By Pranjali Wakde
Dismantling the societal power structures, six episodes at a time – Bombay Begums attempts to bring women’s problems into the spotlight.
“Women… remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems,” said Virginia Woolf in her beloved essay, A Room of One’s Own. Why do I quote it here? Because it fits rather perfectly with the characters and their narratives in Bombay Begums. Alankrita Shrivastava, the director, has always made women-centric works, such as Lipstick Under My Burkha, and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare – and now this one will be included in that list. Released on a very apt day – Women’s Day – on Netflix, it brings us stories of five women – with stark different backgrounds and way more unsolved problems – woven together by a single place, i.e. the Royal Bank of Bombay.
Rani (Pooja Bhatt) has recently been made the CEO of this prestigious but drowning-in-crushing-debts bank, with an all-men board. Her step-daughter, Shai (Aadhya Anand) comes with her too-cool-for-you attitude and harbours a secret crush on a fellow classmate. Fatima (Shahana Goswami) is an employer at the bank, who’s offered the deputy managing director by Rani, but she’s conflicted, as her husband Arijay (Vivek Gomber) expects her to take care of their baby. Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) is actually fired by Fatima, but comes back in, to work in the bank’s Corporate Social Responsibility division. This division tries to support Lily (Amruta Subhash), a sex worker, who is busy blackmailing Rani for her stepson’s mistake.
With such diverse characters, the story starts building from episode one itself, laying the foundation, connecting the characters, all the while trying to underline how hard it is for women to navigate in any kind of setting. It obviously a great attempt at conveying a different gaze, especially in Hindi dramas; it successfully captures, for example, how a schoolgirl perceives the world or how much important is survival for a sex worker. This is what sets Bombay Begums apart – it is a fresh perspective, chipping away, even a bit, at the patriarchal power structures.
What impresses me the most is how the characters are real. They have sad histories, troubled present and a murky future; and yet, they own their flaws and persevere, as women are supposed to do. Though their lives are more than enough dramatic, it can be said that it is toned down by the philosophical musings of Shai’s soothing voice. These women are especially convincing in their roles, and a special round of applause should go to Subhash’s Lily and Goswami’s Fatima. Lily’s obsession with getting the respect she deserves seems authentic enough (“Insaaf ki ladaai ladne ki luxury nahi hai apne paas”), while Fatima’s emotional upheaval under her calm façade makes us want to sympathize with her.
The range of themes covered in the series is rather astounding, including love, motherhood, puberty, rivalries, infidelity, sexual harassment, desire and passion, identity, to name a few. The float in and out of the narrative, sometimes invisible, sometimes overwhelming – but always there in the background. But the most important theme here, I feel, is the quality of fulfilment. Everyone is trying to find their destination, literal or emotional; and they get it by the end. The end is beautiful in that sense, as Ayesha gets ‘a room of one’s own’ and Rani settles in the content family life she craved since the start.
That doesn’t mean men don’t get a spotlight in the series. There are many men wandering around in the narrative, fleshing out the story, giving it some thrilling twists and turns. May it be Mahesh Rao’s (Rahul Bose) carnal and self-centred love for Rani, Deepak’s (Manish Chaudhary) predatory nature, or Naushad’s (Danish Hussain) through-thick-or-thin support, all of them seem adequate in their places.
With that being said, the problem actually lies in the story and its narration. It forces the feminist narrative down the audience’s throats, emphasizing how men will always lie on two extremes – either compliant or straight-up cunning – all the while overcompensating the fact that women never have time to breathe without worry. While this isn’t that overwhelming, it labels the series as an average attempt in the genre of contemporary feminist fiction. However, Bombay Begums is engaging enough to keep you in your seat for six straight hours – and that’s saying something, right?
Ratings – 3.5/5