New Delhi, September 02: British-Pakistani director Asim Abbasi says the many Bollywood and fairytale references in his popular show "Churails" is his hat-tip to the art that already exists while giving him a chance to tell a subversive story.
The Zee5 series is sees four Karachi women -- 'perfect wife' Sara (Sarwat Gilani), wedding planner Jugnu (Yasra Rizvi), boxer Zubaida (Mehar Bano) and ex-convict Batool (Nimra Bucha) -- start a detective agency for wives with cheating husbands.
Abbasi, who was first noticed for his dysfunctional family drama Cake , did not think that his women-centric story will become such a critical success but he is happy "Churails" has sparked a debate in both India and Pakistan.
Cult classic "Gangs of Wasseypur" finds a mention in the series through "Kaale Re" and the show also dances to the tunes of "Darr Da Da Dasse" from the drug drama "Udta Punjab".
"In real life, we keep giving Bollywood or movie references all the time. I really wanted 'Kaala Re' and 'Darr Da Da Dasse'. Even the Baby Churails that these four women hire are named after item girls from Bollywood. They are 'Munni', 'Sheila' and 'Baby Doll'," Abbasi told PTI in a Zoom interview from London.
The director said these references helped him create a hyper reality in the drama.
"I love cross-referencing. (It's) a nod to the art and conversation that already exists. We wanted to show an exaggerated reality in terms of mood, visuals and thematic considerations," he added.
The show's title is also a subversion and so are the references to fairytales "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Red Riding Hood", Abbasi said.
"'Churails (witches) has a negative connotation. It is originally associated with women who are liberated, ambitious, aggressive and courageous. We are saying all these qualities must be celebrated. And before the world calls them 'churails', they will take the ownership of the word."
Similarly, the damsel-in-distress trope of fairytales is also twisted to depict evolution.
"Zubaida wears a red hood which is inspired by 'The Red Riding Hood'. Then, the women make the guards fall asleep. The idea was to twist these references," he said.
The popularity of the drama has sparked curiosity about a possible second season.
Abbasi said he had not given any thought to a follow-up because he "didn't think we would reach here. But maybe we will think about it now."
The director, who left his banking job to explore his dream of becoming a filmmaker a decade ago, hopes the show opens a door for other filmmakers and women to come to the forefront.
"I did what I could, now women need to come forward and tell their stories," he added.
One of the popular scenes in the series shows women standing up in 'niqaab' (veil) to defend their shop from an angry mob after one of their cases goes wrong.
Abbasi said he wanted to show women take ownership of "things that have so far been used against them".
"It's not to say that all women who wear a 'burqa' or 'naqaab' consider themselves oppressed. There are some who wear it according to their will. But in the West and everywhere, it is assumed that it is primarily a symbol of oppression.
"The element of choice was important here. These women choose to turn this garment into a superhero cape. It is also practical to blend in the background in their job."
The filmmaker said he wanted to explore oppression and rage through the power dynamics between genders.
"Lack of power leads to oppression, oppression leads to rage. When you keep putting women in a corner, it will build resentment and bitterness and come out as rage."
The rage in his protagonists comes from living in a patriarchal society where they are surrounded by misogynists most of the time, Abbasi said.
"There are four characters from different backgrounds and then the seven women they hire, they come from different fringes of society and marginalised communities... because I wanted to show that the oppression is widespread."
Another concurrent theme in the show is the inherent racism that people in India and Pakistan harbour towards their skin colour.
"During the colonial rule, we associated power with whites. They may have gone but the brainwashing is so deep rooted that we are not ready to leave it," he said, explaining why he modeled one of the male characters as a 'brown sahab'.
"Churails" also critiques perpetuating the myth that men have to follow a certain societal norm.
"Of course, we are born with the biological sex but a lot of gender identification is part of learning and there is a performance that sort of comes into it. When you segregate and say that a boy or girl has to be like this, you are force-feeding a specific mentality," he said.
While most of the men come off as villains in the show, the viewers will find "empathetic" characters in Shams, a body-builder computer genius who loves hacking, Dilbar, the assistant caught in a one-sided romance with his wedding planner boss and Jamshed, a lecherous police officer, he said.
Though it's a women-centric story, Abbasi said he "secretly" wanted to show some hope through these three men.
"I hope they connect with Shams or Dilbar and realise it is good to be an empathetic gentleman. The antagonists have gone too far to return but even if my viewers connect with Jamshed, there is hope, because he has the ability to empathise."
The director said the reaction to the show has been mostly positive in Pakistan though there are some "pockets of noise".
"But it's ok as long as there is a conversation. Art is a dialogue," he said.