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22 March 2021

'We need to normalise rage': In Conversation with Asim Abbasi

Armed with a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the London School of Economics, and a MA in Global Cinemas from the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), Asim Abbasi is a British-Pakistani film director, screenwriter, and producer. Abbasi directed the feature film, Cake, lauded by critics and selected as Pakistan's submission to the 91st Academy Awards for best Foreign Language Film. In 2020, Abbasi directed the web series Churails, globally acclaimed as marking a shift for Pakistani content showcased in mainstream media. The other shorts written and directed by Abbasi have played at numerous festivals, including the BAFTA-recognised Aesthetica Short Film Festival, Cannes Court Métrage, HollyShorts, Williamsburg Independent, NewFilmmakers NY, Jaipur Film Festival and Shortini Italy, where 'Whore' won the audience award for best short film. In this interview, Saba Karim Khan speaks to Abbasi about his latest show, Churails, in particular about storytelling that shatters stereotypes about Pakistani women, the backlash when portraying South Asian women’s sexuality, and how rage becomes the starting gun for catapulting these women into action and empowerment. They discuss the subversion technique employed in Churails, of turning the notion of 'witchcraft' – rife with negative connotations – on its head. Finally, they speak about Abbasi’s professional shift from finance to filmmaking and what a production such as Churails – streaming on a mainstream digital platform – means for the telling of crucial stories from Pakistan to a global audience. Saba Karim Khan for Wasafiri: There’s a lot of conversation around the feminist element to your storytelling—the all-female cast, turning labels such as Churails on their head. Of course, those strands come across with potency – but let the starting point for this interview be men. Alongside the focus on women, there’s a profound unpacking of masculinity. How do you see the problems surrounding masculinity, particularly in a South Asian context, and what’s your approach to incorporating this into your storytelling? Asim Abbasi: Part of it is very personal, because I had a father, who has now passed away, who wasn’t alpha male. He was a mellow man, who never raised his voice at me. I grew up in a household of sisters, with my mom as the dominant one. So, I don't know if it's nature or nurture, but that's what I modeled myself upon. I started consuming media content at a very young age. As a three-year-old, I watched Bollywood films without thinking deeply about them. It was by the end of my 20s – when I began reflecting on what I’d been watching – that I was taken aback about where the other types of men were. I knew they did exist; I knew people like my dad did exist, but they weren’t in our storytelling. This traces back to the 80s when the male protagonist had to be alpha male: physically strong but emotionally damaged and unable to express his feelings. And so, the male characters I wrote came naturally to me. I built characters around people I knew, for instance alpha male figures at school. And then becoming a father to a son and reflecting on how you want your son to grow up. That’s something that's always consumed me and even though I don't do it deliberately, it creeps into my storytelling. It’s more enjoyable for me to write male characters, perhaps along the lines of how I perceived my father to be, how I hope my son grows to be, and how I want men generally to be. With Churails, everyone says it's a women's show, but deep-down, I've made it for men. They're the ones who I want watching the show. Women already know this; it's men who need to know this now. I think it’s hugely important that we allow our boys to express and stop putting them in a blue versus pink box. Your storytelling offers a foil to the caricatured, cookie-cutter impressions of South Asian women—either veiled and obviously oppressed or liberal and overly modern. This is a complex, nuanced portrayal of women, embracing their messiness, vulnerabilities, imperfections and strength. Why is acknowledging, celebrating chaos, important for you? Historically in cinema there’s been a good versus evil divide, and nowhere is that felt as strongly as it is in the woman. If you take Bollywood, it's the virgin versus vamp dichotomy, which has evolved from the cabaret girl who then became the item girl who is now the femme fatale, and she's going to come and lure you, juxtaposed against the Sati Savitri—a lot of successful films have been based on this model. The truth is, humankind – and men – have a very funny relationship with women: it's Mother Nature – who needs to be put on a pedestal – but at the same time, it's the gender you’ll exploit – because that's what human beings are – we’re filled with contradictions. Contradiction, however, is not acknowledged enough. And somehow, it isn’t convenient for men to see these two sides together, compatible, in fact; it’s uncomfortable to discover that the binaries you’ve created are an illusion for your own benefit. Coming to how storytelling generally is, it needs to follow a clean arc, fit into a mould, the audience needs to be rooting for characters, empathizing with them. They cannot get angry with them, else they’ll perceive them as the villain. I wasn’t going to follow that template. I loved all my characters; there were moments I even wanted to love the disgusting Iftikhars and Jameels, because I was birthing them. Even if they’re your antagonist, you need them in order to take the story forward. So, that was my approach to each character; I wanted them to be messy, because life is messy. Women’s desires, sexuality, freedom, is heavily policed in Pakistan. You place those things front and centre unapologetically. Some might call it brave, provocative—since we know factions of our society don’t like feeling uncomfortable. What’s your thought process when creating these worlds, which don’t fit into neat categories in the way we typically pigeon-hole people? Does the imminent backlash produce tentativeness? I don’t think I set out to provoke; subconsciously I knew certain elements will hit a nerve, but I also think it’s the medium, that this was for digital. Above all, I think my excitement that this was actually getting made overshadowed everything else. Everything was very quick; I was literally writing sixteen hours a day because I had eight months to finish all ten scripts, and we had to go into shoot. So, I really didn’t have time to reflect on the negativity. At some point during promotions, however, I did begin wondering how people would react. Frankly, I was most nervous about what my mother might say. But I wasn’t particularly anxious otherwise, nor was I surprised when the backlash came. A part of me was ready for it, but I thought it was important to have this conversation, it was time that people saw women enraged, unapologetic. It was important to take those risks with these characters. Anger and fury are unmissable in Churails. How does rage become understandable, essential, in spurring these women—for them to regain control over their bodies and lives, place accountability for men, in a society where male behavior goes unchecked. Is it always justified and/ or politically correct? How does it help transform these flawed, real women into crusaders, each having been at the receiving end of male entitlement, toxic masculinity and harassment in different forms? For me, this show is about rage; people label it feminist, sure, if you want to. I never called it a feminist show. Someone asked how we should look up to these women as female superheroes; I never asked you to look up to these women. For me, this is about rage, which is both positive and negative—it's an emotion. I think feminism still probably sits uncomfortably with female rage. There isn't enough work done on analyzing why anger is important and where it stems from. Historically, we’ve been fed the narrative that a woman should never get angry. It's unladylike, it's unbecoming. Ghussa mat ho, chup kar ke baitho [don’t get angry, sit quietly]. Even if you look back to the witch hunts, women were tied up with contraptions, because they were angry women who wanted to speak up for themselves. This is an important conversation all of us need to be having; it's superficial and frivolous to label a woman a 'bitch', just because she talks her mind, or she’s angry all the time. The question is, where is that anger stemming from. It's systematic oppression that women have been put through for centuries, oppression which is built into little girls, which follows them all their lives. Understanding the core of where this anger derives from is crucial. Now, whether this anger is justified or not, that's subjective. It’s up to the audience and everyone will have a different view on it. For instance, in episode nine, the Churails already know that the man is dead, but they don’t stop—one decides to still shoot, and another decides to beat the guy. Objectively, of course it's not justified, but the question is not whether it's justified or not. The question is, how far do you push a woman that she is cornered and needs to react in a way which even she may not feel happy about one day. It’s encapsulated in one of the voiceovers in Churails which says, 'You have pushed us and, in this forest, this wilderness of your making, we have to embrace our dark side, we have to embrace what was buried within us, because we do not have a choice anymore.' That’s how revolutions start everywhere. They don't start as a silent protests. They don't start as people sitting across tables having conversations, it’s always a rebellion because that’s just how power works. You don't destabilise power without some kind of tamasha [show]. Churails is a small component of this; I think bigger conversations need to happen and we need to normalize rage. It’s still something we look down upon. We need to understand the causes of it and accept it as a valid emotion for everyone. Clearly, you follow no rulebook. We’re watching the stories, co-creating and living these tracks with the characters, yet the technique is unpredictable – playful to dramatic to dark – we’re expecting something and at the last minute, you turn that on its head—in the most thrill-inducing ways. Is that a liberating, high point of being a storyteller, blending genres and subverting typical narrative styles, fairy tales, everything? Messing with the audience is the most fun thing! Having a freeing narrative and structure and then these jumps – elements of psychological drama, of thriller, the fun bits – it’s about not wanting it to fit in a box. And then, having complete license to take this into the fantasy realm as well, for example, to allow for the escort party to look the way it did. I wanted it to be completely unfiltered, especially when I was writing the first draft of Churails. For example, in episode seven, the Red Riding Hood and the wolf part, which was the most surreal episode, I did a lot of sleep cycles whilst writing, where I would write half asleep. I think it was Hemingway who said write drunk, edit sober. So, I’d write half asleep, and edit when I was awake. Eventually, there’s of course the final process of streamlining all those thoughts. But with the first draft, there was simply a lot of excitement. When I sent the episodes to Zee, I thought there’d be no chance they’d green-light the gory, neck slashing scene or the scene with a donkey coming and doing a speech about celestial creatures – I was sure those weren’t going to fly – but miraculously, everything got approved. It’s taught me not to self censor, because, working in Pakistan, you automatically learn to self censor; for instance, even with Cake I had self-censored to a certain degree and even after that, I had five conversations with the Censor Board telling me I should take out the word 'lesbian' because it’s a gaali [curse word]. I had to spend half an hour with a sixty-year old man who I’d never met before, explaining how lesbian isn’t a gaali. That sort of environment can get very toxic and so, to not have to censor myself with Zee, was very freeing. It’s difficult to escape the conversation unpacking the intersection of politics and arts, particularly in the context of the subcontinent. The latter can become a mechanism for ameliorating conflict, yet we’ve seen it unfold as a sore experiment in recent times. How did you rationalise the decision to go with ZEE 5 (in light of potential backlash) and what reactions has it garnered? After Cake, I was toying with the idea of doing another feature film. I'd written a synopsis of Churails and I was wondering if it could be turned into a film. But firstly, there was so much I wanted to say which wouldn’t be possible in a two-hour film and beyond that, I wondered who would come to watch it? By off chance, Zee 5 reached out to me; they were reinventing the platform as a digital channel and asked me to pitch a few ideas. So, I sent them options – of which Churails was one – and it got approved. At that time, there were no restrictions on digital, the India versus Pakistan content ban rules didn’t apply. There was freedom and there was a global audience. Of course, there continue to be conspiracy theories suggesting this is an 'Agenda Project', which India must have funded to bad-mouth our women. Honestly, there was barely any creative input from the producer about how I wanted to portray Pakistan or Pakistani women. Also, frankly, I had no one else knocking on my door, there was no international platform available to us, no Netflix, no Amazon. Cinema was doing what cinema loves to do, which is the big films. So, there was nothing else. And here I was, being allowed to do a project that I really wanted to do, with full freedom. So, it was kind of a win-win. Yes, I was worried that it may not get released, that India might back out. But the more I worked with Zee, I realized they’re incredible collaborators, and so, for me, it was a happy journey throughout. I think it’s important that with Churails we've been noticed; this will open gates for other filmmakers in Pakistan. Netflix and Amazon will only sit up and notice when we're actually making content that lives up to their expectations. The story and the concept helped drive Churails, of course, but I think it was also the scale, the fact that it was made well, and that nothing from Pakistan, at least in terms of a series, has been projected on a global platform. So I think it's a win win for Pakistan, especially for Pakistani actors, who are hungry for content like this. Churails’ actors weren’t concerned about whether they're going to get backlash or not, they thrive on good storytelling. So, I think this trend is going to have legs in Pakistan, so long as authorities don’t try to stop it; and they do have powers to curtail things, to make life difficult. Whether they can stop content from being watched though, I don't think so. Nonetheless, it’s a little disheartening that the Churails trailer has been celebrated more in India than it has in Pakistan; hundreds of people from Pakistan were employed in the series, it's a purely Pakistani project, shot in Pakistan. And India has celebrated it as their show, taken ownership of it; it's unfortunate that for Pakistan, it becomes a “funded agenda”. Eventually, banning content only hinders your own talent, your own filmmakers, your own people. Finally, one of the most salient triumphs of Churails has been that it debunks the myth that feminists can only be women. Which misses out on allyship from a large section of society—MEN! How we do undo this damage, synergise, make this an inclusive movement rather than a feared, male-bashing one? It's very complicated because it's a double-edged sword. There is always a fear that you're co-opting someone else's story, that these stories need to be told by women. A lot of people said that when Churails was released and I partially agree; however, it boils down to whether I made Churails or there would have been no Churails. If I'm being given the opportunity to tell a story, I don't want to tell stories about a privileged, heterosexual, Sunni man. They’re already a majority, what am I going to narrate? What I want to narrate is how I feel about injustices, about people who are not being able to tell their stories. Funnily, it’s shaken men even more than women, that a man wrote and made this series, but hopefully, there's also a different group of people watching this now because a man made it rather than a woman who made it just for women. If Churails has a Season 2, I hope I'm in a position where I can fight for a female led writers’ room for the idea is to push those voices forward. Until then, it’ll always feel like I’m stealing someone else's story, even though I’m not trying to take away. I’m being put in a position where I can provide a foundation or groundwork for other storytellers to tell stories which are theirs, which speak perhaps more authentically than mine, since mine is at one-degree of separation. Because as much as I've studied gender or the gaze, I can’t be in a woman's body. I can't have first-hand experience of being unnecessarily touched up. Hence, what I do is I surround myself with a lot of women—female script consultants or Assistant Directors. Creating that friendly environment, which is led by women, is the best that I can do right now and then tomorrow, hopefully, that leads to championing projects spearheaded by women.   Saba Karim Khan is an author, award-winning filmmaker and educator, whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Wasafiri, Huff Post, EN Fuego, Verso, Think Progress, DAWN, The Friday Times and Express Tribune. She has read Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and works at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her debut novel – Skyfall – was published by Bloomsbury in Dec 2020. Before joining the Academy, she worked as Country Marketing and Public Affairs Head at Citigroup. Born in Karachi, she now lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two daughters, and can be contacted via her website or Twitter. Read Saba Karim Khan in conversation with Mohsin Hamid in our spring 2021 issue, Wasafiri 105, which you can order here.
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