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Bombay Begums review: Flawed, real and laughing women make this Netflix series come alive

Bombay Begums review: The most powerful element in Alankrita Srivastava’s films is the recognition of women’s desire, and how its absence can create permanent hollowness.

Written by Shubhra Gupta
New Delhi | Updated: March 8, 2021 9:36:38 pm
Bombay BegumsBombay Begums review: This web series is written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. (Photo: Netflix)

Bombay Begums cast: Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur, Aadhya Anand, Manish Choudhary, Vivek Gomber, Imaad Shah, Danish Hussain, Rahul Bose, Nauheed Cyrusi
Bombay Begums director: Alankrita Shrivastava

The struggle for women to survive is real, whether they occupy coveted corner offices in plush corporate offices, or much humbler environs on the wrong side of the tracks. Bombay Begums may well have been named so because it is a catchy alliteration, but the six-part series encompasses that age-old truth as seen through the inter-connected stories of its Mumbai-based ‘begums’: if you are a woman, you have to fight for your rights every inch of the way.

Rani (Pooja Bhatt) is the CEO of a bank, zealously guarding her hard-earned turf. Fatima (Shahana Goswami) works in the same bank, and is steadily climbing the ladder. Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) is a small-town girl hacking a life in the big city. Shai (Aadhya Anand) is a lonely teenager with mommy issues. Lily (Amruta Subhash) is a bar dancer and a single mother. Here are your different stratas of society and age-groups united by the single immutable, unalterable fact of gender, and how everything these characters do is circumscribed by centuries of patriarchy and misogyny.

There have been ambitious women in the movies and TV shows before, so it isn’t exactly virgin territory that ‘Bombay Begums’ treads. But where it scores is in its decision to create full-bodied female characters who refuse to be likeable, or to conform. And in the way it shows us just how much women themselves are complicit in maintaining the status-quo, once they reach a certain position: a predatory male colleague (Manish Choudhary) at the bank is outed by a new entrant after a sexual assault, and instantly the older women close ranks on the shaken, miserable girl. Has she any idea how her complaint will impact her fledgling career? How drunk was she when it happened? Wasn’t it consensual? Think of the man, and his happy family: these accusations will ruin his life.

This incident opens up old wounds of sexual harassment that a character had to suppress, and difficult truths come tumbling out, so timely in the #MeToo era.

Not everything works. I wasn’t quite convinced about the way the bar dancer’s strand is shoehorned into the narrative, but Amruta Subhash’s playing of Lily is so good that you want more of her. Some twists feel contrived and too convenient. And the coming of age of the privileged teenage girl is a bit too literally realised, but again there are so few cinematic attempts of pubescent teenagers becoming aware of their bodies, that I will take this too, thank you very much.

What joy to see women getting their due, speaking up, speaking out. Pooja Bhatt owns the part of Rani, the woman who’s got to where she wanted, her scars showing. She is in a relationship with a powerful man (Rahul Bose); her spouse (Danish Hussain) is in the know. What happens between partners in these so-called ‘open marriages’? And just look at that gorgeous wardrobe, the sarees she wears, each better than the other. Shahana Goswami makes us empathise, effortlessly, with her Fatima, who is not in the happiest of places with her husband (Vivek Gomber), and who comes alive only when she is in the boardroom. Motherhood is not what will fulfil her; a place at the high table will.

Alankrita Srivastava has been consistently pushing boundaries with her portrayal of women’s sexuality. The most powerful element in both ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ and ‘Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktey Sitare’ was the recognition of women’s desire, and how its absence can create permanent hollowness. We see this playing out in these ‘begums’ of Bombay: in the character who is ‘bi’, and who wants freedom to explore fully, in the unhappily unmarried older woman who has a passionate affair and finds a kind of fleeting happiness she’s been missing in her arid marriage, and in the mostly-happily married woman who learns the value of true love. Flawed, real, hurting, laughing women who make you stay with them, and root for them. What are the trade-offs on your journey to the top? And where are your hard stops? These questions, which the series places front and centre, make it a meaningful addition to contemporary feminist fiction.

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