It’s now been nearly a month since Churails came out on ZEE5. The series has received both acclaim and criticism and has been praised and vilified online. However, it has given Pakistan a web series that will be seen as path-breaking without a doubt. PakistaniCinema.Net sat down with Asim Abbasi, the man behind the camera and the script, to delve a little deeper into this bewitching show and digital streaming platforms as a whole.
Breaking the Mold
Something that is evident from the first episode is that Churails is a far cry from the “Mazloom Aurat” trope that Pakistani drama serials are known for; or should I say known currently for. PTV has a rich history of single plays and series which showed women as empowered and taking their place in modern society. Shows like “Shehzori”, “Tanhaiyaan”, “Kiran Kahani”, “Hawwa Ke Naam”, and “Zair Zabar Pesh” made it a point to show educated women taking their place in society. However, today, a weeping girl is a channel flip away at all times.
Asim Abbasi, painfully aware of this trope says this is because “commerce drives content”. TV channels and their producers profit off these shows because the audience keeps consuming them. This is why anyone that comes up with a different concept is either rejected or forced to distort their vision. He couldn’t go along with such an arrangement.
After Cake, Mr. Abbasi was advised to do commercial films, but thankfully he felt no urgency to produce another hit any time soon. Then there was the alternative, the social dramas popular on Pakistani television, to which he said, “I don’t have it in me to do family dramas.”
Luckily, he didn’t have to. Asim Abbasi was approached by ZEE5 and didn’t have to go through the unfortunate process of pushing his script through the censors and TV executives. Neither did he have to conform to writing pages and pages of scenes as is the requirement for modern Pakistani TV dramas. He did have to refine his script of course, but by and large, ZEE5 allowed him to stay true to his vision.
Still he bemoaned the lack of creative expression in Pakistan. “Talent ki kami nahin hai. There are voices. It’s just that there are very few avenues. There’s not enough room. ZEE5 is only one platform.”
Digital Streaming Allows for Diversity in Content
Asim Abbasi also pointed out that in Pakistan, the censors “aren’t going anywhere”. So there is a very high chance that the industry will keep surviving on “status quo replicas”. He strikes true. After the late 90s and “Alpha Bravo Charlie”, there hasn’t been one iconic TV show. We always keep hearing of “Waaris”, “Khuda Ki Basti”, “Alif Noon”, and “Andhera Ujala”, all of which are 40-50 years old.
“As people we fear change. As filmmakers our job is to raise questions.”
This change is happening all over the world. However, digital seems to be the avenue for it. Even in the States and our neighbour, India, streaming services are pumping out content that is wildly different from what is shown on traditional television. Asim Abbasi says that is by design because digital streaming gives the reins “back to the content creator”.
His experience is not unique, directors and comedians, producers, and writers alike have praised OTT platforms for not interfering with their vision. According to Mr. Abbasi, that’s because of the streaming subscription-based model. The value of the content on a streaming service comes with its streaming library, not the initial advertising revenue or the ratings. Hence, digital streaming platforms are playing the long game by design. “One show doesn’t matter” as much as 50 shows that can be streamed multiple times by the same viewers. Hence, investment in diverse content makes sense.
Making of Churails
Shailja Kejriwal, the Head of Zindagi approached Mr. Abbasi after she watched Cake to ask if he had any other projects in mind. Luckily, by that point, Mr. Abbasi had already written 20 pages of material.
Asim Abbasi had apparently always wanted to do something that focused on deeply entrenched biases and problems within Pakistani society. As one watches Churails, it becomes evident that it’s more than just about feminism and the patriarchal structure of Pakistan.
Themes in the show include colorism, racism, the power structure of society, and class difference. However, to hear Mr. Abbasi tell it, the show’s overarching theme is “Rage”. Due to the freedom allowed by digital streaming, he was able to accommodate all of this in a single 10-episode series. As he says, Digital doesn’t force you “to fit in a box”.
Churails was financed from abroad, and the post-production was done in the UK, but apart from that, all the talent on and off-screen was local. The cast, filled with industry veterans and new faces were suggested by the Assistant Directors on the project. No one, not even the venerable Khalid Ahmed was cast without an audition, a process that is commonplace in the entertainment industries abroad.
Freedom of Expression
Churails is rated 18+. Though if you watch the series and contrast it with Game of Thrones or with Vikings, it’s nowhere near as bloody or raunchy. Sure, there is a lot of cursing and quite a bit of blood, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen in an American or British or Spanish series before. However, the rating shows that ZEE5 didn’t force Mr. Abbasi to hold back when it came to his vision or creative expression. “Shailja and I got along like a house on fire.” Mr. Abbasi says with elation.
The response to Churails has been great according to Mr. Abbasi. While no official numbers have been quoted, the hashtags on social media and barrage of personal messages shows great interest. Mr. Abbasi even says that a lot of mothers have loved the show and contacted him to express their praise.
So what now? What’s in store for the future? Mr. Abbasi says that ZEE5 will be coming out with a lot of new shows from Pakistani creators soon enough. As for Churails season 2 or any other show, we’re just going to have to wait and find out.