Queer Representation In Churails: A Review

Churails, directed and written by Asim Abbasi, is a one of a kind Pakistani web series. From employing feminist themes to making space in desi queer cinema, Churails quenches our thirst for a ‘real’ portrayal of women in Pakistani media. The drama shows us women who don’t fit into the stereotypical categories of either “good” or “bad”, who are flawed and who come from diverse backgrounds with real, three-dimensional stories to tell. The show also brings to life intersectional representation of marginalized and oppressed communities of our society – one of them being the LGBT+ community.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in trying to humanize queer and trans people on screen in Pakistan and in writing their narrative because of the general unacceptability of the community. Because of the intense intolerance surrounding the LGBT+ community, their stories hardly ever surface, their problems never come to light and there is an almost complete silencing of their existence and narrative. Since heteronormativity is the norm, homophobia is widespread, and extremely inaccurate representations of the community dominate people’s imagination about the LGBT+ community. For this reason, there is a serious need for filmmakers and writers to go the extra mile in creating nuanced and well-informed queer characters, while ensuring that they do not contribute in further demonizing an already marginalised community or its members.

Keeping this in mind, does Churails pass the test? Let's look at a few instances of their portrayal.

1) Lesbian lovers

Babli and Pinky are ex-jail inmates and lovers. There’s a short scene in episode 2 where the two of them are shown spending their newly earned money to see a mujra.

This sort of representation can be harmful because it can form an incorrect meaning of what it means for a woman to be attracted to another woman, especially when a large part of the audience (and the public) lacks understanding, information or awareness about the community. The problem arises because mujras are linked to the consumption of the female body, the objectification of women, and the male gaze. Putting two queer women in the place and space of men wasn’t the best way to portray queer attraction and activity.

Other than that, I was glad to see some desi butch representation because butch representation is predominantly defined by Western portrayals. The moments between the couple were also handled carefully in a way that did not sexualize them giving them a real, honest-to-God relationship.

2) Trans woman

The show doesn’t dive deep into the issues of trans people which means that only a handful are highlighted. One of them is when Baby Doll (the trans woman) has to go inside a fancy hotel but the guard insults her and sends her away, even after she proves her right as a citizen by showing a registered CNIC. This scene accurately highlights the issues regarding trans people being seen as lesser human beings and their exclusion from certain spaces. Such spaces, it must be noted, are private and are meant for a certain class of people. Restrictions to enter reinforce the idea and stereotypes that trans women belong on the streets, that they are not respectable and thus need to be kept out of ‘respectable’ places. Happily, though, Baby Doll’s inclusion in the women-only group in Churails makes a very clear statement: transwomen are women.

3) The gay husband

A married man has a secret affair with a male lover and his wife knows he’s cheating on her but she has no idea about his homosexuality. She wants to catch him red-handed and goes towards the hotel room where the man is with his lover. We, as viewers, and the wife have no idea what’s happening behind the closed doors but, since it’s a hotel room, we expect something of a sexual nature. But when the doors open, the scene we witness catches us off-guard. We see two gay men in an embrace having an intimate moment together. How often does one get to see such a scene coming from a Pakistani show?

This scene is important because it sends a much-needed message to the straight audience, especially those who invalidate queer love and experiences. One of the objections against queer people is that same-sex attraction is the result of lust and not love. Therdfore, it isn’t real. Heteronormative people assume that queer people cannot actually be in romantic relationships or be in love. But this scene shows that these gay men are very much in love with each other, and even though sexual pleasure may be a part of their relationship, it isn’t the basis of it.

However, the next few scenes were quite disturbing and problematic. Frankly, I don’t understand why they took place. When the woman finds out about her husband’s affair [trigger warning ahead], the wife slices his neck, cuts out a piece of his leg, and makes nihari out of it. The episode took a sudden turn towards gore where the wife ends up eating the leg of her gay husband. The killing of the gay character and the way in which it was done was not only disturbing for its violence, it was also simply homophobic.

Queer films or films with queer characters around the world often end horribly for the queer characters. They are often made to face terrible consequences as a result of their sexuality and are demonized through different means including violence. We must understand that this does not help the queer community nor can it be called real allyship as it sends out a message that queer people can never truly be happy and that they are in for terrible consequences because of who they are. The makers of Churails seem to have sent out the same message with this scene.

In another scene, Batool (one of the Churails who outed the gay husband) likens her pedophilic husband to her friend’s gay husband. It’s unclear whether she is linking pedophilia with homosexuality, or if she is making a statement about a generally awful nature of men. Again, with a show dealing with such a sensitive topic, care must be taken to keep such ambiguities at a low.

In the end, Churails gives us a much-needed desi queer representation, even though it sometimes falls short and takes a turn towards homophobia. Nonetheless, Churails is a unique show and I hope future films can take inspiration from it. We all know how much our culture needs such shows to make up for its lack of understanding for such a large portion of society.