This review contains spoilers for all 10 episodes of Churails.
I hung up the phone to British-Pakistani Asim Abbasi, my mind still racing with questions about his new Zee 5 web-series “Churails.” I was intrigued, curious, confused and amused. He said the show was first of its kind for Pakistani television. It certainly seemed like it, judging by the trailer. But is representation really one of the core themes of the show? Does it really include a variety of minority groups and the issues they face, placed front and centre at key points during the narrative?
The opening catharsis for me was to see “Churails” central characters in Karachi’s familiar streets. I immediately felt a connection. Will this show really make Pakistani women feel seen? Are they really (and some would say finally) given a chunk of the digital sphere which truly encapsulates and represents their struggle?
Abbasi opens the storyline with some of Pakistan’s leading lights — Sarwat Gilani Mirza’s Sarah — a lawyer turned “perfect” housewife, Yasra Rizvi’s Jugnoo – a “disgraced” wedding planner (who has an obsessive relationship with alcohol which nobody seems to address), Nimra Bucha’s Batool – an ex-convict who served time for ironing out her husband’s existence (in more ways than one), and Meher Bano’s Zubaida – a burka-clad, after-school boxer.
The first episode works to establish the four principal characters together and explore their relationship to the world around them, but it does not thoroughly fulfil this vision. Rather, what develops is a slightly fragmented narrative that does not completely create the sense that they act realistically in line with expectations. This mainly arises from a lack of pragmatism in some of their responses to the actions of others – particularly Sarah – whose reaction to her husband Jamil’s infidelity does not feel entirely grounded in reality. I wanted – expected – her to kick up an earth-shattering fuss. Instead, we experience her quiet, almost prepared-in-advanced tears, followed by proof of Jamil’s online rendezvous spanning from Larkana to Los Angeles being sent off to the printer.
That same night, Zubaida is outed for boxing and Tindering after-school by her little brother, which leads to awkward emoji-explaining and endless chappal-flinging. Batool helps her escape to Jugnoo’s where she works as a cleaner, and thus begins the journey of the fantastic four.
Jamil’s infidelity and Sarah’s confrontation leads him to invest into her undercover detective agency, “Churails.” I personally like the “S” after the Urdu word instead of doubling it as “churailein.” Perhaps the slight symbolism is Abassi’s ode to both sides of the income spectrum.
We’re then introduced to baby churails: a band of hackers, sex workers, ex-convicts, transgender women and small-town dreamers. These women are the crime-solving masterminds behind every case; so much so that the leading ladies sometimes get overshadowed in comparison.
The show also seems to be in a constant rush. The rush to move the plot forward, to move to the next big case, societal taboo or dodgy decision, without always paying proper justice to the current issue at hand. This is where “Churails” creators rob us of the opportunity to truly connect with each storyline. For example, I was still reeling from Sarmad Khoosat being cooked and devoured nihari style by Sania Saeed, when almost in the next scene Batool attempts at taking her own life. A cliffhanger that did not come as a welcome surprise.
Having said that, Ehtesham and Shehnaz Khalid’s narrative is one of the most powerful pieces of TV direction and scriptwriting in recent memory. And to pick Sarmad Khoosat – our national treasure – to portray a closet gay husband is a fitting and poignant choice. However, it is here that “Churails” arguably unravels slightly, with that episode raising more questions than it answers. Why does Batool out a man to his wife in a moment of heat and prejudice? How does protecting a man from his wife finding out about his sexuality fit into the “wronged women looking to avenge themselves” narrative? Why does Shehnaz seemingly go off the rails in her response at one moment, but is calm and in control while being questioned by the police in the next?
Unfortunately, one of the show’s weaknesses is that it is hard to discern whether these scenarios arise as a result of well-intentioned moral complexity within the characters, or are further examples of the occasional inconsistency with which they are treated.
One of these key inconsistencies is Batool equating homosexuality with paedophilia – a comparison which seems intentionally placed to shock the audience with its extremity and prompt self-reflection in any that might hold similar views. This comparison is somewhat hollowed by the fact that two of her best friends and ex-jail buddies are in a same-sex relationship; a strange moment that viewers cannot quite reconcile as an act of emotionally charged fallibility, but instead plainly written hypocrisy. A similar act happens in episode three, where Sarah falters at the thought of wrongfully charging a man for a crime he didn’t commit in order to protect Sheila, one of her employees.
On the positive side, the show further takes us through well-realised dark twists and turns when Sarah’s second shot at her marriage, and Jugnoo’s almost-reconciliation with Ifti Chachu, come at a heavy cost, with the revelation of Jamil and Iftikhar’s involvement in sex trafficking and leadership in a post-colonial men’s cult (which almost gets Zubaida killed). The symbolism of Jamil’s wolf mask over a shalwar kameez directly facing Sarah’s burka-clad badassery when she confronts him is a fantastic way of depicting a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Top marks for semiology.
Similarly, it also portrays how powerful people often become torch-bearers of abuse, such as the show’s jalwa radiating CEO, Sherry. A woman in power becomes a reflection of the very man who passed on the exploitation torch to her. Some may say it’s a sweeping generalisation…one, that more often than not, sadly holds true.
Nevertheless, at times “Churails” is guilty of presenting the viewer with a sort of ‘thematic soup,’ where a multitude of issues are raised and often not fully done justice. One could even argue that their inclusion is tokenistic, with every episode throwing in a mix of more plot threads related to gender (in)equality, domestic violence, infidelity, abortion/body autonomy, prostitution/escort rings, teenage pregnancy, racism, colourism, transgender rights and attempted suicide. While it is undoubtedly ambitious to try to interweave a plot with all of these threads, the lack of time to explore these issues in any meaningful capacity detracts, rather than adds, to the impact of the show’s overall message.
This aside, “Churails” still is a mammoth step for the representation of a range of minorities who have never commanded any airtime on Pakistani television. Asim Abbasi has started a movement and a dialogue — an opportunity rarely awarded to Pakistani (and other South Asian) women. These are stories of women around us – raw, vulnerable, strong and powerful – stories they rarely get the chance to open up about.
Many talented newcomers grace the screen with imperious performances, which is a testament to the director’s passion for working with emerging creatives. The cinematography is beautiful, deploying a mad palette of colours to truly capture the spirit of Karachi. And when Misha Shafi’s “mein” is played in the background during the closing scene of a crucial episode, the obvious reference to Pakistan’s #metoo movement was cathartic, welcome, and at the apex of “Churails” power to ambitiously break new ground.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
It’s always a flamboyant affair of colour, emotions and grandeur when Karan Johar directs a film, and his latest blockbuster “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani” is as K Jo as it gets. After recently being recognised at the British House of Parliament for 25 years as a filmmaker, Johar is back to doing what he does best — bringing together families and star-crossed lovers, but this time with a modern touch. He makes a decent attempt at showcasing progressive ideals and feminist issues while taking us on this family-friendly ride.
“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is a larger-than-life film revolving around the love story of a boisterous Rocky (Ranveer Singh) from a wealthy Delhi family, and Rani (Alia Bhatt), a sharp journalist from a progressive Bengali household. And of course, despite belonging to completely different backgrounds and lives, our protagonists, in true Bollywood fashion, fall hopelessly in love through a string of slow-motion gazes, warm embraces and some truly breath-taking song sequences in Kashmir’s snowy mountains. They are then forced to face their opposing families which brings along the family drama in the second half of the film.
The plot is not the film’s strongest point — there’s no real surprise about what’s going to happen next, and yet the film doesn’t fail to keep audiences engaged and pack an emotional punch. This is down to its strong acting, witty dialogues and K Jo’s classic, beautiful cinematography.
Ranveer Singh sinks into the skin of his character with ease – not only does he make the hall burst into laughter with the help of perfectly-timed gags but he pulls off those dreamy gazes ,expected in K Jo’s heroes, to evoke that typical, fuzzy-feeling kind of Bollywood romance. Alia Bhatt’s intelligent and undefeated character is no less a pleasure to watch on screen — not only does she look breath-taking in every shot but her feminist dialogues earn claps and cheers from the audience as she brings a progressive touch to this family drama.
Albeit, while Bhatt’s dialogues do their best to steer this film to the reformist drama it hopes to be, some of Singh’s gags and monologues on cancel culture bring out bumps in the road. The film could have done better to reinforce its points on feminism and racism without using the groups it tries to support as the butt of jokes.
There is also a case to be made about how long these Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes can go on with often gawkish displays of Ranveer’s ‘dilwala-from-Delhi’ character among the overly-polished English from Rani’s Bengali family. But it is with the expertise of the supporting cast, that the film is able to get away with it. Jaya Bachchan in particular is as classy as ever on screen; the stern Dadi Ji holds her ground between the two lovers, while Dada Ji Dharmendra, and Thakuma Shabana Azmi, tug at our heartstrings showing that love truly is for all ages.
Saving the best to last, it is the film’s cinematography that makes the strongest case for audiences to flock to the cinema. The soul-stirring songs steal the show with their extravagant sets and powerful dance performances that treat the audiences to the much-awaited cinematic experience of a K Jo film. While audiences may already be familiar with the viral songs, “What Jhumka?” and “Tum Kya Mile“, it was the family-defying fight for love in “Dhindhora Baje Re” that really gave me goosebumps.
Overall, the film does exactly what it says on the tin and is a family entertainer with something for everyone. It will make you laugh, cry, and cringe at times, but nothing leaves you feeling as romantic as some old school Bollywood with a mix of new school humour, in true K Jo form.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!