The six-part Netflix series Bombay Begums, written and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, revolves around Rani (Pooja Bhatt), the CEO of Royal Bank of Bombay. Her success story has the ring of a resounding epic: a bank teller from Kanpur heading a major financial institution. The other protagonists, Fatima (Shahana Goswami), Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), and Lily (Amruta Subhash), are as hungry.
Fatima has been offered the role of the bank’s deputy managing director. She’s inclined to accept it, but her husband, Arija (Vivek Gomber), expects her to take care of the baby. Ayesha, a young ambitious woman from Indore, fired by Fatima, is given a chance by Rani to work in the bank’s Corporate Social Responsibility division. Lily, a bar dancer turned sex worker, blackmails Rani because the CEO’s stepson injured her son in a road accident. Then there’s Rani’s stepdaughter, 12-year-old Shai (Aadhya Anand), the series’ voiceover and conscience. Like many pre-teens, Shai is eager to become an adult. She paints and reflects, battling her confusions and desires. Her voice, running as a philosophical commentary, articulates the conundrums of other adults — as if they’ve lost the ability to be in tune with their own selves.
The first episode of most web series lays the foundation and builds conflicts. Due to its very nature, it allows the audiences to settle, befriending the characters and absorbing the world. But Bombay Begums’ opener feels uncentered and disjointed right from the start. The drama marks the return of Bhatt, and she’s the weakest link of the series. Her dialogues are stilted and one-note, failing to adapt the scenes’ varying rhythms. The other characters don’t talk as much as they unfurl information. Worse, their lines are thesis statements, not just telling us what the show is about but also how to think about it.
In less than 15 minutes, a conversation between a doctor and Fatima reveals the couple’s backstory (as if they’re talking to the audience, not each other); Shai’s voiceover contextualises Fatima’s feelings (“some women make choices they don’t fully believe in”); Shai announces to a bunch of photographers — in front of Rani — that her mother is dead; Arija tells Fatima that once he gets promoted, she can stay home to be a mother; when Fatima declines the job offer, saying she’s pregnant, Rani says, “So? Women can have a career and a family”; Ayesha’s mother pressures her for marriage, saying, “You need a strong man”; Fatima tells her friends at a dinner that she’s contemplating the new offer, adding, “I think women can do it all, no?” Some dramas spoon-feed; Bombay Begums force-feeds.
This sense of imposition recurs throughout the series, diluting intrigue and eliciting bafflement. It’s quite clear that, more than money, Lily craves a life of dignity. But that is not enough, so when Rani gives her the chance to open a factory, Lily tells her friends that, “We’ll have respect. We’ll get dignity.” In the first episode, when Ayesha is in a bar listening to a jazz singer (Sanghmitra Hitaishi), the lyrics roll, “We can be anything we want to be. We are free.” Later, in the second episode, Lily tells Ayesha: “I’m not untouchable. I want respect.” Bombay Begums considers Shai’s banal philosophy ‘deep’, so the series is littered with such lines as “there is no age limit to love”; “to love is the greatest feeling of them all”; “love stories, mummy, they’ve twists and turns, but they work”. Made in Heaven too, a series co-written and co-directed by Shrivastava, had a similar voiceover. It was annoying there; it is embarrassing here.
This show is sloppy at such an obvious level – constantly interrupting and realigning our feelings – that it forbids basic engagement. Which is a pity because Bombay Begums isn’t vacuous. It attempts to understand the power structures shackling numerous women in the country. The characters comprise a diverse group – from a 12-year-old girl to a 49-year-old woman, from a sex worker to a CEO – telling a comprehensive and inclusive story. Hindi dramas are not known for such a gaze, and some scenes are charged by a new light, presenting an important alternate perspective: a schoolgirl unknotting the world; a young female executive absorbing the might of success; women in position of power; sexual harassment at workplace – and how even assertive independent women struggle to defang patriarchy. Shrivastava gravitates towards such stories, and her previous impressive films – Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare – filled a significant lacuna. But impressive art is demanding and merciless: It’s not satiated by just good intentions.
Shrivastava sporadically produces a memorable moment – such as the scene between Lily and Ayesha, in the sex worker’s house, where the flashy fluctuating lights bathe her face in different colours, implying her swaying identities – but it ultimately feels hollow, for its build-up is weak. In this scene, Lily randomly starts dancing in front of Ayesha – a contrived, discordant set-up that (almost) drowns out everything else.
The series has impressive performers but mediocre performances. Some of it results from bad writing – corny lines and unconvincing scenes run throughout the series – and some from overcompensating actors.
Bhatt remains mediocre throughout. Gomber and Subhash turn in uneven performances. Arija is so narcissistic and entitled that there’s nothing more to him. Even when he becomes slightly nuanced (from the third episode onwards), Gomber struggles to outsize his stereotypical confines. Playing a sex worker, Subhash steps out of her comfort zone, but she’s never quite convincing – always trying to do more, to be more, to impress a feeling on us. Danish Husain, as Rani’s husband, gets cloying dialogues (“I know you’ll wing it, darling”) and strange scenes (at one point, he masturbates thinking about his deceased wife, covering his head with her saree).
Borthakur, as a small-town insecure woman, brings poignant vulnerability to her role. The consistent stand-out performer, however, is Goswami, whose precise acting keeps the show alive – never going overboard even during scorching moments – revealing a conflicting person whose battles illuminate the themes. But two decent performances can’t salvage a five-hour series, especially a piece like Bombay Begums, which is perpetually servile to its unending mediocrity.