With the astounding success of his webseries Churails, young Pakistani-British director Asim Abbasi has achieved the near-impossible: the series has opened up cross-border entertainment after a lengthy embargo on Pakistani artistes and content in India. In Pakistan the eye-brow-raising themes in Churails such az homosexuality, lesbianism, domestic violence and kitchen murders, has opened up a widespread furore, a potential threat to the wellbeing of the cast and crew. In a freewheeling interview Britain-based director Asim Abbasi speaks to Subhash K Jha on some thorny issues on creative freedom and political interference in cultural issues.
Churails has become a huge talking point in India and Pakistan. How did this audacious project crystallize?
A lot of the themes that Churails addresses had been festering with me for a long time, and after Cake, I was creatively ready to explore them. But I was aware that the type of content I wanted to make, could not be made for local cinema or television. It was serendipity and my good fortune that Shailja approached me after watching Cake. I pitched the idea and then wrote the pilot episode and the series bible on the basis of which this project was commissioned.
Interestingly your producer is an Indian lady?
Yes, Shailja Kejriwal is a true supporter of creative talent and gave me full freedom to play with the genre, and tell this story as honestly and bravely as I could.
How did you weigh in on the concept of burqa-clad vigilantes? Weren’t you daunted by the sheer audacity of the concept?
I believe all art has to be audacious. It has to lead to dialogues and conversations. And it has to subvert the dominant paradigm and shake up the status quo. In Churails, the burqa is used as an accessory to hide their identities, which is necessary in their line of work. It becomes a symbol of choice, no longer a black cloth imposed on women, but a colourful one, chosen by the women themselves.
Churails in fact is about women’s empowerment on a very basic level?
The entire show is about women taking ownership of their lives. Of course that is a daunting proposition, especially in the subcontinent where most narratives are still hung up on the damsel in distress trope who needs prince charming to save her. But I think it’s time for alternative, new voices and narratives to come to the forefront.
How difficult was it for you to get the vast cast? Were all these actors your first choices? how difficult was it to get them to agree?
I do not have an actor in mind when I am writing, to allow myself more freedom in the casting process. Sarwat Gilani, Nimra Bucha , Yasra Rizvi and Mehar Bano are some of the finest actors in Pakistan and I was very lucky to have them agree to the roles. I think they believed in the strength of the script, and knew that what we were setting out to do, could potentially be a first of its kind series for Pakistan.
Besides the leads, there are also excellent supporting actors like Fawad Khan who plays the cop?
Yes,beyond the leads, there was a large ensemble cast as well. The great thing about doing a digital series is that there is no requirement to cast “stars,” something that you would face in films, so I was able to cast a wide net, and have a lot of incredible theatre actors like Fawad Khan, Kashif, Samina, Bakhtawar and Shabana join the show, which really elevated the performances. The full casting process required a concerted effort, not just on my part but also my assistant directors who helped with a lot of the castings.
Your first film Cake was also a feminist fable what attracts you to strong independent-minded women characters?
I do gravitate towards female narratives, partly because I believe they make for richer stories, and partly because I feel they are still under-represented in mainstream media. Or I should say unfairly represented because television has a lot of women-centric shows, but they do tend to regurgitate the same old tropes. And I want to shed new light on women.
I suspect you grew up among strong women?
Yes, I have grown up in a household with women, led by a strong mother, and four sisters, all of whom have had a deep impact on me.
Interestingly Churails is the first Pakistan-based visual content to release in India in the last three years. Do you feel cinema and by extension, the home medium should be freed from cross border politics?
Absolutely. I strongly believe that art has to transcend borders, and it has to bridge the gap between the countries. We have so many shared realities, our stories are similar, our languages are similar, so it is only natural for the Indian public to gravitate towards our dramas and Pakistani public to gravitate towards Bollywood.
Asim, Churails addresses taboo topics such as homosexuality lesbianism racism prostitution and even cannibalism. How on earth did you hope to gain acceptance with this kind of controversial content in Pakistan?
It is not about being controversial, but it is about giving a voice and representation to those communities who often find themselves on the fringes of the society. Acceptance comes when we normalize and celebrate diversity. And it may not come with one series, but Churails is the first step. Tomorrow I hope more filmmakers will come forward to break more taboos and keep this dialogue going.
Churails moves away from patent themes such as terrorism and religion and focuses on human relationships. Do you think cinema should be freed of politics?
I think cinema can be political in the topics it covers, but I do feel it needs to be freed from content that purports propaganda. War films, for example can be beautiful, if they address the human cost of those wars, if they shed light fairly, on the lives that are lost through these wars and conflicts. But I have no patience for films that are outright designed to divide people rather than bringing them together. Cinema is an incredibly cathartic medium. We need to honour that, and the only way to do that is to connect on a deep, emotional level with audiences.
What are you making next? Female heroes again?
No idea! I want to keep exploring, experimenting, and hopefully always pushing the boundaries in whatever I do.