Asim Abbasi’s directorial web series, Churails premiered on the Indian OTT platform Zee5 on 11th August. The series, that has been lauded for its unconventional story line, progressive characterization, and a liberal approach towards societal taboos, is unlike anything that has come from the Pakistani entertainment industry in a long time. Churails received both praise and some criticism for its content upon its release, but for the most part the series was left undisturbed on the platform leaving it open for any viewer to stream it as per their own choice.
However, two months after the series’ release, Churails was once again trending on social media. The reason? Churails was restricted for viewing in Pakistan. In other words, Churails was banned in Pakistan.
On 7th October, Churails was removed from the streaming platform Zee5 for its Pakistani subscribers. Zee5 had received a directive, allegedly issued by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), demanding that the show be restricted for viewing in Pakistan because of the backlash it has received in the country.
Director Asim Abbasi of Cake fame, expressed his disappointment about the supposed ban on his Twitter account. His women-led ensemble cast expressed their displeasure publicly whereas celebrities such as Osman Khalid Butt, Sanam Saeed, and Mansha Pasha condemned the trend of controlling creative freedom by imposing frequent bans on media artifacts.
A snippet from the series featuring Hina Bayat and Yasra Rizvi went viral on social media platforms, primarily Twitter, last week. The video crafted a monologue of Hina’s character in which she talks about providing physical favors to earn a livelihood and receive hierarchy promotions. The monologue consisted sexually explicit words, which became a subject of cyber vilification. This clip circulated on digital platforms and irked the conservative elements in the country.
The concept of consuming local web series is comparatively new, and a section of the audience confuses web series with television dramas, hence Churails’ content was scrutinized in regards to television’s code of conduct. A section of the local netizens reported complaints to the media regulatory bodies, i.e, PEMRA and PTA against the streaming of Churails in the country.
Earlier today, director of Churails Asim Abbasi shared on his Instagram that Churails was now back Zee5 and was available for viewing in Pakistan again.
Zee5 stated in its official statements said that, “Our aim has always been to create content that resonates strongly with viewers across the globe. Churails has been a phenomenal success story for us and has been lauded and loved the world over.”
The statement further clarified the reason why Churails was taken down by the platform.
“The show was taken off the platform in Pakistan purely in compliance with a directive that we received. We have now addressed the matter and reinstated the show on our platform.”
Things not yet answered
According to the statement that was issued by Zee5, the platform had received a directive from Pakistan to remove Churails from its platform for the Pakistani audience. However, the statement does not say who had sent this directive to the platform in the first place.
A story published by the Reuters claims that PTA had contacted the OTT platform after receiving complains regarding the content of Churails.
“We cannot block (content) on our own, but we can write to the platform, which we have done,” a PTA official said on condition of anonymity to Reuters.
However, according to an article published in Independent Urdu, no such comment on the Churails ban in Pakistan was made by anyone associated with the PTA. According to the Independent Urdu article, they had reached out to both Zee5 and Asim Abbasi for their comments on the ban. The officials of Zee5 refused to comment on the matter whereas Asim Abbasi said that he had said everything he had to say on his social media accounts. He refused to answer about who had issued the ban and how was he informed of it.
The article also claims that PTA had first shown unawareness regarding the whole issue. However, later the spokesperson for PTA Khurram Mehran did say that PTA was well within its lawful rights to ban any content available on the internet. The Churails ban, however, was not caused by PTA.
Journalist Hasan Zaidi did not endorse the report made by Independent Urdu. Quoting the news of PTA having no involvement in the Churails ban, he said that it was a matter of bureaucratic nuance. He claimed that Zee5 was being threatened by PTA that it would ban the entire platform in the country if they fail to comply to their directive.
Zee5 has not issued any clarification about the issue yet.
A planned move?
Seeing how the current trend in Pakistan is to ban something if one wants people to get more interested in it, it does not seem far-fetched to assume that the trend was used as a publicity stunt by the platform for its advantage. Zee5 has not made any clarifications about who issued them the directive to take down the content in Pakistan; what objectionable content was raised as the reason which led to the demand of the ban, and what negotiations did the platform and the yet-unnamed body that issued the directive reach for Churails to be unrestricted in Pakistan without any changes made to it. The conspiracy theory about this whole sudden-ban-followed-by-a-quick-unban being a planned move seems to have some weight to it.
When an official regulatory authority decides to ban or criticize any kind of content that is on-air or online, it does so by issuing an official statement. PEMRA did it when it decided to ban Jalan. It did it again when it issued warning against the recent Gala commercial. So, it is quite suspicious that the same was never bothered to be done for Churails.
A web-series, unlike a regular series, is not able to hold the limelight for a long time. Because the entire series is available for binge watching all at once, there is no waiting period for its audience to properly discuss and dissect the show. The fervor for a web-series might be huge, but it is short-lived nonetheless.
Which is what happened with Churails. The web-series was released, discussed, commented on, criticized, and then ultimately left behind as the audience moved on to other things, all within a span of a month. However, when the news of the ban came out, Churails was back on the trending list. People were talking about it again. And what a co-incidence, it happened right at the same time when Zee5 was all ready to release the trailer for its next Pakistani web-series – Ek Jhoothi Love Story.
It is quite suspicious to see how the official statement released by Zee5 barely addresses the ban and is instead more focused on how much Churails was loved worldwide. An official statement that was meant to clarify rumors and put to rest any conspiracy theory instead uses this incident to promote its next venture. Planting a controversy to promote a project? Well, it is quite a common publicity stunt that is used quite often across the border.
This is, after all, pure conjecture from our part based on the news that we have on our hands. Until some more detailed and transparent information about the ban is not released, conjectures and conspiracy theories will continue to raise skepticism about where this sudden ban on the web-series came from and why it was over by the time the platform was ready to introduce new original content on it. Meanwhile, Churails is now available on the streaming platform internationally, including Pakistan, like it was never gone.