There is something delightfully subversive about the name Churails that a group of four women—a lawyer, a wedding planner, a boxer and a murderer—give to their vigilante group. “Mard ko Dard Hoga” is the slogan of the secret gang that sets out to punish cheating husbands and autocratic fathers. The added attraction is that the patriarchy-bashing, unapologetically feminist serial has come out of Pakistan, and has been directed by a man, Asim Abbasi.
Sara Khan (Sarwat Gilani), who gave up her career as a lawyer for the perfect life—loving husband, three adorable kids, designer outfits, expensive jewellery, a palatial mansion in Karachi, and domestic staff to do the housework—discovers chinks in her marriage. Her suave politician husband Jameel (Omair Rana) is a serial philanderer. Her friend, Jugnu Chaudhary’s (Yasra Rizvi) thriving business of planning high society weddings crashes after an unfortunate accident on site. The two of them decide they can help other women, and also make money by exposing and penalizing unfaithful husbands. It is a measure of their well-meaning innocence, that they are unaware of the evil men– and some co-opted women– are capable of.
Jugnu, a foul-mouthed alcoholic, has just hired as a maid, a former convict Batool (Nimra Bucha), out of prison after serving her sentence of twenty years, for killing her husband, who abused her daughter. In a less male-dominated society, Batool’s young age and helplessness before a violent husband would have been viewed with some leniency by the law. But Batool was poor and probably did not even get adequate legal aid. She has emerged into a society that does not want a murderous churail (witch) in its midst. Jugnu gives her a job and a home because “women like Batool come cheap.” But her new maid’s humanity has not been destroyed by the undoubtedly brutal prison system, so she rescues her neighbour Zubaida (Mehar Bano), who has been thrown out of her house by her father, after discovering from her snitch of a brother that she has been learning boxing and secretly dating a young man.
Batool brings Zubaida over to Jugnu’s house too, and her new employer is either too sozzled or too indifferent to care. The battle-hardened Batool and the teenage spitfire become part of the core group of Churails.
Sara forces her guilty husband to give her a building and the seed fund to set up a burqa shop called Halal Designs, which is a front for the Churails operating out of a high-tech den in the basement. They need a team, and obviously, women from the social strata that Sara and Jugnu come from would not want to disrupt their cushy lives. In the past, Sara herself had defended her husband in a sexual harassment case, which she now looks back on with some regret. Churails needs a team of women who are tough and fearless, so pick from the female flotsam and jetsam of Karachi’s underbelly—hookers, Batool’s lesbian jail pals, a transperson, and a computer hacker. Zubaida’s boyfriend Shams (Kashif Hussain) and Jugnu’s loyal assistant and silent admirer Dilbar (Sarmed Aftab Jadraan) join up too and are the kind of unconditionally supportive men who are rare in a blatantly patriarchal society. Surprisingly, a cop, Jamshed (Fawad Khan), flips for Batool and risks his career to help the cause.
The serial starts as darkly humorous with the burqa-covered women from the group promoting their Mard Ko Dard Hoga campaign. It is a measure of the condition of women in a traditional society that rich housewives who seek the services of the Churails, also call them home-breakers and wish they’d go to hell. They want the truth about their husbands’ affairs, but without breaking up their comfortable marriages. Inevitably it is a woman who leads to the downfall of the sassy squad amidst violent protests. Sara’s powerful husband and Jugnu’s influential uncle “clean up the mess.”
However, when one of the girls goes missing, the Churails regroup, and this time they encounter the grotesque depths which privileged men can reach, and understand that all women are not automatically on the side of their wronged sisters. The head of a cosmetics company admits that she had to offer sex to reach where she did, and will not give up her hard-fought position easily. She tells Sara that because of who she is and what she looks like, she can never know what other women suffer. But Sara, who really has the most to lose, has the courage of her convictions, unlike the wife of a truly wicked man, who sticks by her husband’s side, because she is contemptuous of independent women.
Even when the plot gets convoluted and over the top, the strength of Churails is in its wonderfully evocative writing, superb music and utter unpredictability. The women find within themselves not just the guts, but also the deviousness needed to defeat their tormentors.
Asim Abbasi goes through contemporary Karachi with a scythe, and unearths backroom abortions, homosexuality, flesh trade, forced marriages, domestic violence, child abuse, business malpractices, racism, male crony-ism, even a dash of cannibalism—going where no Pakistani series has gone before. However, there is also beauty, intelligence, loyalty, ambition and love.
Churails extols sisterhood, but conveys that if there are malevolent men, there are also those who do what is right, like the two-scene character of a lab technician, who puts his job and possibly life on the line to help women he does not even know. There is even some grudging admiration for a man Zubaida is being pushed to marry, because when she confesses to having a boyfriend she does “things” with, he says he likes open-minded girls. (In a nod to the memorable line from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a gun is pointed at the father’s head by a burqa-clad rescuer, and he is made to say, “Ja Zubaida ja, jee le apni zindagi.”)
Women standing up for themselves and for each other is all very well, but there is no shame in accepting the support of those few good men, who offer it in the daunting fight for justice, equality and hope.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated August 26, 2020)