Sarwat Gilani is no stranger to complex roles; with the critically-acclaimed web series â€œChurailsâ€, sheâ€™s tapped into yet another dimension of her craft. Following the resounding success of the series, she chats with Mehek Raza Rizvi about the conception of â€œChurailsâ€, portraying roles responsibly and how she prepared to essay Sara
â€œChurailsâ€ is the first Pakistan-made original series for Indian streaming platform Zee5 Global. Weâ€™re curious to know the background behind this affiliation. Who reached out first?Â
Shailja Saraswati Varghese, who headsÂ contentÂ at Zee5 had noticed Asim Abbasiâ€™s movie â€œCakeâ€ and found it to be an interesting piece of art. She approached Asim and suggested they collaborate. At that point, Asim was in the process of writing the first draft of â€œChurailsâ€ and so he put together the pilot and sent it across. She liked it and asked him to write her a couple of more episodes, which he did and the rest is history. She loved the concept and commissioned Asim to create Pakistanâ€™s first original product for Zee5. She gave him a lot of creative liberty to do things his way, because she could understand that heâ€™s like a stallionâ€”you canâ€™t control Asim.
Did the team consider that the association of â€œChurailsâ€ with an Indian streaming platform could possibly hurt the sentiments of some of your local fans?Â
A product like this is not for television or film. It had to be a web series; it was written for web and sadly, we donâ€™t have an online portal of our own yet. If Netflix or Amazon had asked us for our content, that wouldnâ€™t have been a problem, so why should this be? Art has no boundaries and artists want to exchange work. We donâ€™t want to put ourselves in these little matchboxes saying â€œthis is my worldâ€ and â€œthis is where my art stays.â€ Art and music are forms you canâ€™t control; theyâ€™re like water. If we had a Pakistani platform and we didnâ€™t use it, then we wouldâ€™ve at least given a thought to what people would say, but in the absence of such an option, if someone showed interest in Pakistan and its talent, I donâ€™t think there was any room for resistance or second thoughts.
Asim has attempted to show the real, grey people. They could come from any part of society, but they have fallen, they have risen, they have imperfections, but also some great qualities. Your positives and negatives make you human
â€œChurailsâ€ is a brave script, unlike any other to have been produced in the country. However, something as courageous is always susceptible to backlash. Is/was that a fear?Â
When I read the script, I knew this was a page-turner. The exceptional story is the hero of the project, it is both the antagonist and the protagonist and thatâ€™s a very unique concept to come across. With something so different, there are always fears about how itâ€™ll be received. Whilst we were making it, we did have our doubts about people taking this well, or us hurting the feelings of part of our audience. However, we were blown away with the overwhelming love and encouragement we received when the trailer released and even more so after the first episode premiered. It was unreal; we had attempted to do something so unusual, it could make people feel uncomfortable, but it didnâ€™t. And even if it did make a certain segment uncomfortable, they were happy with it, knowing that for the first time, someone had made the effort to talk about real issues women face that are normally not touched upon in our entertainment industry.
Tell us of the first thoughts you had when â€œChurailsâ€ was offered to you.Â
My first thought was â€œWow!â€ I was just thanking my stars to be offered an unbelievable script that would make history in Pakistan. For an actor to be offered such a role and be part of such a project is like a dream. This was the unicorn I had been looking for throughout my career. I had never read, or even watched, anything like this before. I was over the moon. This is right up my alley and Iâ€™d been waiting for it for so long. Iâ€™m an artist, a rebelâ€”Iâ€™ll always stand up for myself and say whatâ€™s right when people try to put me down or troll me. This was a story that I could relate to. The issues addressed in this script are pertinent and important to talk about. What more could I have asked for, than someone like Asim Abbasi highlighting these topics so beautifully and sensitively? He really took ownership of the real reflections of our society.
Run us through the creative process of preparing for a role like Sara. Can you relate to the character youâ€™re playing?Â
Absolutely! I can relate to Sara completely. I think the casting was done very intelligently. Half the job was done with selecting just the right talent. I think one of the most important tasks on set is hiring the correct people and if you succeed at that, youâ€™ve won part of the battle already.
Preparing for my role involved a lot of readings, rehearsals and personal sessions to discuss our characters, even our personal experiencesâ€”our inhibitions, sorrows and complexesâ€”we opened up to Asim wholeheartedly, so he could understand us and see if there were any vulnerabilities he could tap into as an example when we werenâ€™t getting something on set.
There were a lot of things that we talked about, references that we drew. A lot inspiration for Saraâ€™s body language was drawn from Gayatri Devi, the third Maharani consort of Jaipur. I also took inspiration from Meryl Streepâ€™s character in â€œThe Devil Wears Pradaâ€ and for a couple of scenes with Omair Rana, I saw and studied Angelina Jolie in â€œMr. & Mrs. Smith.â€ So there was a lot that I picked from reading what I had read before or going back to characters I had seen before.
There were a lot of things that we talked about, references that we drew. A lot inspiration for Saraâ€™s body language was drawn from Gayatri Devi, the third Maharani consort of Jaipur. I also took inspiration from Meryl Streepâ€™s character in â€œThe Devil Wears Pradaâ€ and for a couple of scenes with Omair Rana, I saw and studied Angelina Jolie in â€œMr. & Mrs. Smithâ€
How was your experience working with an all-female cast?Â
It was almost an all-female castâ€”we did have a few male co-stars on set as well, but it was an undeniably amazing experience! I think what made it even better was the fact that these were all actors with a background in theatre and were just fantastic at their craft. I always felt inspired by each one of them, as they brought so much to the table. The real magic was in the fact that they were always so normal, grounded and chilled out behind the camera, but as soon as they were shooting, they embodied the strong characters they were portraying so smoothly and effortlessly.
I think because we all came from the theatre community, we understood the essence of teamwork. There was no â€œstarâ€ on our set. We all stuck through the strenuous hours, challenging locations and hot weather, because we were working towards one goal, which was Asimâ€™s visionâ€”that was the beauty of â€œChurails.â€Â Our friendships have translated from reel to real life, so you can imagine what the vibe must have been like.
Why do you think itâ€™s important to show flawed female characters on screen?Â
The whole idea of â€œChurailsâ€ is to get acceptance for a normal, regular human being. In our drama serials, itâ€™s either a negative or positive role, particularly for women. There are fixed stereotypes: the working woman wearing western attire will be painted as cunning, while the one clad in shalwar kameez will be painted as innocent and uprightâ€”there is no middle ground, all characters are black and white. Asim has attempted to show the real, grey people. They could come from any part of society, but they have fallen, they have risen, they have imperfections, but also some great qualities. Your positives and negatives make you human.
Mostly, we see stories of characters who arenâ€™t relatable, but â€œChurailsâ€ is the story of real women, with real issues and real traits.
Do you feel gender portrayal in Pakistani drama serials will see a shift in the near future?
I really hope so. I wish â€œChurailsâ€ proves to be a benchmark for our entertainment industry and we move towards more message-oriented content, without creating dilemmas in the minds of our audience and taking down their intellectual ability to understand something. I feel there is no gender equality in our drama serials. In my eighteen years of working as an actress, Iâ€™ve always had to be rescued by a man: a husband, lover, father or friend. Never before have I played a character where I fell and rose myself. Every drama is built around the premise of â€œwill they get married?â€ Itâ€™s quite regressive, itâ€™s like you donâ€™t want people to grow. I really pray that we start taking responsibility to tell the truth and stop misguiding the public.
What role can actors play in bringing about this change?Â
When offered characters and stories that donâ€™t encourage the idea of uplifting my audience or stimulating intellectual growth, I donâ€™t accept them. If I canâ€™t agree with a concept, I canâ€™t preach it. This is why Iâ€™ve always done selective work. Your character has to be believable. I think actors should say no to poor content, regardless of the money involved. This is our responsibility as entertainers. We should not support putting women down in particular.
Women will definitely take away the fact that they arenâ€™t the only ones with flaws. By showing the reality of our world, weâ€™re aiming to make our resilient women realise that theyâ€™re born to fly, not crawl
What do you hope, both women and men take away from the web series? Â
Women will definitely take away the fact that they arenâ€™t the only ones with flaws. By showing the reality of our world, weâ€™re aiming to make our resilient women realise that theyâ€™re born to fly, not crawl. Men on the other hand, will be reminded of all the cracks theyâ€™ve made in society and also of the unfair expectations they have of women. We want men to be a little uncomfortable, so they understand this is the new age; every woman has a voice and they are going to fail in shunning us.
More importantly, what has been your biggest takeaway from your experience working on â€œChurails?â€
I think my most favourite experience has been unlearning my preconceived notions about acting.
Photography: Rizwan ul HaqÂ | Styling: Ella Hussain at Emergency Room 19
Wardrobe: Yellow dress dress courtesy Asim JofaÂ | Hair & Makeup: Arshad Khan
Jewellery: Rouge by Rooj Amir and Jewels by Irma Hasan