Begum, Again

There’s something interesting at play with the way the Indian OTT originals and the hosting platforms are conceptualizing our lives for the screen. I would put emphasis on “Indian women” but I know #MenLivesMatter and all that. Plus, women’s day is over and so is our token 24 hours window to feel good on social media (also, nobody got me a single chocolate— the disadvantages of being self-employed).

If Alt-Balaji is going down with transgression (Dev DD, Gandii Baat)— a self-righteous follow-up from their years of Baniya Goth television and representation of women in India, and Hotstar is obsessive with a cuckold domesticated situation (Hostages, Out of Love, Aarya)— wife taking on the charge of dealing with terrible crap around her, then it’s safe to say, Netflix India is marking their territory for Indian woman representation with the sophisticated bad bitch route.

The sophisticated bad bitch is always, always well-dressed. She’s got her hair styled professionally (Dyson missed a marketing opportunity here) even when she's served a notice by the lawyers while her child is in the hospital and plans an act of revenge by holding the men in power by their sweaty ball sack. She does not hesitate in giving back to people, regardless of their gender orientation or influence. She (assuming their pronouns are “she/her”) knows what she wants, even when she knows what she wants isn’t right or justified. Sometimes she talks in monologues and when that monologue makes no sense, she does right by the other women in competition.

That should explain the latest entrant to the list of programming on Netflix India’s catalogue. With Alankrita Shrivastava’s Bombay Begums, we have a party on our hands to be at. This cinematic city venue includes corporate board rooms with attached slick washrooms. Cramping that style in total juxtaposition are the chawls and the rented apartment rooms that the other, less privileged characters occupy. Somehow, in the most cinematic ways, their lives intersect and collide to bring them to help one another, without making a show out of it. Oh, wait.

Bombay Begums is a contemporary drama set in Mumbai, the land where people come to make fortunes; only this time, the struggling party largely comprises of women in finance. This is interspersed by sub-stories and tropes that typically emerge within the larger femmepreneur setting, one about a woman who sells her body, a struggling teenager (in her words, “a grandmother trapped in the body of a teenager”) with body dysmorphia, a tier II city resident exploring her sexuality outside of what is demarcated for her by her parents. There’s no dramatic music to mark the arrival of characters, only trademark actions, and subtle bodily cues. The narrative operates within physicality, gaze and my least favourite device- monologue.

At the helm of the fictional Royal Bank of Bombay, Rani Singh Irani (Pooja Bhatt) offers Fatima Warsi (Shahana Goswami) a senior management position, undercutting her husband’s promotion and solidifying their marital rift. If Fatima has infertility in her bag of remorse and other issues, then Rani deals with hostile step-children and men who are waiting to see her fail. To cover-up for her step-son’s accident, Rani is forced to come to terms with the conditions put out by a former bar dancer Laxmi (Amruta Subhash) and she further devises a management scheme to empower women out of work to benefit from that. Rani employs Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), who is recently fired by Fatima, to lead the project which ought to benefit Laxmi, to make amends. All of this over the course of 6 episodes is led with a poetic monologue, complete with Biblical references, no less, by Rani’s step-daughter Shai (Aadhya Anand), who can’t get past the trauma of losing her biological mother.

Admittedly, despite everything being centered around the Royal Bank of Mumbai, nobody gets any actual work done besides Ron (played by Imaad Shah), and space is utilized to indulge in power breakfast and lunches, board meetings, and morning ablutions. You have got to admire the courage on account of these women who treat the office as their personal playground and get away with it.

If you’re cringing here, you’ve clearly not ventured close to the dialogues. They’re remarkably poor, especially the monologue. Bombay Begums attempts to use the monologue like how the Dude chose to be with the rug. In the case of the Dude, the rug did tie the room together but here, the monologue distracts, irritates, and pisses you to no end. Please, can we have one solid TV series without some element of cringe introduced to distract us? Do people really talk the way they have written these dialogues? Kill me, if that's the case.

What stands out is the representation it chooses to carry, a world where a woman perceives a man for the value he adds to her life, as opposed to taking from it. In that sense, the series normalizes extramarital affairs, does justice to the #MeToo arc in the screenplay, without being apologetic, without being extra. Bombay Begums marks its presence by not making a caricature out of the unemployed bar dancer or the aspiring financial analyst who lost her job and flat around the same time. There are immense possibilities and moments for that to happen, but it offers a gaze of kindness and in good faith, you stream the series.

Does this make for a feel-good watch? You bet it does. Despite the cynicism and actively shooting one another down via actions, Bombay Begums treat one another with some warped sense of kindness and that may just be the redeeming factor of the show. Women empower other women, girl boss.mp3, you get the drift.

The acting by these women is truly what makes the show— Pooja Bhatt is remarkable, she holds the audience together through her gestures and piercing glances. Even when she’s experiencing hot flushes, you can’t take your eyes off icy-cool demeanour. If I had any money to bet on, I’d put all on her for her upcoming performances cause she’s stolen the show. Meanwhile, if Radhika Apte had Netflix by the balls through 2018-’19, Shahana Goswami stole 2020-’21 with her work in A Suitable Boy and now Bombay Begums, the woman literally shines as she winces when dealing with her annoyingly boring husband in the series. Despite the shortcomings at the end of their dialogues, the skill on the part of the ensemble cast across the board held the show steady and is worth binging on.

For all its silly plot twists and other vices, Bombay Begums is an important work in the Indian television landscape, for it prioritizes the narrative primarily through the female figure, cutting across caste, colour, religion, and socio-economic background. True to its title, it’s about the women who inhabit the city and renders the male figure unimportant, especially in the lives of the women it chooses to focus on. I’m not going to ponder upon the Bechdel test and offer analysis on whether it fairs right or not, you can do that for yourself if you’re keen.

The OTT platforms have come a long way from writing emancipated women characters in the way that Four More Shots Please! supposedly does. Bombay Begums are not enough and we’re not there yet, but it’s a good attempt to establish that the times they are a-changin' without invoking an Indian Samantha talk shop with an Indian Carrie Bradshaw. Thank the Lord for these small mercies, in this case, the sophisticated bad bitches including Rani Singh Irani and Fatima Warsi.

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Anisha Saigal

Pop-culture omnivore. Entertainment and culture writer for now; publishing in the past. Retirement in the future.
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