‘Bombay Begums’ is a modern-day women’s emancipation of the patriarchal dogma
When it comes to pushing the envelope beyond the family friendly fare Bollywood is celebrated for, “Bombay Begums” does so in heaps and bounds.
This six-part character-driven series has a powerful narrative that shines a spotlight on feminism in the face of patriarchy. It also tackles pertinent issues like corruption, gender-based violence, infidelity and sexual orientation, too.
While critics in India are having a field day slating the series over its subject matter and even execution, I salute the makers and cast for delivering a series that holds a mirror up to the pervading antiquated societal values as well as hypocrisy in society.
And Pooja Bhatt, who returned to acting last year, delivers a performance par excellence.
Set in Mumbai, this series looks at five women, across different generations, who find their lives inextricably intertwined despite their contrasting backgrounds.
At the helm is Rani (Bhatt), the CEO of a private bank. Aside from shouldering the mammoth responsibility of turning the bank’s problems around - she’s also a wife and mother to her husband’s two children from his previous marriage.
Then there is Fatima (Shahana Goswami), who becomes Rani’s second. She is promoted over a male superior and mentor, which doesn’t go down too well. But when it comes to sealing deals and playing hardball, she’s the best. Her personal life is in shambles though.
Fatima grows increasingly frustrated at having to play second fiddle to her less successful husband.
With her career on the rise, her husband’s growing resentment, compounded by her inability to have a child, sees her embark on an extramarital affair.
Another crucial character is Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), a young ambitious employee at the bank who, after being fired by Fatima, is rehired by Rani.
A closet bisexual, she left home for a better life in the big city. She soon learns that climbing the corporate ladder isn’t without its setbacks for an attractive woman after she is sexually harassed by a high-ranking employee. Adding insult to injury, her career growth becomes a bargaining chip in the conversations that follow.
But she refuses to be silenced and, by standing her ground, gives others the strength to come forward.
Lily (Amruta Subhash), a former bar dancer turned lady of the night, is a struggling single mother doing what she can to eke out a living for her family.
Fate intervenes when her son is run over by Rani’s intoxicated son, who was a client of Lily’s.
By using the unfortunate chain of events to her advantage, Lily soon finds herself the poster girl of the bank’s first social upliftment cause. And Ayesha is tasked with overseeing the project.
Over time, her prejudiced attitude towards Lily transforms into one of profound respect and friendship as she is schooled on the universal struggles of women, circumstances notwithstanding.
The narrative includes the journey of Shai (Aadhya Anand), Rani’s rebellious step daughter. An introvert, she learns a few important life lessons.
At the outset, I want to point out this series isn’t about male-bashing. Not at all. It simply flags the fallible tendencies of several characters trying to survive a cutthroat world, in business and at large.
And it seeks to challenge ideologies that are overdue for a social overhaul. It also loops in the culture of double standards, especially in the workplace, and identifies the culprits in the chain of command, too.
This comes through strongly in several scenes.
The two that do come to mind, though, is the bathroom scene where Rani’s lack of empathy over Fatima’s miscarriage while pushing the family narrative strongly in all her interviews, smacks of hypocrisy.
Another is of her buckling under pressure by the bank’s boardmembers to quash Ayesha’s sexual harassment claim - one that is fully supported by Fatima, who is a close and loyal friend of the accused.
“Bombay Begums” dissects the challenges of modern-day women trying to leave their mark in a society that not only fails to support them but scrutinises their every transgression, boldly ambitious move and exploration of the grey areas in life.
This series paints an empowering picture of women no longer being pushovers; they are pushing back, one battle at a time.
Now that might not be a narrative that is welcome but it is a conversation that needs to be had!
“Bollywood Begums” is streaming on Netflix.