater to the characters I was writing. This is how any policeman in Pakistan speaks [referring to criticism that some characters use too many cuss words]. One of the characters is a woman who’s been in prison for 20 years. You think she’s going to speak adabi (literary) Urdu? And there’s something else I want to bring up here. I think because it’s the first web series, a lot of people expect it to be everything for them, and a lot of people are feeling very personally about it. But it can’t be everything to everyone and it can’t make everyone happy.
How did you feel about the response you got from Pakistani women with regards to the raw manner in which the entertainment industry was portrayed?
Anwar: I was just glad people were talking about it, to be honest. I was just glad that good or bad, at least people are watching it. It’s out there, creating some kind of dialogue. Even if people don’t connect with it, at least they’ll know what it is they don’t connect with. I was just glad we were able to create that kind of dialogue.
The nihari scene was also one that gathered quite a bit of talk. What was filming that scene like?
Abbasi: A lot of people criticised this scene for being homophobic but it wasn’t so much about him being gay in itself. It was the fact that she realised it wasn’t age or not being pretty now. It was the fact that she’d never been attractive to her husband. And throughout their marriage, food had played a key role. She saw it as her responsibility to feed him. So when she wanted to take revenge, she resorted to killing and eating him.
Anwar: Filming it was such an intense experience, I’m getting goosebumps talking about it. Sania (Saeed) was quite shaken after filming that graphic scene. I remember all of us going up to her and trying to be there for her but we couldn’t imagine what she was going through because she was the one who had to act it out.
What are the takeaways from this experience?
Anwar: I felt represented. I felt seen. I’d always gotten comments about why I chose filmmaking, but this show really made me feel like I could do anything. There are all these supposedly negative qualities associated with being a churail, but now I feel proud to be one.
Abbasi: It has left me more confident. I want to leave behind a legacy and Churails is part of that. To have all of this happen, go through the whole process and come out the other side unscathed means a lot.
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