Published in Sep-Oct 2020
An hour before we (virtually) meet, I text Asim Abbasi a reminder about our video call, to which he exclaims: “I thought this was audio! :O”. After apologising for the miscommunication, to coax him, I suggest he can do the interview in his PJs. Abbasi text-chuckles and agrees, and before we have even met, I have become a fangirl, if only so because of how down to earth and accommodating he is.
Abbasi, of course, is the writer-director of Zee5’s new head-turning web series, Churails. For this virtual encounter, he has passed on the PJs in favour of a salmon pink polo. He is currently in London, where he spends most of his time either with his six-year-old son or writing, and the other half of the year is spent shooting in Pakistan.
Abbasi describes himself as “an introvert, very normal and average,” and that he plays devil’s advocate whenever he can. “I try to see things from other people’s perspectives; this is what drives me to tell stories about communities and people who need to have their stories told.”
His family and friends say he is a great listener (I agree) but does not talk enough (I disagree). His late father’s “soft hearted, gentle, and empathetic” self is clearly reflected in Abbasi’s own personality and growing up surrounded by strong, opinionated women like his mother and four older sisters has turned him into an atypical desi man without an inferiority complex. He is a “mommy’s boy” but in the most positive way possible.
I ask him what his younger self was like, thinking he will say “naughty” because of the big, half-mischievous-half guilty grin that appears before he answers. But it turns out he was a complete “nerd.” “If I ever got a B, I would panic and think “s**t, I’m screwed!”
At university, he decided to take up finance and eventually became an investment banker. “I wanted to fulfil my parent’s expectations and make them happy – and this was without any overt pressure from them.” Moreover, the scope for a career in Pakistan’s media industry was not as vast then. “TV had not picked up and cinema was dead... I thought ‘Laroon bhi to kis cheez se laroon? Film banaon bhi to kahan dikhaon ga?’”
After he turned 30 and married a woman who was adamant about him living his dream, he realised making money was not everything and that he needed to feed his creative soul. So, he finally had a much-delayed conversation with his parents in order to convince them that switching careers was a good idea. “My mom still pokes fun at me by saying ‘you only took permission for one film, remember?”
However, even after leaving banking, he was not quite sure what he wanted to do. So he enrolled at SOAS in London for a Master’s in Film Theory in Global Cinemas, which he says triggered something in him. Another push towards filmmaking was his “morbid fascination” with death and his own mortality. “I did not want to die working in finance! I want to die leaving things behind that people who don’t know me will look at, think about and have a conversation over.”
It was difficult to get a foot through the door in the UK’s film industry due to intense competition and limited opportunities for people of colour. At the same time, Pakistan’s film industry was growing – multiplexes were opening and the demand for content was on the up. Eventually, he looked to Pakistan for work, albeit with some hesitation. In 2015, he directed his first Pakistan film, a short, Little Red Roses, and it was with the same team that he later shot Cake, which proved to be the litmus test of whether he could work in Pakistan.
When I ask him why he has not ventured into TV yet, I get an almost frustrated response. “TV in Pakistan never excited me; it is too regulated, ratings driven and comes with huge time and resource constraints. In just one day, actors have to shoot 30 to 40% of an episode and everything from wardrobe to set design is done in-house; there are no nuances. TV is a machine that churns out commercial shows after shows.”
Conversely, in his film ventures he has given himself the luxury of enormous prep time. “We analyse each scene and every character. Everything from a pomegranate to an ostrich; anything that is visually present has meaning.”
According to some critics, the performance of his actors is markedly different compared to other films; his response is that this is due to the amount of the time they spend together as a team.
“During filming for Churails, we were so connected because we got to know each other well through sessions where we would discuss not just the characters but our lives.” He is grateful that his teams were equally invested in his project. “You don’t often come across actors who dedicate three months to script reading, rehearsing and one-on-one time. Mehar Bano for one regularly attended boxing classes.”
According to him, his crew describes him as a ‘tyrant’ on set. Not because he has scary tendencies, but because he does not let people cut corners. He is adamant in wanting to bring to life meaningful stories without bending to the pressures of commercial getups. Perhaps this is why he never tells his actors which emotions they should bring forth. “I do not say ‘acha chalein ayen ab iss scene mein aap ko rona ya hasna hai’. I let them decide how they want to handle a scene. If they feel like laughing during a death scene, because it feels right for the character to do so, I let them go ahead. No jhoota emphasis or thehrao, you have to keep it real.” He adds that his goal is to stay “honest and authentic” to the story he is telling without making unnecessary compromises. “For example, when a channel asks a director to hire a certain actor because of their star power – these business-side manipulations tarnish the product.”
In his view, digital media is the future. “The amount of love I received for Cake on digital was much more compared to when it was released in cinemas, and the same goes for Churails. The series has been released in 190 countries and thousands of people have watched it already.” Unlike Cake which was a family drama, Churails is experimental because of its bold approach to multiple societal issues and its non-linear approach. “It starts as light and frivolous and then turns into a psychological thriller.” Abbasi says that Churails garnered much wider appeal than the team initially anticipated.” The number of men and older women who watched it was surprising; you cannot underestimate your audiences – they are smart, hungry and open to new content.”
I ask what inspired the series and (thankfully) did not make the mistake of assuming it was female empowerment – he is clearly annoyed about the fact that people tend to assume that the main theme is indeed female empowerment. He replies that the series is an exploration of the effects of rage in driving women forward.
“I never said these women are feminist heroes or role models. Churails is an exploration of what justice, morality and moral ambiguity look like; that when a woman is pushed in multiple ways, rage becomes a justifiable (and sometimes not) response in driving them forward. This said, women are feeling empowered after watching the series because they are finally watching something that goes beyond the damsel in distress syndrome and that is wonderful! But to say that my vision of empowerment is wrong... no, my vision was never about empowerment, it was about rage.”
When Abbasi talks about himself he is rather hesitant and modest, but when it comes to his work, he is self-assured and adopts a fiery spirit. Without using the word ‘passionate,’ (or telling a ‘profound’ story about his inspirations), his upright demeanour and assertive tone are enough to communicate his zeal for telling other people’s stories.
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