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The alpha male trope only perpetuates toxic masculinity: Filmmaker Asim Abbasi on directing ‘Churails’

A still from ‘Churails’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If there is anything filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has taught us about the human condition, it is this seemingly-ordinary quote from Apocalypse Now, “Every man has got a breaking point.”

For Asim Abbasi, that decisive moment arrived when he turned 30 and realised he was unhappy with his career: he had been employed in banking for over 10 years.

If not for his wife, he would not have had the “courage” to pursue cinema wholeheartedly.

Asim went to SOAS University of London in 2010 for his Master’s in Film Theory. His exposure to Iranian and Japanese cinema were a lesson in realism, influencing him to better his perception he developed on Pakistan cinema, after having grown up on a steady diet of mainstream Hindi movies during his formative years in Karachi.

“Emotions are full on and linger for far too long in our movies [both in India and Pakistan]. I learnt a lot from Japanese films on how to connect with the audience and underplay the emotion,” says Asim, over a WhatsApp call from London, where he lives.

Even though an unsuccessful contender for the Oscars, Asim’s 2018 directorial debut Cake was praised for his ability to write characters with subtlety and poignancy by national and international publications.

Though he is just one film old, Asim is now entering the web series space with Churails, a 10-episode show with a runtime of 55 minutes each. The show is headlined by Sarwat Gilani Mirza, Nimra Bucha, Mehar Bano and Yasra Rizvi.

Asim Abbasi

Asim Abbasi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

His narratives mostly centre around strong female characters, largely reflective of the women in his family — a realisation that occurred to him only recently.

Churails, for instance, is led by an all-woman team of four that operates a detective agency to expose cheating husbands in Karachi. They also rescue women from the clutches of men who have abused or mistreated them.

The series touches upon subjects of patriarchy, exploitation, child abuse and racial discrimination. “I have always resisted the alpha male trope because I feel it perpetuates toxic masculinity at some level. Which is why, even in Cake, you see softer men such as Romeo or the father character,” he says.

Trail blazer

What makes it special, perhaps important in the political context, is the fact that the show marks the first Pakistani-original commissioned by an Indian streaming service — Zee5 under its Zindagi brand.

Working for an OTT platform is not a step back, but the way forward for Asim. He adds, “Right now, what options do we have?” When he started writing the series, he says it dawned on him that he was overstuffed with ideas he wanted to explore in this single story. “Cake was a nuanced character study. But Churails is plot-driven and a long form narrative, which grew on me over a period. Only then did I realise that I’m not tied to the medium but to the story.”

When the conversation veers towards Pakistani cinema, we not only get a sense of how culturally aligned India and Pakistan are, but also get a larger picture of the command Hindi cinema has on its relatively smaller cousin.

Asim’s watchlist
  • World cinema: Persona (Ingmar Bergman), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai), Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky), Circle (Jafar Panahi) and Mahanagar (Satyajit Ray).
  • Cinema from Pakistan: Manto (Sarmad Khoosat) and Ramchand Pakistani (Mehreen Jabbar).

“Our industry is still at a nascent stage. For we lost some of our cinema, and our filmmaking completely went under Bollywood movies from ‘80s and ‘90s,” he says, adding that his earliest memory was watching Janbaaz on television.

Asim distinctly remembers one point in the ‘80s when the number of movies produced in Pakistan dropped to zero, thanks to Bollywood’s towering influence with VHS selling like hot cakes. Eventually, when the industry did pick up, the voices that emerged too succumbed to the pressure to emulate stereotypical Hindi cinema, he observes.

The sheer urgency to mimick mainstream Hindi cinema resulted in two kinds of movies — the big, fat studio production, taking inspiration from Karan Johar and indie work following in Anurag Kashyap’s world.

“Though we don’t work with that kind of budget, we do have Karan Johar-like productions, for a lesser price,” he laughs.

Drawing audiences to theatres is a challenge. “Tickets are so expensive here that movie watching is not a weekly affair like in India. The average family saves up money to do a family trip once a month. So, they would want to watch the big scale movie coming from Bollywood.”

He explains the demographic of the audience by quoting the example of Cake, which only did marginal business despite favourable reviews. “My film released on the same day as Baaghi 2. I was given a single screen for two days, but everyone wanted to watch Baaghi 2. So, mine was removed,” he says, adding, “But things are changing now...audiences are exposed to content from all over the world.”

Beyond borders

Asim’s movies are culturally-specific, albeit with an international appeal like Cake, which, he says, resonated with a lot of Indians and with people in the US and UK, when it premièred on Netflix.

Cake saw a collaboration with editor Aarti Bajaj. In fact, the news of the film’s existence was brought to light, at least in India, when filmmaker Anurag Kashyap posted a tweet, calling it a “powerful film”. Two years later, Asim has a web series made for and by an Indian company.

On the artistic front, are we in a better space to cultivate and nurture cross-border associations, regardless of the political climate? “I can’t speak for politics,” is his instinctive response, “But I do believe it’s important to take our industries forward by working together. The political situations, for instance, don’t affect South Asians living in the UK. We do not discuss how different we are, but how similar.”

After all, artistes are the harbinger of change — “Something politicians aren’t doing at the moment.”

Churails will stream on Zee5 starting August 11

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 5:16:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/interview-with-filmmaker-asim-abbasi/article32259375.ece

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