Bombay Begums, On Netflix, Sacrifices Nuance At The Altar Of Novelty

On paper, the six-episode series gets the fundamentals on point. But the visual translation lacks a sense of rhythm and language.
Bombay Begums, On Netflix, Sacrifices Nuance At The Altar Of Novelty

Creator: Alankrita Shrivastava
Directors: Alankrita Shrivastava, Bornila Chatterjee
Writers: Alankrita Shrivastava, Bornila Chatterjee, Iti Agarwal
Cast: Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur, Aadhya Anand, Vivek Gomber, Danish Husain, Sanghmitra Hitaishi
Streaming: Netflix

On paper, Bombay Begums is quietly revolutionary. The little things go a long way. For instance, three of its five female protagonists get involved in extramarital affairs. But they aren't sorry about it. The scenes of their straying are not tinged with regret. Their husbands are no villains or abusers; in fact they are perfectly compassionate men in flawed marriages. The lovers aren't jerks or Casanovas either; the chemistry is real, the affections are true. The camera refuses to judge one side to justify the agency of the other. Then there's one of the first full-blooded examinations of bisexuality on Indian screens – a primary character learns to identify as bi without being fetishised as either a closeted lesbian or a restless big-city dreamer. Then there's a workspace #MeToo arc that drives a collective redemption song without eschewing the complicity of urban womanhood. In one particular scene, a woman belatedly realises that her dear colleague is a predator – the moment she does, even the manner he sits on her sofa appears lewd. It's her gaze that's changed; maybe he was always sitting this way.

In short, the ladies of Bombay Begums are adults freed from the righteousness of quasi-feminist narratives. Their mistakes don't inherit the burden of morality – it's not so much about teaching their male counterparts a lesson as it is about owning the freedom to be broken, individualistic and unlikeable.

On paper, the six-episode series gets these fundamentals on point. But the visual translation lacks a sense of rhythm and language. Everyone is in a tearing hurry. The result is fatally disappointing – a sort of liberalist fantasy fable executed with the deafening subtlety of a Prakash Jha drama. To understand the specificity of this problem, it's essential to first understand the legacy of the creator. After Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, I remember concluding that perhaps the density of Alankrita Shrivastava's storytelling deserved a longer format. A feature-film canvas often forces her multipronged explorations of female desire to look curt and compressed; the parts feel smarter than the whole. Despite having written and directed some episodes of Made In Heaven, the clutter-breaking series wasn't quite hers. In Bombay Begums, her first as sole showrunner, emerged a chance to service – and consolidate – the importance of Shrivastava's voice within a distinctly masculine landscape. But instead of ironing out her flaws, this series has only amplified them six times over. Every episode is a mini-movie, packed with the promise of what might have been rather than the immediacy of what is.

Bombay Begums intertwines the fates of five diversely aged Mumbai women – a powerful boss, an upper-level executive, an entry-level executive, a commercial sex worker and a teenager. Signs of discordance appear early on. The music scoring the title montage nurses a clear Made In Heaven hangover. The series is peppered with the voiceover of the 13-year-old narrator, Shai (Aadhya Anand), who speaks like a middle-aged adult's version of a goth hipster. It doesn't help that Shai's thoughts are addressed to her dead mother: 'Mummy' punctuates the beginning of every other sentence, which sounds utterly strange when it interrupts the quiet of a scene. "Some women are born to rule, we call them Queens," shy Shai declares in the beginning, as her stepmother – the new Royal Bank MD named, naturally, Rani (Pooja Bhatt) – takes charge. When not facing a boardroom full of sneering men, Rani is seen feeding women in her posh office. The first is Fatima (Shahana Goswami), Rani's pick for the vacant Deputy MD post. The second is Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), a messy big-city newcomer from Indore. The third is Laxmi (Amruta Subhash), an ambitious sex worker who cuts a deal with Rani after a hushed-up hit-and-run accident.

Right off the bat, the filmmaking sacrifices nuance at the altar of novelty. It takes all of 20 minutes for a modern girl to assert her hashtag-independence by drinking and smoking away her sorrows. On discovering a homeless Ayesha on office premises, Rani gets impressed in half a scene and hires her after the usual "you remind me of my young self" spiel. At another point, during a sit-down with Laxmi in a company room, a cigarette magically materialises between Ayesha's lips only so that Laxmi's request to share one can underpin the social prejudice in the air. At yet another point, Shai, whose journey is defined by the wait for her first period, breaks her romantic karva chauth fast by biting into a red velvet cupcake in a red sweater. When she walks past her crush in class, he whispers, "I can smell your growing up." Do students today speak like an erotic novel? Did I miss the memo? At yet another point, a middle-aged man is seen masturbating with his face draped in his dead wife's white dupatta. I can see why a moment like this might appear lyrical and tragic in theory – but the image itself, the placement and context of it, is not deeply felt. The shock factor is obvious; these are feelings masquerading as people.

An example of the show's uneven pace features Ayesha visiting Laxmi's chawl to mend bridges. When Ayesha entered, I dashed to my kitchen for a sip of water. I returned in 15 seconds to the sight of Laxmi doing a private dance for a giggling Ayesha. "That escalated quickly" is the tagline of the Shrivastava oeuvre. There is no time for middle ground. Moreover, emotional continuity is lost on the edit table: we often see one of the women in a happy space immediately followed by a shot of them in a sad space. As a result, the streamlining of the series relies on the more competent performers like Shahana Goswami and Amruta Subhash. While most others succumb to the stereotypical angst of their roles, these two actresses manage to humanise the Energizer-Bunny writing through sharply acted marital spats and meltdowns. Pooja Bhatt is cleverly cast; there's a bit of Dimple Kapadia about the way she expresses conflict. But Rani's graph is too clean and convenient, like it's predestined, leaving almost nothing to the creased wisdom on Bhatt's face.

But maybe the most unsettling aspect is the niggling sense of cultural tokenism. The focus is more on the symbolism of the marginalised – Muslims, small-town girls, sex workers, dark-skinned teens – than their actual presence. The appropriation begins with a fleeting shot of Fatima's plate during a lunch meeting with Rani. It's biryani. At some points in the series, Fatima breaks out into an uncharacteristic "Ya Allah!" or "Ammi" in the middle of conversation. This isn't to say she cannot, but here it seems like a desperate attempt to remind us that Fatima, unlike a Rani or Ayesha, has both gender and religion working against her. Ditto for Laxmi's street lingo, and Ayesha's random diversions into crude heartland Hindi. Beyond these superficial traits, there is no genuine curiosity about who they are and where they come from.

A scene early on features a boss chiding her star employee for rejecting a promotion. The older woman is livid. Out of nowhere, she demands to know if the young woman's decision is down to the fact that her husband is less successful than her. I winced a little. She's right. But this is the subtext. It's not supposed to be said out loud. What is left for the critic to do then? Similarly, when the sex worker is asked how she is certain about an assault she witnessed, she mentions that her career has equipped her with a Ph.D. in the machinations of consent. Again, the unsaid is filmed. This pretty much sums up the issues of an Alankrita Shrivastava screenplay. When she writes a scene, she also writes about it. It's both a work of art and an opinion piece on that art at once.

I believe storytellers should be the sherpas of the watching experience. They chart a path, do the legwork and guide paying people to the summit. But it's eventually up to the climbers to forge – and interpret – the relationship between their mind and the mountain. The mountain cannot speak. One can't entirely blame Shrivastava for this overstated style though. The men of this nation barely understand the transparency of consent. The ambiguity of subtext might be a bridge too far.

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