Churails Smashing the Glass Ceiling Before Breakfast!
Very quietly on the morning of the 31st of July, a trailer dropped. For lack of a better phrase, it broke the Pakistani internet while also smashing the glass ceiling. Almost immediately, a debate sprung up around it: are these audacious “Churails” really needed?
In all honesty, and as a man living in Pakistan, all I can say is: YES!
Can you spot the irony here? Before you go searching for it, let’s watch the trailer that shook the country. Then we can dissect why Churails is the need of hou…nay, year.
A True Turning Point?
The first reactions to the trailer, including mine, were overwhelmingly positive. We finally had a web series coming out from Pakistan that could rival anything on Netflix or Amazon Prime. That is in terms of apparent production value, at least. The focus then shifted from the overall ground-breaking beauty of it all to one particular aspect. The most controversial aspect you could say. The fact that it boasts an all-female main cast, portrayed thoroughly unconventionally.
The fact that this aspect is controversial, is in fact testament. Testament as to why this series, exactly as it is, is needed. Let’s dive into the subject matter first.
Writer/Director Asim Abbasi refers to this work of his as a revolution. That is fitting as his debut film, Cake, was revolutionary, however all-together more subtle. It broke new ground in terms of what one can expect from Pakistani Cinema. Doing so by giving us robust storytelling that doesn’t rely on theatrics. It didn’t immediately inspire a paradigm shift but it did sow the seeds.
With Churails, it seems Asim is hoping for another paradigm shift. That too, in one of the most saturated segments of Pakistani content. In comparison to the film industry’s 20 releases a year, the television industry is a giant. Easily twice the amount of releases on several different channels, not bound to occasions.
Television isn’t just saturated in terms of the sheer volume of the content however.
The Last Big Turning Point
Particularly in this last decade. What started as a trend to tell more meaningful and robust stories, has stagnated to a collection of stereotypes. The same few storylines with some slightly altered version of the same few characters are in vogue currently.
And have been for a while.
Let’s take one of my favourite shows, Humsafar, as an example. It was an instant hit when it premiered in 2011. It sparked conversation upon conversation. Conversations about the acting, the themes, and the refreshing fact that it portrayed its main characters as inherently flawed. Ashar (Fawad Khan) while raised to believe in his virtues, is plagued by his inability to communicate with his wife. That wife, Khirad (Mahira Khan) is similarly plagued by her inability to break away from her own cyclical sufferings.
Therein lies the problem here though. While it was refreshing to see flawed characters for a change on screen, their flaws furthered stereotypes. Stereotypes that the man would need to resolve the conflict. That the woman would need saving and that the cause of the conflict would also likely be a woman. If these themes stayed contained to the one show, it wouldn’t have been much of an issue. However, as we all know, when something is proven to be popular, everyone needs to get in on the action.
The Birth of a Few Dozen Stereotypes?
In the years since 2011, the stereotypes portrayed in Humsafar returned to our screens in various forms. A female character is either misunderstood and expected to suffer in silence. Or she was a vamp that exists only to torment others. Similarly, morally questionable men usually come with a redemption arc. With time, more stereotypes were identified as popular. Shows are now being curated to meet the demand of those stereotypes. All without regard for their effect on the industry or society as a whole.
In the race to capitalise on the most popular stereotypes, channels began picking their favourites. On one hand, you have Hum TV that chose to center their shows around female-centric storylines. Thus, on paper, shows like Dar Si Jati Hai Sila seem like robust storytellings of lived-in realities. Upon closer examination, you realise they fall just short. In an effort to tap the stereotype-driven demand, the stories and characters fail to realise their true potential. That is, despite being able to effectively portray realities of abuse.
What we’re left with is Noman Ejaz’s Joyee almost casually walking off screening with very little punishment. This is despite spending 24 episodes tormenting Sila. What we get is Sadia (Saman Anari) not graduating from (needlessly patient) victim to survivor. Not until the last episode, and that too for one moment. We get is a protagonist, Sila, that is never more than a victim. A reality she is never truly able to break away from.
Our need to satisfy a demand ends up killing the story. There is an argument to be made for presenting uncomfortable truths in a more palatable package. However, the effect is greatly lessened by the loose ends left to make it more digestible. The lack of portrayal of consequences, could very well undo all the effort that went into highlighting these issues.
On the other hand, we have channels like ARY which have chosen to completely embrace the stereotypes. They end up delivering caricatures with aplomb to wide-spread acclaim. Shows like Jhooti and Mere Paas Tum Ho are prime examples. The former builds the case that a strong-willed woman must be immoral. Thus, it has her fake being the victim of domestic abuse to get her way. Never mind the fact that we live in a society where actual victims of domestic abuse are questioned. Always, for their motives, even if there is ample evidence.
This journey from whataboutism ends with the full-blown sexim of Mere Paas Tum Ho. There is no other way to describe it. A show that implies that a man’s problems begin and end with a woman. A show that goes to extreme lengths to vilify an unfaithful woman. All the while treating an unfaithful man with much more empathy. A show that believes it okay to unabashedly show women as immoral beings. That too, in a society where an estimated 60-70% of women have suffered some form of domestic abuse. This is what the need to satisfy stereotypes has driven us to produce. Shows that normalise the dehumanisation of women in favour of men. The fact that this show was immeasurably popular is also incredibly telling and why a revolution is needed.
What I loved the most about Cake, Asim’s last venture, was that the world he created has a lived-in feel. Each character is deeply woven but also non-conforming to the norms of what is good or bad. The film doesn’t exist to portray any of its characters as good or bad, strong or weak. It just portrays them as human. Human, with flaws, virtues, desires and motivations. Using that, it subtly conveys its message of the importance of family. It highlights the roles each member can play, regardless of societal and gender norms.
Shift It Subtly?
The question now is, why not apply that same subtlety here? Why not fight the audacious sexism of shows like Mere Paas Tum Ho with that same subtlety? To the purveyors of these questions, I put forward one more; Isn’t that what Hum Tv has been doing all this time? Did that cause a paradigm shift? Enough for people to realise what sexism looks like and why it’s detrimental to society as a whole?
The best way to illustrate why subtlety is out of question here is by Asim himself. He wrote in a post:
Learn that misogyny and misandry can never equate each other, so long as the former is rooted in power, and the latter in weakness.Asim Abbasi
The quality of Churails and how it addresses sexism and the patriarchy as a whole remains to be seen. What we do know is that Asim is aiming to rip off the band-aid. One that has been securely on a series of painful issues that very well revolutionise episodic storytelling as a whole. We know that every character will be layered human, even the villains. We know every minute detail on screen will have some meaning. Not to mention, that the spectacle will be unlike anything seen before. If we, as a nation, can accept the audacity of one man for entertainment’s sake, we should allow room for another’s chutzpah.
We can decide on the quality later.