Netflix’s 'Bombay Begums' puts the spotlight on conflicted women in the big, bad city of Mumbai, but with mixed results
There’s a lot happening in Bombay Begums, NetflixIndia’s six-part series that premiered on International Women’s Day.
In under six hours, we see a spectrum of women — pre-pubescent to menopausal, urban elite to underprivileged, big-city movers-and-shakers to small-town lasses, banker to bar dancer — navigating their way through cut-throat Bombay.
A plethora of issues — loveless marriages and infidelity; infertility and surrogacy; boardroom politics and workplace sexual harassment; teenage heartbreaks and substance abuse; alternative sexualities and gender power plays — are touched upon.
So much so that you wish there was less of it. And more of the less.
The five leads of Bombay Begums | Photo: Netflix
Bombay Begums opens with Rani (Pooja Bhatt in a glorious comeback act) being appointed as the CEO of the fictional Royal Bank of Bombay. Now, she has to navigate her way through testosterone-charged boardrooms that are waiting for her to fail.
She also has a tricky situation at home — a husband that still lives in the shadow of his dead wife and demanding stepchildren who’ve not warmed up to her — to deal with.
The remaining tracks involving the other ‘begums’ play out around Rani and the bank.
Shahana Goswami and Vivek Gomber in Bombay Begums
There’s Fatima (Shahana Goswami, as nuanced as ever), who’s fast rising up the corporate ladder and is chosen by Rani to head the bank’s new division; Lily (Amruta Subhash, in a consummate role), a bar dancer-turned sex worker and single mother who’s labouring to shake off social stigma; Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), a newbie at the bank who’s dazzled — and later, horrified — by her work idol, she’s also struggling with her own sexuality; and Shai (Aadhya Anand), the angst-ridden, dying-to-hit-puberty teen who hasn’t yet reconciled with her mother’s demise.
Shai’s also the narrator of the show and has a running voiceover that is part-annoying and part-inexplicable given her tender age and limited exposure to life.
Through the 13-year-old’s voiceover, directors and screenwriters Alankrita Shrivastava (of Lipstick Under My Burkha fame) and Bornila Chatterjee needlessly underline every point and every message she’s trying to convey. Sometimes, more is said than felt.
Amruta Subhash in Bombay Begums
Women and their men
What ties the begums together is that they are all flawed women with imperfect lives that often lead them towards mis-steps and misdemeanours.
These are complex, bleeding — literally and figuratively — characters whose inner and outer conflicts define the show. Their dreams and desires, inhibitions and insecurities get ample screen time. A lot of it hits home too, but you wish it came with trigger warnings.
The men around the begums are almost inconsequential, save one (Manish Choudhary, the smooth-talking baddie who gets embroiled in a #MeToo allegation), but are present only as devices to further the plot or heighten the drama.
There’s Rani’s meek husband (Danish Husain) who’s acutely aware of her dalliances with a rival bank’s executive (Rahul Bose); Fatima’s troubled and baby-hungry husband (Vivek Gomber) who plays second fiddle to her at home and work; Ayesha’s friend-with-benefits (Imaad Shah) who wants her to “stick around”; and Lily’s on-and-off lover who alternates between Dubai and Mumbai, leaving her in the lurch.
Plabita Borthakur and Imaad Shah in Bombay Begums
Despite getting women’s lifelong battle with their own bodies, the gender dynamics in corporate boardrooms, and the workplace harassment bits absolutely spot-on, Bombay Begums fails to make a lingering impact. The pain and conflict in the show don’t feel lived-in enough to make the viewer empathise (or empathise enough).
Barring Fatima, who arguably has the most-fleshed out character arc, and Rani, whose dual life as an aggressor at work and a woman pining for validation at home is intriguing, you wouldn’t perhaps want to see any of them reprising their roles in the next season. (There’s enough in the last episode to suggest there will be Season 2).
The good intentions of the makers are often overwrought by the clunky dialogues and the jarred editing. What stands out is the background score that lends heft and emotion to certain scenes, and the excellent performances by the lead actors.
Bombay Begums surely takes off the ground, but it doesn’t really fly.
Or to put it in the words of a prominent former banker, who may have inspired some of the events in the show, “It’s a constant effort to put a jigsaw puzzle together. All the pieces never fit.” She was, of course, referring to her time in the boardrooms.
But, it could well have been about the show itself.