Asim Abbasi interview: Originally conceived Churails as a film.
Srivathsan Nadadhur -
2018 signalled the arrival of an important voice from the subcontinent in the form of Karachi-born Asim Abbasi, the writer, director of Cake, who had found the perfect balance of a rooted, locationally-specific setting with a globally accessible approach to storytelling. The family drama raked in the moolah and pleased the critics alike, reinstating the significance of Pakistani cinema on an international scale.
Asim Abbasi left many surprised when he chose the digital medium for his second project, Churails, a story surrounding four middle-aged women who run a covert detective agency to spy on their cheating husbands. The storyteller promises to push the envelope further with the much-awaited show, that’s touted to be a funny, moving and a thrilling ride for the spectators. With Churails all set to stream on ZEE5 Global from August 11, Asim is both excited and nervous. He tells us why in this interview with LetsOTT.com
You’ve directed two projects – Cake and Churails, both for different mediums whose narratives revolve essentially around women. What draws you towards their stories?
I’ve grown up surrounded by women. I have four sisters, a strong mother, a softer, gentler father and now an equally strong wife now. Women have always led me, pushed me but the women I’ve seen on television have always been an oppressed lot. Oppressed women exist around us, though I didn’t buy into the idea that she always needed a strong man to rescue her. So when I made Cake, the men were supporting figures and not headlining the story. Churails is similar too. Women are generally more complex and interesting to write about as characters. There is much conflict built when one inherently is a woman, where she has a body of her own but is not able to have autonomy over it. She is dictated by men most of the time in a society replete with patriarchy; it’s ripe with conflict and myriad themes and issues are waiting to be discussed, which is why I gravitate towards these stories.
Isn’t it a problem that every second female-centric show is burdened by the heaviness in the treatment? What often makes shows around women morose and why do they need to take a melancholic turn always?
Moroseness doesn’t come in intentionally but because you need to discuss some serious issues while telling stories about women. There aren’t many films being made about women having fun; Veere Di Wedding being the rare example, but it’s frivolous and doesn’t have the depth of arthouse/parallel cinema. When you usually make films about women, they usually get characterised as arthouse cinema or festival films. Festival crowds are another audience that’s tough to be please because they don’t want any embellishment surrounding stories and seek storytelling that’s as realistic as possible. The cake was a family drama and with Churails, the stakes are higher because we’re discussing a gamut of issues, but we have a slightly whimsical treatment in the initial episodes. There’s a fun quality to it. Even in the darkest of times, there are always occasions where we burst into laughter. Churails also reminds you that you can’t take everything too seriously. There are many serious situations through the show, but the women in them know how to have fun.
A covert detective agency led by four women is a fascinating and an underexplored backdrop for a story…
The idea behind the backdrop was primarily to get the women together; it was the starting point. They needed a cover-up and I also knew that they wouldn’t be doing something traditional. I wanted a fun way to unite them under the same umbrella; I thought finding cheating husbands was a great way of doing it. When I started researching about it, I found out there was a similar detective agency in India as well; it was a great way to realise ‘reality mein abhi aisa hota hai’. It gave me the license to push this because I didn’t want people to term the backdrop ‘unrealistic’. I have constantly backtracked every scene that I was writing in the show and found out that such instances have actually happened in real life. Reality is always crazier than fiction.
Is it intentional that you adopt a middle road approach with your film making while balancing sensibilities from mainstream Hindi cinema and yet having a character-centric story to tell?
It’s true but is not done on purpose. Woh aisa ho gaya! I grew up in the 80s on mainstream Bollywood and I would consume every film that came out. I didn’t become a filmmaker then and many years down the line, I was exposed to alternative cinema – parallel films, indie films, global cinema, name it and I had watched them all. My aesthetics had matured. I gravitated towards the latter mode of storytelling but subconsciously the aesthetic of mainstream cinema resided in me too. Naturally, when I write and direct, I tread a middle road approach – it has a mainstream look/exterior but also has the quality of an art-house film thematically.
Would a detective agency like this be every woman’s fantasy?
We need to ask our women that! (laughs) It may not be a secret fantasy, but many women go through issues of infidelity that we’re talking about in Churails. Women would have secretly wished for a forum that could come to their rescue. At least, at some point, the idea of seeking help to sort their problem would have crossed their mind. A lot of gaslighting happens in relationships where women are made to feel paranoid, where they’re told ‘you’re all imagining it up. It’s all in your heads’. In those instances, women would have ideally wanted a helpline at their service for getting a clearer picture. That’s what the women in Churails end up doing.
You’d made your mark in the digital space much before Churails, helming a handful of short films (before your feature film debut Cake). Is it a relief that you don’t need to pander your story to a certain audience as you go digital?
I think so, but I feel short films don’t qualify as digital media, because they’re shorter in length, meant for festivals and don’t have a great online market. The exciting aspect of long-form digital is the fact that it allows you to tell a story for a long time, say for 10 hours. I always struggle to tell a story in a shorter duration. The first cut of Cake too came down to three hours, but it had to be edited to two hours. The long-winded storytelling format has given the ability for me to talk about every theme I want to discuss in great detail. The only challenge is to make it binge-worthy, suspenseful. Regardless of the creative freedom, you may get in films, there are restrictions around every corner. Even on the storytelling level, you’d be forced to think about the censor board and wonder if I can say this or can’t or if it would rub people the wrong way or if it would make them stone cinema halls. There are many fears when you release your content in public spaces. None of those exists in the digital medium; my job as a storyteller is, to be honest, and stay true to my story.
A follow up to a super-successful debut like Cake comes with its own set of pressures and many would be itching to name you a ‘fluke’ if you don’t succeed. How are you handling it all?
I’d be lying if I told I wasn’t nervous or didn’t feel the pressure. However, what has overtaken that feeling is the excitement. You give everything to your work and still know you’ll be judged for it. By the time you do your second film, you become thick-skinned to understand that not everyone who watches your work needs to like it. It’s art, it’s the nature of the game and opinions are subjective. I knew that with Cake as well but I was too attached to my work then. When someone says something negative about your first film, you tend to take it to heart. With Churails, I’m more prepared and even though I’m nervous, I can’t wait for the world to watch it.
How do you know if a story you’re willing to say has the canvas to be adapted into a web series?
It’s a trial and error process. When I started writing Churails, I originally thought it would be a film. I had completed almost 25 pages of my draft then. I usually tend to write all themes, character-sketches and everything I want to say on my walls. One fine day, as I looked through my walls, I instantly knew this wasn’t the story that could last only two hours. Even if it did, it wouldn’t convey what I was intending to tell and could have become a completely different story altogether. I was sure that I had to go digital if I were to tell this story and I was lucky that ZEE5 approached me at the same time for ideas. I pitched this idea and they liked it. I later developed it into a pilot and the series got commissioned. If not for ZEE5 Global, I would have shelved this project and moved onto another film because Churails deserved a wider canvas.
Yasra, Mehar, Sarwat and Nimra have all told that you gave them the liberty to bring a lot of themselves into the story of Churails. Do you intentionally leave your characters open-ended before you work and discuss it with the actors?
Precisely! I leave spaces with backstories and a few aspects that contribute to their identity. Say for a character like Jugnu in Churails, I knew that her parents were absent from her life. I knew where the father was, but I didn’t get to the mother’s whereabouts yet. I left it blank and I thought I could figure this out while I was with the actor. Me and actor/writer Yasra Rizvi later sat down and gave the mother’s character a full-fledged backstory. I do the basic framework but I need the actor to sit with me and develop it because it allows them to take ownership. When an actor contributes to her own story and her backstory, she knows the character completely and gives it her 120%. If I restrict the scope of a role and tell an actor that this is the only way it would work out, it is very limiting for them as well. However, there are scenes where I allow and don’t allow improvisation. It’s not because I don’t trust my actors but in the case of Churails, it’s an intricately woven story where a single trait of the role could alter the way the role it is looked at. Otherwise, our working on the sets is fluid, open-minded and definitely collaborative.
How do the women in your family react to your stories and projects, especially Churails?
I haven’t shown it to my mother yet, I’m scared (laughs). I have shown her only a portion of it and she was fine with it but I’m scared of what she would have to say about the darker dimensions of the story. My sisters have been supportive. More than anyone else, in this context, my wife has been of immense help. She really believed in Churails. She liked Cake but loved Churails. She has been a big supporter since day one, reading all my scripts. It was important to get her nod because I am fully aware that I’m a man making a show about women. While I may be an ally to a woman, I’m not a woman and don’t live in her body or experience everything that she goes through on a day-to-day basis. I was always wary about doing justice to the story and lend authenticity to the stories about women. I rely on my wife to read the script, show it around to script consultants who’re female besides a filmmaking-savvy sister – there were a lot of women who helped me through Churails.
Don’t you want to tell stories with men in the forefront too? It would come to you more naturally, won’t it?
I think I’m ready to tell stories about men as well. I hope that a lot of men see Churails and when they do it, I hope they relate to the male characters, at least the good guys in the show. The show has many men who’re gentle, supportive of their wives, girlfriends and appreciate women who would want to carve their niche in this world. I feel men need to be like that. I don’t think I’ll ever be making those ‘heroic male’ stories. I will make films/shows where men are the face of a story, but they will be gentle, which I hope the many males around the world become.