Late one night, a longtime ago, my mother (god rest her soul) gave me some life-changing advice. She said: “If one is not careful of who they hang out with, they become the company they keep.” In Churrails, Asim Abbasi’s debut web-series for Zee5, we see my mother’s insight take life, with the most black-or-white set of characters ever to take centre-stage on my telly.

The world defined by Abbasi is a strangely familiar one. A diverse, rusty-toned, lived-in metropolis (Karachi) populated by a motley cast of societal stereotypes. The social classes may look different, but peel a layer away and the only difference separating the rich from the poor is money.

To a foreigner, an African-American named Jackson (Dimeji Ewuoso), it’s a strange, strange realm of rich devils, where mineral water is poured in indoor pools. Worse yet is the company around him. Sitting with an ex-professor (Iftekhar Chaudhry, played by Khaled Ahmad), Jackson is mocked for his community college degree (everyone else on the table hails from a prestigious, expensive foreign university), his skin colour, and the Pakistani elitist point-of-view on the necessity of racial subjugation.

Pissed off by these “cultured animals” (a point, Abbasi exemplifies in visual form later in the series), Jackson does what any self-respecting man would. He decks the old coot and flies back home. It’s a bad, bad, bad world of black-and-white ideals, with nary a gray area.

The men in Churrails are dastardly villains, but as the hour-long 10-episode series culminates, one realises that the more heinous and debauched of the lot share an ingrained, tenacious bond of camaraderie. Old or young, certain ideals and moral codes, twisted and arcane as they may be, seep into the characteristics of these few. Like my mother said: one becomes the company they chose to be a part of.

The finely crafted world of Churrails is a reflection of a flawed society of cruel men and self-doubting women in need of an emotional respite. It may not be a totally realistic world, but it comes darn close

Unlike Abbasi’s narrative, for whom almost all men are deemed evil by default in Churrails, the saying above doesn’t differentiate between genders.

Like their gender-opposites, the women — especially the ones in the lead — form a like-minded clique. They’re an assorted mix of willful souls battling inner demons, devising schemes to earn self-respect by fighting for a righteous cause… with the lucrative bonus of making a lot of money in the process.

The scheme (and the basic plot of the series) is this: two rich women (Sarwat Gillani Mirza, Yasra Rizvi), with the assistance of two desperate, penniless ones (Nimra Bucha, Mehar Bano), open a detective agency with a very niche clientele: well-off women who want to catch their philandering husbands red-handed. As an after-thought, the agency would eventually take pro-bono cases for the lower-middle class women who can’t pay-up, yet genuinely need help.

The agency is called Churrails (what else would you call a band of angry women shelling out justice?) and their war cry is: Mard ko dard hoga (Men will feel pain).

Cute and painful.

Donning multi-coloured scarves over black burqas, brandishing toy-guns and tasers, an assemblage of hard-core women (a prostitute, a transgender, two career-criminals, a hacker, amongst others) are hired and trained to be unlicensed would-be detectives.

A burqa outlet — Halal Designs — is set-up in a half-constructed building in a Defence neighbourhood to front the agency. Flyers with the ‘Dard’ tagline are dispersed; some make it to potential clients, others become roti wraps. In a more perpetual way of free advertising, the slogan is spray-painted on walls; in time they become as inconspicuous as the ‘miraculous Bengali baba’ advertisements.

A small changing room in the back of Halal Designs doubles as a church confession booth/client area (the series has a quirky sense of visual humour). For the sake of anonymity, a wall with two sliding slots separates the clients and a Churrail representative; the top slot slides back for communicating, the bottom one for holding the hands of emotional women. Both slots are important, because most clients (a wonderful Sania Saeed being one) still believe their husbands to be simple fools, coerced by immoral women. That’s hardly — if ever — the case in the series.

It’s the perfect plan for the first few months until cons, the search for missing women, kidnappings, murders, cannibal clients and a secret cult of fetish-craving body perfectionists — when the series turns into Eyes Wide Shut for a few episodes — complicates the Churrails’ business and personal lives.

Abbasi’s screenplay is plot-heavy and thoroughly character driven. The preference to base the narrative squarely on characters, personal impediments, internal conflicts and far-flung backstories — interjected at just the right moments by flashbacks — makes for a gratifying binge-session. The detective shenanigans are low-key, semi-realistic affairs, and the loopholes — few if any — are resolved on time. One just has to step back and let the story work itself out.

The principal emphasis, though, is on the four headlining Churrails: Sara (Gillani), Jugnu (Rizvi), Batool (Bucha) and Zubaida (Bano); two sets of women from very different social classes. Although united in the first episode (one of the best series set-up episodes I’ve ever seen), the cultural clash between their individual upbringings lead to demoralising arguments and bad decisions at crucial junctures in the story.

Sara is a former lawyer-turned-trophy housewife of a politician. Her husband Jamil (Omair Rana) is a strict, rule-abiding father, and a sympathetic, wife-loving husband with a penchant for firing gardeners. On the side, Jameel is a serial adulterer with over 75 women.

Sara, her very core shaken by the revelation, and her brain revved up on hash (there is a lot of marijuana-smoking in the series), blackmails Jamil to fund her crazy idea: The Halal Designs outlet. Her cohort is Jugnu, a lifelong friend who was once one of the most sought-after event planners in town.

Jugnu is the ‘sensible hot-head’ — which, on any other day, would be conflicting emotions — and an emotional wreck. Her estranged father is in jail, her uncle is a racist, chauvinist elitist, the bulk of her business is taken away by the aggressive new kids on the block — two homosexual party planners (how she wishes to be gay and get back her business, she says at one time in the series) — and to top it off, she’s an alcoholic who doesn’t shy away from public drinking (there is a wonderful shot of her in near-silhouette at a bright wedding event, where she punches up her juice).

Jugnu, like Sara, is indecisive and lacks self-discipline. This is where Batool — or as Jugnu calls her ‘Phoolan’ — comes into the picture.

A recently released murderer, put away for 20 years in prison, Batool is an eternally cross, stern-faced woman who is gun-ready with others, but contemplates suicide when alone.

Batool is forced to apply for a maid’s job at Jugnu’s, and ends up being a part of the group after saving Zubaida from the clutches of her obnoxious, abusive family who found out about her rebellious nature. The young Zubaida aspires to be a professional boxer, and her Tinder account has topless photos of a muscle-bound hacker named Shams (Kashif Hussain).

She, a spitfire, he, a techie, become an integral part of the operations, along with the other techie, Laila (Mehar Jaffri), and Jugnu’s assistant Dilbar (Sarmad Aftab Jadraan).

The cast — especially Gillani, Bucha, Yasra and Bano — universally outperform most entries in their careers. Abbasi’s control over his cast is meticulous and absolute, with hard-limits in place to keep his actors from over-performing. As the sole screenwriter, Abbasi adds hard-to-miss figurative and visual contexts and subtexts in shots.

In one excellent shot exemplifying a divided, shattered world, and one’s own deluded self-perception, we see Jamil buttoning up his suit in front of a full-sized designer-shattered mirror. In the same frame, a few feet away from him is Sara, daydreaming of self-satisfaction in an enclosed circular-shaped mirror.

This is but one shot of a few dozen scattered in the series.

Abbasi, however, is not the sole auteur of the series. This finely crafted series is a perfect by-product of producer Shailja Kejriwal, ace-cinematographer Mo Azmi (and his signature rust-green colour palette and contextually perfect frames), editors Kamal Khan and Kamran Shahnawaz, and music directors Saad Hayat and Taha Malik.

Churrails, despite its Pakistani setting, couldn’t have been made in Pakistan. There is unabashed display of homosexuality, lesbianism, sexual fetish, rape and premarital sex throughout the series. Given the gritty ambience Abbasi inflexibly sets, Churrails couldn’t have been made otherwise.

As great as the series is, a minor complaint though: in crafting and maintaining his world of Churrails, Abbasi seems to have gone overboard in his anti-patriarchal notions.

At times, it is hard to believe that Jackson, Dilbar, Shams and Jamshed (Fawad Khan), a cop sympathetic to the women’s cause, are the only four good men left on God’s green earth. Everyone else is either an adulterer, homosexual, cripple, scaredy-cat, junky or — if they’re the good guys — in support of the women in a subservient status.

It’s a bit of a let-down, until one gets to the last episode of the series, and pairs up the climax with my mother’s insight at the beginning. We’re seeing the story through a limited set of eyes, confined in their own understanding of their surroundings. The screenplay has no room for fresh or alien perspectives. They wouldn’t tonally fit, anyways.

The world of Churrails is a reflection of a flawed society of cruel men and self-doubting women in need of an emotional respite. It may not be the exact portrayal of a realistic world, but darn it, even as a fictional story, it comes real close.

Streaming on Zee5, Churrails is rated 18+. Parents strongly cautioned … for just about everything mentioned above.

Published in Dawn, ICON, August 23rd, 2020