Women’s sexuality is a subject well-known director Alankrita Shrivastava loves to explore. If her film Lipstick Under My Burkha ran into trouble with then sanskari CBFC chief Pahlaj Nihalani, it also brought to fore some powerful female voices dealing with their sexuality. On a similar familiar turf she, the creator of Bombay Begums (streaming on Netflix), once more creates a maze; intriguing and enticing.
The milieu at hand is the corporate world of a bank whose CEO happens to be a woman. Pooja Bhatt makes a sterling comeback. As Rani she fits into the part of 49-year-old menopausal woman caught between office politics, her own desires and demands of her family, which includes two un-empathetic step-children. One of them is a pre-pubescent girl Shai and much of the six part series unfolds through her voiceover making significant observations. Hers is the voice of the writer-director providing us a peep into what Alankrita wants us to feel and understand.
As with her previous forays, here too we have women from different cross-sections of society. In a way Alankrita creates a complete gamut, using a conventional ploy, somewhat stereotypical but with reasonable effect.
From a bar dancer Lily (Amruta Subhash) pushed into prostitution to a small-town girl Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), trying to make it in Mumbai, to a successful one Fatima (Shahana Goswami) who can’t bear a child, to a teenager Shai (Aadhya Anand), with wistful dreams of love and romance and, of course, the Queen bee, Rani, they come in many shades and sexuality. Alankirta’s gaze is unflinching and uncompromising. In a country where men wear their sexuality on their sleeves and women forced to keep it under wraps Alankrita is out to celebrate women’s libido as well as their ambitions. Uninhibited actors take her vision forward. Getting into the skin of their characters, each one of the actors is on firm footing. If Pooja Bhatt is phenomenal, Amruta Subhash and Shahana Goswami match her with ease. Aadhya Anand and Plabita Borthakur carry the fragility and vulnerability of their parts. Wish the male actors Rahul Bose and Danish Husain too had more elbow room, which could do justice to their talent.
But then Bombay Begums has to be essentially about women. So here they are demanding and commanding attention. No pushovers, they are gentle and warm too who seek love. But do women need love for self-validation? Sample insightful lines like; “Don’t risk your life for a man. Do it for your art,” the advice offered by Rani to her artistic stepdaughter is a sheer gem.
Women must own their bodies is as much a leitmotif here as the bonding between them. Once they stand up for each other they become quite a formidable force. A thought you can’t take issues with. Times up, Metoo have been significant movements and Bombay Begums too joins the chorus with full gusto.
Betrayal at different levels forms yet another thread. Dialogues like, ‘what is worse being betrayed or betraying’ and the repartee, ‘both are their own kinds of hell’ has a sting as we meet these women who are real, credible and fallible.
However, you are let down by the fact that the series could have focused more on boardroom manipulations and not just sexual intimacy in bedrooms. Yet we are led from one liaison to another as much boils down to sex and sexual exploitation.
Besides, the series takes a few convenient and unconvincing detours like Lily pitching in her might for Ayesha’s cause. But in the penultimate and final episodes, it truly comes into its own. Finally, the fast-paced series not only creates an impact but also leaves you hungry for the next season. Here the begums may have emerged triumphant, but battle of the sexes seems far from over.