Churails, a web series directed by Asim Abbasi (Cake, 2018) and released earlier this month, has been the target for a lot of scrutiny on social media (there will be spoilers in this article, so please tread lightly).
A refreshing change from the usual Humsafar and Zindagi Gulzar Hai fantastical nonsense that discreetly moulds women according to the ideals of misogyny, the series depicts the lives – and the rage – of women from different socioeconomic class backgrounds. It is truly an experience, what with Mo Azmi’s aesthetically pleasing cinematography and a stellar soundtrack featuring Pakistani musicians (including my childhood friends Mikki Murshed and Adil Omar).
It features Sara and Jugnu (Sarwat Gilani and Yasra Rizvi) who are undoubtedly portrayed as elite socialites, followed by Zubaida and Batool Jan (Mehar Bano and Nimra Bucha), who are from lower and more conservative class backgrounds. Sara is a lawyer by training, a powerful position that her class privilege has allowed her. Jugnu, a socialite and event planner, also received access to networking opportunities due to her privilege.
On the other hand, Zubaida and Batool Jan have faced countless tragedies and trials: escaping a forced marriage, the conditional love of parents, the loss of a daughter (Eman Suleman) and twenty years in prison for murdering a husband before he could sexually abuse said daughter.
These differences highlight the stark contrast in class background and privilege as well as the unique traumas that women go through because of lack of freedom and resources. However, what binds these four fierce protagonists together is exactly that—the varying levels of traumatic violence experienced at the hands of abusive, misogynistic men, and their shared rage towards patriarchy.
Functioning under the disguise ‘Halal Designs,’ the women go through a seemingly arduous and lengthy hiring process (with Sara and Jugnu sneering and criticizing women from lower class backgrounds, again an accurate representation of Pakistan’s classism) and eventually form a detective agency comprised of different women – including queer women – and begin to refer to themselves as “Churails.”
The Churails’ motive is to assist women in regaining their dignity and right to autonomy by spying on and outing their husbands who may or may not be partaking in infidelity.
The series has received criticism for its representations of homophobia, fat-phobia, and the use of the burqa as a tool for fetishization. The Churails don burqas while partaking in their campaign, run under the slogan ‘Mard Ko Dard Hoga.’ I, however, feel that the burqa is used as a powerful tool in that the West has symbolically categorized it as a symbol of oppression, yet here we have women kicking ass while using the burqa to remain elusive.
Homophobic stances that are made by upper-class women such as Jugnu, is representative of how Pakistani elites actually are—many who function under the guise of progressivism and liberalism. Jugnu is an appropriate example of performative liberalism: someone who openly and consistently drinks alcohol and cigarettes, dresses how she pleases, and embodies a Western aesthetic, yet is unable to defend her black partner against her racist chachu and unwilling to treat women from different class backgrounds as equals until the show eventually transitions into less of an employment contract between the Churails and more of a safe, familial, queer Zenana-like space for the women.
The Churails community includes loyal and supportive male characters as well – particularly non-elite men – including Shams who is in a romantic relationship with aspiring boxing legend Zubaida (the series ends wonderfully with Zubaida proposing to him), and Dilbar, Jugnu’s event assistant who also develops romantic feelings for the elite protagonist. These men, portrayed as kind-hearted and unerringly loyal, are motivated to act that way due to their romantic feelings and interest. A group of men perceived as more elite are also represented: Sara’s well-connected politician husband Jameel (Omair Rana), owner of model agency Juice Talent and “talent” recruiter KK (Adnan Malik), and Jugnu’s professor chachu ‘Ifti’ who, ironically, is the author of an academic book titled “Gender, Power, and Colonialism.”
While some have commented that bringing in Jugnu’s interracial relationship was irrelevant, I feel otherwise, because it further ties into the hypocrisy and double standards of the so-called liberal elite. Ifti, an academic and author on race and colonialism, is the very person who continues to criticize her for marrying a black man. During a flashback in Episode 6 where Jugnu and her ex-husband attend a garden party together, Jackson – feeling like an outsider – rightfully expresses his rage at the pretension, classism, and wastefulness of the elite.
As someone who grew up within Islamabad’s liberal elite, I can attest to the fact that the “all-boys school” toxic masculinity stereotype holds true. Viewers eventually discover that these three aforementioned elite class men are responsible for the disappearance and murders of lower-class women who had dreams of becoming models. They also turn out to be responsible for the creation of a secret all-boys cult that judges women based on their physical appearance and brainwashes vulnerable women into believing they must emulate eurocentric features (blonde hair, upturned noses, fair skin), implying that they are undesirable or unacceptable as they are.
While there have been criticisms of how the show simply caters to the elite, particularly the elite that reside abroad, the series enigmatically and honestly encapsulates what has for decades caused Pakistan’s socio-economic and cultural downfall: wealthy and powerful men who draconically rule over politics, government, and capitalist corporations to turn an already suffering classist and separatist environment even more oppressive.