Directors: Alankrita Shrivastava, Bornila Chatterjee
Writers: Alankrita Shrivastava, Bornila Chatterjee, Iti Agarwal
Cast: Pooja Bhatt, Amruta Subhash, Shahana Goswami, Plabita Borthakur, Aadhya Anand
Streaming on: Netflix
Imagine a dinner party in which the guests are all Alankrita Shrivastava characters – Buaji from Lipstick Under My Burkha, Dolly and Kitty from Dolly Kitty aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Tara Khanna from Made in Heaven, which she co-wrote with Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti and the leads of Bombay Begums, Alankrita's new six-part series on Netflix. It would be an evening spent in the company of full-bodied, complicated, passionate women who are fully alive to life and its gleaming possibilities.
Thorny female characters are Alankrita's forte. In Bombay Begums, she gives us five. Rani, played by Pooja Bhatt, the CEO of a bank, dressed in impeccable saris, is battling sharks – mostly male – at work and struggling with her own dysfunctional family. She's trying to play mother to her husband's teenage children from an earlier marriage. She bribes the son Zuraver with an expensive car and a Rolex watch but the daughter Shai is a tougher nut to crack. She's 13, desperately lonely and antagonistic toward Rani. Shai calls her by her name, which reminded me of the mother-daughter dynamic in Sridevi's last film Mom, also about a stepmother trying to build a tenuous connection with her daughter.
The other mother in the series Lily, played by Amruta Subhash, is also fighting a tough battle. She's a bar-dancer-turned-sex-worker, trying hard to give her only son a shot at a better life. When Rani's son, driving that expensive car, knocks Lily's son down on a street, Lily decides to seize the opportunity and milk what she can from this twist in her mostly sordid tale. There's also Ayesha, played by Plabita Borthakur, the small-town girl trying to make it in the big city. Fatima, played by Shahana Goswami, Rani's smart and ambitious associate, who is struggling to have a baby. And Shai herself, played by Aadhya Anand, a school girl grappling with her instinctive dislike of her stepmom, the first flush of sexuality, the cute boy in her class and her longing for her dead mother.
Through the tumultuous lives of these women, Alankrita, the series creator, runs us through a gamut of emotions, situations and hot-button issues – the women might differ in age, class, religion but they are all toughened warriors in a larger battle against systemic patriarchy, entitlement and societal barriers. The local corporator who wrecks havoc in Lily's life because she refuses to have sex with him isn't very different from a top bank executive who thinks that because Ayesha drinks and accepts a lift in his car, he has permission to touch her.
Alankrita and her co-director and writer Bornila Chatterjee, along with co-writer Iti Agarwal, understand that women's bodies are a battleground. #MeToo, menopause, menstruation, motherhood, sex, adultery – it's all here. Alankrita, Bornila and Iti don't back away from knotty situations. These women lead fabulously messy lives filled with compromises and regrets. Some make foolish decisions, others live with their mistakes. We see them bleed – literally and metaphorically. They aren't always admirable but they are consistently interesting.
And yet, the series isn't. Like in Dolly Kitty aur woh Chamakte Sitare, here also, too often, the messaging stunts the storytelling. The fatal flaw is the use of Shai as a narrator. Shai is an artist who makes exquisite sketches that capture her view of the world. She also has an ongoing inner monologue with her mother. Alankrita, Bornila and Iti rely too heavily on her voiceover, which underlines every emotion and point being made. There are lines like – Mummy why did Eve eat the forbidden fruit? And why should anything be forbidden anyway…wasn't Eve free to eat the fruit she found more juicy? Or in another episode – To own my life means to own my wounds. Or – Do all women have to lie to themselves to survive?
The tonality veers between juicy soap opera and hard-hitting drama. There are scenes brimming with rawness and emotion but also plot twists and scenes which are flat-out foolish – like in episode 2, Rani does a Karva Chauth commercial to promote bank loans to buy jewelry. Or Shai fakes a period to get her crush interested in her. He actually looks at her and says, 'I can smell you're growing up.' Like Shai's VO, the dialogue can be heavy-handed. So Rani says: Survival is a battle for every woman. Or her rival at the bank, Deepak, declares: Don't underestimate my ability to play dirty. Who talks like this?
The narrative gets clunky but what kept me invested were the characters. The acting is solid. It's lovely to see Pooja back on screen again. The years have replaced her cherubic charm with a seasoned strength that suits the character. She isn't afraid of enacting the indignities of ageing – Rani is going through menopause and in one scene, she's trying to dry her soaking armpits with the hand-dryer in the women's bathroom. It's also great to see fine actors like Amruta and Shahana get the screen time they deserve. Both locate the steely strength and vulnerability in the women they play. Ayesha veers dangerously close to cliché but Plabita imbues her character with a sincere sweetness. She's in equal measure, silly and tough.
The strain of balancing the ambition with twists and cliff-hangers shows. Still, these are women I want to spend more time with
In one scene, Rani is washing her own underwear. It's little details like this that help you to overlook the soft spots in Bombay Begums. I wish the male characters had also been written with as much care. Manish Chaudhari seems to have become the designated baddie on OTT platforms – here he delivers nastiness with the same suaveness that he did in Aarya. Danish Husain as Rani's husband and Rahul Bose as her lover needed more flesh on their characters.
Bombay Begums isn't lacking in ambition. Each episode takes its title from seminal books about women – so the first is called Women who run with the Wolves, the third The Color Purple, the fourth The Bell Jar and so on. The series is attempting to be deeper and more weighty than Four More Shots Please!, also a series about a group of women in Mumbai trying to live life on their own terms. But the strain of balancing the ambition with twists and cliff-hangers shows. Still, these are women I want to spend more time with and I look forward to season two.
You can see Bombay Begums on Netflix.