Alankrita Shrivastava’s new Netflix series, Bombay Begums, follows Rani (Pooja Bhatt), Lily (Amruta Subhash), Shai (Aadhya Anand), Fatima (Shahana Goswami), and Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), each of whom are fighting their own battles at the intersection of class and gender. Bhatt plays the CEO of a bank who must grapple with some unsavoury choices if she wants to retain her position. Ahead of the show’s release, she talks about what drew her to the role and what she’s learnt from 30 years of being in the business.
Pooja, your character Rani is fascinating. She does a few awful things and makes some awful compromises. Did you and Alankrita ever have a conversation about her likability factor? Did you have a conversation about how far you could take this?
I was taken aback when I got an email saying, ‘We’d like you to be part of Bombay Begums. Here’s the script’. That’s a rarity in this business. The title fascinated me. I’d seen Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and I loved it. When I read what they sent me, I thought that I’d be quite foolish to say no to it because this was life banging on my door and offering me something unique and special — to play a character that’s perfectly imperfect, alongside other complex women. I would get to deal with something as real and unavoidable as ageing, I would be able to play my age, to talk about menopause. And these are things that you don’t really touch upon. We want women to be frozen in time, especially in our memories. Because if our icons age, then our memories have to age too.
The first meeting with Alankrita was interesting. She was early, as she’s always prone to be, and we spoke about this detail that Rani has. Alankrita said, ‘Rani, no matter what she’s achieved in life, washes her own underwear.’ Because you’d never pass that on to your house help, as opposed to men who are unrestrained, who put their boxers or briefs into the laundry. That remained with me. What also struck me was Alankrita saying that no matter what Rani achieves, she’s so desperate for acceptance from her children, who aren’t really hers, and she wants to take the place of her husband’s ex wife. She’s won on so many levels, but still cut down to size and made to feel insignificant by her very own. So it was just that combination of great power, great strength and great vulnerability that got to me. The writing is self-explanatory. The external and internal world was beautifully etched.
Alankrita got us to do a series of workshops together and what we did was not conventional reading, we just laid ourselves bare. And that became a trust exercise that I hadn’t experienced in more than 30 year of being in the business. To know that you’ve walked into a room and been emotionally naked before the camera even rolls and exposed yourself to the others for what you really are without any iota of being judged, you feel like you’re home.
You’ve been an actor for 30 years, during which the industry has undergone so many changes. Which one has been the most heartening for you as a woman or as an artist? When you see a show like this come together, what does it tell you?
Ironically, my launch came from television. It was not considered the most conventional launch at the time. A lot of people told my father he was going to destroy my career by launching me on TV. Daddy (1989) is still a movie that will be mentioned in my obituary and in 2021, I still have this body of work, so I think that life is very kind. I stopped acting because my heart wasn’t in it at the time. I was very privileged to have gotten Daddy and then Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin (1991). Sadak was a commercial film that I did but I didn’t enjoy as much as I enjoyed doing Daddy and Dil. For me, Zakhm was the ultimate film. Rahul Bose directed me last in Everybody Says I’m Fine! (2001) and now in Bombay Begums, he plays my lover so life has come full circle. But I thought I didn’t have to be part of films because I was expected to. I tasted blood when I produced Tamanna (1997) and Dushman (1998) and I enjoyed understanding and learning that aspect of filmmaking. When I was offered Bombay Begums, I was quite taken aback that somebody even considered me as worthy of playing a role of this magnitude. But eventually I realized that there’s no alternative to a well-lived life.
The character is someone who has a combination of strength and vulnerability. You’re not born strong, you’re not born vulnerable. Empathy does not just happen to you, it takes work. So it’s the falls that I’ve taken, it’s the hiatus, it’s the going away to discover what I really wanted, it’s the mistakes I’ve made, falling hard, picking myself up, bleeding profusely, being written off, being celebrated — all of that, combined, makes you who you are and when a writer or director is able to recognize that and harness it in this manner, you can’t ask for more. The relief of playing Rani and being on set is that it was just wonderful to take instructions and to know that, after having understood different aspects of filmmaking, one was still able to come to class as a newcomer, without any preconceived notions, with a great deal of anxiety about whether I could pull this off. It was not a given that I was going to come in and contribute something. I was surrounded by people who were brilliant and I had a lot to live up to. I didn’t want to let any of them down. So it was nice to know that I still had the capacity to feel like this was my first step.
My strength is knowing that I don’t know and constantly being willing to rewrite my own narrative and start from scratch. Creativity is easy, originality is difficult, but relevance is a bitch. An entertainer can’t just rest on their past laurels. There’s a section of the audience that loves what you’ve done and they’ve grown up with that but there’s a large section that wasn’t even born then. The audience has changed since 1989. If someone is relevant, it’s because they’ve been able to grow beyond their screen persona. I was true to myself and to the woman I was and wasn’t, and it took another woman to harness that.