Cast: Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Rani Irani, who landed in Mumbai many years ago from Kanpur without a penny, has just been named CEO of a major bank. She in turn picks hotshot banker Fatima Warsi for a key position. Neither can afford a slip-up. The bank's male-dominated board would love to see Rani come a cropper. And Fatima's husband would rather have her chuck up her career and raise a child.
Rani (Pooja Bhatt) and Fatima (Shahana Goswami) are two of the five protagonists of Bombay Begums, a Netflix Original series that showcases women navigating a milieu that militates against their quest for independence, recognition, equality and dignity. Imaginatively scripted and propelled by adroit performances, the show mines multiple layers of conflict for understated and consistently engaging drama that judiciously steers clear of overkill. The punches it throws are measured and well-directed.
All the five women of Bombay Begums - their lives are intertwined because three of them work in the same organisation and the other two share their orbit either through family ties or a twist of fate - rise above their wounds and scars to forge ahead in life. But they aren't without their share of flaws. They are real women with real feelings fighting to hasten the death of gender disparity. None of them is averse to a transgression or two.
Bombay Begums, created by Alankrita Shrivastava (Lipstick Under My Burkha), who shares screenwriting and directorial responsibilities with Bornila Chatterjee (The Hungry), strikes an instant chord because it strings together relatable, rooted stories. Moreover, none of the plot strands, despite the familiar channels that they wend their way through, has a done-to-death feel.
The show addresses a multiplicity of themes - love, motherhood, unsatiated desire, infidelity, growing-up pangs, workplace rivalries, sexual harassment, and the everyday tussle to stay sane and steady through severe setbacks. But thanks to the controlled writing, the various elements that make up the narrative tapestry flow unhindered without getting in each other's ways.
Ayesha Agarwal (Plabita Borthakur), a new recruit, is as keen as Rani and Fatima to race up the ladder. From a small town and without an elite B-school degree, she has a tough time finding her feet. She is fired, then hired back and told to oversee a social welfare scheme for women who have fallen off the grid.
The first beneficiary of the scheme is former bar dancer Laxmi "Lily" Gondhali (Amruta Subhash), a feisty sex worker who wants to claw her way out of poverty. Life hasn't been kind to her. She is therefore driven purely by her survival instincts because, in her own words, "insaaf ki ladaai ladne ki luxury nahi hai apne paas (I don't have the luxury of fighting for justice)".
In portraying the bitter struggles of the four, pushes 13-year-old Shai Irani (Aadhya Anand), Rani's painfully reclusive step-daughter, to the fore. She is the narrator and commentator who puts her own agonies and Rani, Fatima, Ayesha and Lily's bruising skirmishes with patriarchy and conservatism in perspective.
Each one of them, including Shai herself, is in search of fulfillment. Rani wants to turn the bank around. At home, she tries her best to win over Shai and her elder brother Zuravar (Neel Raj Dewan), neither of whom have gotten over the death of their mother Zenobia. Especially at odds with Rani is Shai, a creative but forlorn soul. The pubescent teenager wants to wish away the pain points in her way and grow up quickly.
Fatima's battle is with herself and her husband Arijay (Vivek Gomber). Her fifth IVF attempt has clicked. Arijay is thrilled to bits. Without so much as a by your leave he presumes that Fatima will now quit her job and transition to motherhood.
Lily's ambition is to get her 11-year-old son into a good school. But that is easier said than done. The boy is bullied in school because of where he has come from and who his mother is.
Ayesha's story hinges on her sexuality, which pushes her into conflict with her parents in Indore and her friends in Mumbai, besides her own self. The world around her is no more of a tangle than her confused state of mind. Ayesha's constant house-hunting yields no result either, forcing her to hop from one friend's home to another.
Unceremoniously thrown out of her PG accommodation, Ayesha, echoing Virginia Woolf, wants nothing more than "a room of her own". Ayesha befriends amiable co-worker Ron Fernandes (Imaad Shah) but also develops feelings for jazz singer Chitra (Sanghmitra Hitaishi). Indecisiveness dogs her at every step. As Ayesha struggles for emotional stability, a grave crisis is precipitated by a man she idolises. The turn of events puts her and her immediate female bosses to the test.
Rani's husband Naushad (Danish Husain) - their marriage is well-nigh sexless - stands by her through thick and thin despite the palpable absence of ardour between the couple. Like his children, Naushad hasn't been able to get his first wife out of his head and heart.
Given the complex issues at play in Bombay Begums, it is initially a tad difficult to accept a teenager as an omniscient, wise-beyond-her-years authorial voice. However, as the character evolves - Shai is a sensitive, artistically inclined child blessed with imagination and empathy - the series acquires an easy rhythm and her voiceover ceases to be overly intrusive.
Women who love, Shai says, are lonelier than those that don't love. A little later, she buttresses that argument with "Love is a lonely pursuit." Lest you wonder why the girl is so precocious, she says: "An old woman's body inhabits my teenage body." Things aren't any easier for the older women around her.
Bombay Begums rides on a clutch of top-notch performances, not the least by Pooja Bhatt, making a comeback. She slips into the skin of the conflicted Rani without missing a trick. Amruta Subhash, splendidly uninhibited, is a consummate scene-stealer. Shahana Goswami tackles a complex role with striking acuity, conveying gentility and assertiveness with equal flair.
Plabita Borthakur and Aadhya Anand also deliver stellar performances as they flesh out their characters with a keen eye on their distinct emotional nuances. The sheer authenticity and affecting vulnerability that they infuse the roles with are impressive. Add to that the performances that Ekavali Khanna (as Rani's ex-colleague and now head of a rival bank) and Sanghmitra Hitaishi (as the singer Ayesha bonds with) turn in despite the limited play they get and you have as extraordinary a female ensemble as any you will ever see in an Indian web series.
So, are the men blanked out completely? Not at all. Manish Chaudhary is on the money all the way, Danish Husain grows on you as the series unfolds, Vivek Gomber untangles the skeins of a coiled-up husband with skillful subtlety and Imaad Shah is marvellously good.
All in all, Bombay Begums reigns.