Churails director Asim Abbasi: We are here to unite
Asim Abbasi and Shailja Kejriwal on Churails, boundary-smashing, and the return of Pakistani shows to India
It's a killer premise. Four Pakistani women, from varied backgrounds, collude to run a clandestine detective agency under the guise of a fashion boutique. Working ingeniously and on the sly, they weed out abusive men and bring them to book. As patriarchy falls, our Karachi crusaders rise.
Thus proceeds Churails, a new 10-part series streaming on ZEE5. Directed by Asim Abbasi, the show is created and co-produced by Zindagi Digital, an online revamp of the Zindagi TV channel that went off air in 2017. Asim's debut feature, Cake, was submitted for the 91st Oscars and is presently streaming on Netflix. The British-Pakistani filmmaker has been at the forefront of the content revolution across the border, bringing bolder narratives to the wider mainstream.
"Cake, for me, was a nuanced character study of familial relationships," Asim says. "Therefore, with Churails, I wanted to go bigger. While we delve into serious themes, I wanted it to have a whimsical quality."
The mix appears to have paid off. The show has been praised for its vibrant design and spunky characters. Asim, who grew up in Pakistan, hired an all-female consulting team to steer the screenplay. The lead cast features Sarwat Gilani, Mehar Bano, Yasra Rizvi, and Nimra Bucha, all popular faces in Pakistani film and television. The director also devised a funky editing style: all color-coded flashbacks and fast-cutting (the post-production was done in India, Pakistan, and the UK).
Asim feels both the plot and treatment are in sync with modern audiences. "Across the subcontinent, people have seen such shows on international platforms. So I didn't need to explain any of that." Did he fear a backlash from conservative corners? "I have no doubt there will be some cultural backlash. It's the same concept that propagates misogyny — the fear of seeing something that we are not used to."
Launched in 2014 in India, Zindagi channel brought a bouquet of shows from Pakistan, Turkey, South Korea, and Brazil. Pakistani serials like Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Dastaan (premiered as Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam), Humsafar, and Mere Qaatil Mere Dildaar were widely viewed in India.
However, following the 2016 Uri attacks, Zee Entertainment Enterprises withdrew all Pakistani titles from the channel. As tensions rose, Zindagi was pulled from the airwaves and became a digital-only subset on the OZEE app (it was later integrated into ZEE5).
Producer Shailja Kejriwal, who launched Zindagi and is heading its digital rebrand, views Churails as a cultural olive branch. "As a patriot, one would always support the army and the nation. But as artists we also have a job to use our soft power and show the other perspective. If we feel an affinity for each other, then it is our responsibility to create understanding. There are issues and desires that are common, and which would hopefully bring us closer as nations," Shailja, Chief Creative Officer - Special Projects at Zee, says.
Asim agrees that digital platforms are a great medium to restore cross-border exchange. "We are not here to be divisive but to tell stories that actually unite," the filmmaker says. "If a single viewer in India relates to Churails, then I have done my job."
Zindagi TV has announced the premiere of over 1000+ hours of multicultural content. It will comprise a mix of curated and original shows. The Pakistani titles range from romances (Ishq Gumshuda, Shehr-E-Zaat) to family dramas (Aunn Zara, Badi Aapa).
"We are taking the Zindagi brand forward as a South Asian platform," Shailja shares. "My personal desire is to create stories with women voices. We also want actors, directors and technicians from the subcontinent to come and create something together. That's our ultimate dream."