Biweekly Binge: The Halal Witch Project
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Churails
"Aap jaante hain hamari awaam ki sabse hairaan kun baat kya hai? Unki nafrat bhi bewafa hai." Over the last decade, the push towards a more equal society has resulted in an emboldened religious right that would weaponise anything at its disposal to get back with renewed vigour. Their hate is a clay voodoo doll that can be moulded into any shape and form, altering fact and fiction, logic and rationale to suit the mood and moment. Churails, the new original series from Pakistan (streaming on Zee5), uses mannequins for this symbolism, which also helps at a plot level, and one of the episodes begins with the aforementioned quote — the most perplexing feature of our society is that even their hate is insincere, inconsistent. Lacks faith.
Churails is set in Karachi, a city that draws the romantics and the cynics, Pakistan's Mumbai equivalent (Sindh was part of Bombay Presidency till 1936), marked by economic prosperity that conjures passionate enchantment or profound repulsion for it houses all classes — the rich's muck stands on the blood of the poor. And this class divide is exactly what writer Asim Abbasi (with Zahra Mirza, Anam Abbas and Amna Soomro as script consultants) attempts to bridge. When he introduces Zubeida (Meher Bano as the young wildcat in a conservative poor family) the narration positions her strand as a story from the other side of the bridge. On the upper-class fall Sara (Sarwat Gilani) and Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi), the former an ex-lawyer, now the wife of old-moneyed Jameel, and the latter an alcoholic, failed wedding planner, less a job more a pastime. Churails is about how Sara, Jugnu, Zubeida, and ex-convict Batool (Nimra Bucha) come together to form a women’s detective agency with a boutique store, smacking in its name, as their front - Halal Designs.
The four leads come from diverse backgrounds and they've all suffered in varying degrees. Sara and Jugnu are cushioned by privilege, but there is another thread that unites them — they are prone to self-harm. Centuries of patriarchy has ingrained itself into every pore, disallowing the survivor to blame the perpetrator but rather look for that single wrong action that led to this horrible fate. It manifests in different ways — Batool physically harms herself, Sara gives up a career to be the good politician's good wife, a disservice to the self, Jugnu injects her veins with alcohol, and Zubeida is into boxing, ready to receive every blow, no matter from her trainer or her father. To his credit, Asim Abbasi always checks Sara and Jugnu's privilege. Initially, they are innocuous. They manifest in throwaway lines - "Islamabad is for socially awkward freaks." Or in change of environment - as soon as Jugnu drives into Hyderabad, she develops a bad stomach. The team, therefore, runs the gamut of class, gender and sexual orientation. It comprises of trans woman Baby Doll, former call girl Munni, street-smart lesbian couple Pinky and Babli, and a couple of hackers in Laila and Shams (one of two men in the team).
The shift in Sara and Jugnu's characterisation occurs gradually, sometimes even harming their cherished relationships or in plain refusal to step out of their comfort zones. Others insist that they must help poor women too and what they mean is for Churails to work pro bono, but Sara and Jugnu choose to take it slow. Initially, Jugnu's trusted friend, ally and subordinate, curiously named Dilbar, is not allowed to take a sip from her hip flask. He pours the contents on his hand and consumes them like they are holy. After the Hyderabad trip, Jugnu resigns, "Mooh laga sakte ho." It's the others — like Baby Doll and Munni — who feel empathetic towards a cheating husband they find to be gay and plead with their bosses not to disclose anything about him. It is these cracks in an otherwise liberal-minded elite that the class difference lays bare, something Churails masterfully records. It is not a show where women reign, never imperfect and shown as vigilantes with masks and guns. Its women are flawed, the two leads more than anyone else, and the writers unpack these flaws while asserting their freedom and independence. Sara tells her husband that they are both alike, selfish and self-absorbed. Jugnu comes out to Dilbar, telling him that their worlds are different, her attitude and character don't lend themselves to change. As if he didn't know that already.
The powers that be are dictated by this elite. The series highlights this even after solving its central mystery. Everyone is equal before the law, but some are more equal than others. A down-on-his-luck drug addict is apprehended, hung upside down, and tortured for a crime he did not commit, while a wealthy man with more than just ice cream in his basement freezer is patiently interrogated from across the table.
By the end, Churails ties itself into knots over its plot machinations and that can test our patience, but its minute observations form a bottomless bowl to be relished. The first episode has a couple standing in front of two mirrors — one's reflection is straight and unblemished, and the other, fuzzy. In the final episode there is another shot of two people in front of the mirror, clear and schooled, wizened up after having found the muck in their own backyard. "Ghar ke kareeb dekho," a woman who's gotten her hands dirty scaling the class barriers tells them. It's where the show’s big ambitions shine, in reflecting not only the men but some garden-variety upper-class feminists too, and their inability to introspect. A little more empathy, a little less yass kween.