One criticism that was held continuously against the movies made by Alankrita Shrivastava was that they were too female-oriented that men in those stories felt as insignificant as heroines in some of the mainstream masala movies. And one could also sense her trying to pitch too many things about women’s desires, which made her movies slightly crowded in terms of the statements it made. I am saying all these now because the new Netflix original series Bombay Begums created, written, and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava seems to be giving her ample space to explore each character in depth. Her stories’ politics remains the same, but the canvas this time has more room to create a more significant impact.
The series is essentially about five women in the city of Mumbai. One is Rani, the CEO of Royal Bank of India, who has seen all the dirty games in the corporate world. Then there is Fatima, an aspiring banker who Rani gives a promotion. Ayesha is the new recruit in the bank who desperately wants to become something with this job as her parents are setting her up for an arranged marriage. Then we have Lily, a bar dancer turned prostitute who goes to any limit so that her son can live a dignified life in society. And then we have the narrator Shai, Rani’s step-daughter, who is curiously analyzing the do’s and don’ts assigned to women. The conflicted world of these women, where they are constantly going through an inner battle, is what we see in Bombay Begums.
The series is about that grey space of moral ambiguity in a patriarchal world. If you look at Alankrita’s works prior to this, there is a constant discussion happening in all of them about why women’s desires are always looked through the prism of morality; a morality taught by men or a system that men developed. Here also, that debate is happening. Rani is introduced to us as a greedy opportunist in the series. Fatima opts for promotion over the baby. Ayesha is totally cool with hookups. Lily’s plans to extort money are morally wrong, and Shai’s love for attention is too obvious. Alankrita introduces her women as the “bitches” in a male-dominated world. And then she starts the debate. The show’s perspective about relationships, the institute of marriage, etc., felt really discomforting(in a good way).
Along with the female sexuality-driven theme, a compelling corporate political drama is also happening in the series. Alankrita makes the series compelling through the character equations and makes it deep through character expansions. The power game in the narrative drives the drama in the series forward. But Bombay Begums becomes much more affecting emotionally because of the way it asks you to embrace the greyness in life. As a viewer, the chances of you trying to find a solution to certain situations in the series by making it a simple right or wrong question is high. But the empathetic approach of the screenplay towards these characters makes you realize that it is not that black and white for anyone to decide.
Pooja Bhatt, who makes a comeback to acting after a decade, was wonderful as the poised and conflicted Rani. There is this desire in her to prove that she is capable of making things happen, and there is also this fear in her about being old, about getting rejected, etc. Shahana Goswami and Vivek Gomber play a couple again after A Suitable Boy, and this time the duo looked pretty real. And Shahana handled the character’s multiple shades very naturally. Fatima is actually similar to Shai in certain ways. They both are understanding a different layer of relationship over time. Plabita Borthakur plays the bisexual Ayesha, who transforms from being bubbly and foolish to a strong and independent woman. The confusions and trauma of that character were presented very effectively by her. Aadhya Anand makes a solid impression with her performance as Shai. My favorite of the lot was Amruta Subhash as Lily. Lily was the most disturbing character in the series for me, and Amruta Subhash performed Lily’s heart-wrenching reality beautifully. In a show titled Bombay Begums, expecting men to have substantial screen time would be too much to ask for. But still, there are some performances like that of Danish Hussain, Vivek Gomber, and Manish Chaudhary that sort of stays with you.
When the “Me Too” campaign began and started to make a huge impact in workplaces, there were too many debates happening about the different aspects of it. There were many complex layers to that movement that one wouldn’t understand if they try to look at it in a black and white way. Bombay Begums is an effort to have an up-close look at those murky grey areas between right and wrong. The show’s perfection may be debatable, but the show definitely contributes to that pertinent debate of gender rights.
The show's perfection may be debatable, but the show definitely contributes to that pertinent debate of gender rights.
Green: Recommended Film
Orange: Okay, Watchable, Experimental Films
Red: Not Recommended