By Neha Kirpal
Highly-anticipated Netflix show Bombay Begums directed by feminist director Alankrita Shrivastava just released on Women’s Day. The intriguing story revolves around five women across generations who wrestle with desire, ethics, personal crises and vulnerabilities to own their ambition in urban Mumbai. It’s also a comeback role for actor-filmmaker Pooja Bhatt, and her performance is seamless and powerful as a second wife, stepmother and the CEO of a bank.
The show deals with a diverse range of themes and issues – from puberty to menopause, sexuality, surrogacy, love versus attraction, heartbreak, extramarital relationships, sexual harassment at the workplace, slut shaming and #MeToo – all of which it routinely brings up throughout the story from time to time.
The six-part series mostly has a corporate setting, with career women as its focus, and presents various aspects of the trials and tribulations that they face in their high-profile jobs as well as stressful, complicated personal lives.
Often grappling with difficult choices, they battle with the eternal problem of how to balance their profession and family. The women are under pressure to prove themselves extra harder at work, as they are competing with male colleagues who are looking for any possible opportunity to crush them.
Pooja Bhatt, who returns to the screen after a decade-long gap, looks glamorous as the powerful Rani. She isn’t seen as a negative character and her life choices are viewed through a sympathetic lens.
Fatima (Shahana Goswami), another of the bank’s senior executives, is more successful than her husband, her junior at the company. The jealousy causes some friction in their marriage. Moreover, while Fatima believes that women can have it all, her husband assumes that once she becomes a mother, she will stay at home and look after the baby.
Ayesha (Plabita Bothakur) is a young employee at the bank who belongs to a small town and comes from a conservative background. Through her character, director Alankrita throws light among other things on the plight of single, independent girls, who are clearly not preferred when hunting for a flat to rent in the city.
Then, there is Lily (Amruta Subhash), an ambitious former bar dancer who is looking for respect, dignity, status and equal opportunity in society. In order to secure her son’s future, she decides to give up her profession and instead set up a factory. The show explains the rationale behind prostitution. It is portrayed as any other vocation, and seen through a sympathetic lens – Lily does what she does in order to survive and support her child. Moreover, it reasons that a woman is free to do what she pleases with her body.
Young Shai (Aadhya Anand), Rani’s quiet step-daughter, is like the show’s sounding board. Trying to understand and make sense of herself and the world around her, she sketches and makes copious diary entries (to her dead mother) about her thoughts, feelings and questions on multiple things. Her voice serves as a kind of narration throughout the series.
Beautiful jazz tunes – Western orchestral music with hints of electronica infused with Indian elements like the flute, sitar and tanpura – filter through the show, adding much colour to its scenes. Music director duo, Gaurav Raina and Tarana Marwah, previously also did the background score for Alankrita’s earlier web series Made in Heaven.
Contrary to what we are used to seeing in popular culture, women are the main protagonists in the show – calling the shots and making things happen – while the men in their lives comprise secondary or supporting roles. Though women are also pitted against one other, and sometimes perceived as rivals, it is also heartening to see them come together to share heart-to-heart confessions, raise their voices as well as support and empower each other.
The show even offers a rationale for why women characters have extramarital affairs. Sexual unfulfillment in their marriages, feeling like ‘constantly being on a treadmill from which there’s no getting off’, finding themselves on a different wavelength from their spouses, or even a desire for love – these are some of the reasons the show suggests. In a sense, the affairs offer them an escape, and they are able to breathe. Most of all, their choices are never judged and the message seems to be that no love – or marriage – is perfect.
In contemporary culture, our minds are also trained to view women from a biased point of view – as either ‘saint’ or ‘sinner’, and judge them accordingly. The show turns that ideology on its head, and shows women in all their rawness, and in several shades of grey – with their own share of dreams, insecurities and, most importantly, flaws.
It is possibly this which makes it disturbing or uncomfortable for a viewer. Further, by tracing the different life choices they make, the story proves that just like men, no woman is perfect and doesn’t have to be – and that’s okay.
It is a radical message for Women’s Day, when women are feted with a million greetings that term them goddesses: Let’s consider the fact that women are people too.