Express News Service
Last week, Netflix India revealed its slate of upcoming titles. Just scan through the list and you’ll find some of our strongest directorial voices climbing aboard — the lure of the long-form drawing them in. Yet that transition isn’t always so smooth. Sometimes, it results in a whipping up of material that would’ve better sailed as a feature film. After helming a couple of episodes on Made in Heaven (2019), Alankrita Shrivastava has made her full-fledged series debut with Bombay Begums (co-directed by Bornila Chatterjee).
I’m not sure if the shift in format entirely works for her. At first glance, her brand of intersecting female narratives – set up in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare – seems perfect for the form. Her characters — flawed, driven, desirous — routinely merit a closer inspection. Yet that kind of hyperlink storytelling often benefits from a tighter weave. In a show, with tangents and corners to fill, the cross-currents begin to fade.
The six-episode series centers on five ambitious women in Mumbai. We meet each at a crucial juncture in their lives. Rani (Pooja Bhatt), a former bank teller from Kanpur, has been named CEO of ‘Royal Bank’. Fatima (Shahana Goswami) is in two minds about a lucrative post; she’s expecting a child and feels unsure about managing both. Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) is a newbie at Rani and Fatima’s bank. Bar dancer Lily (Amruta Subhash) wants to secure a future for her son. And there’s Shai (Adhaya Anand), Rani’s step-daughter, who’s just entering her teens.
Throughout, Alankrita immerses us in the sexual and bodily lives of her leads. Rani and Shai stand at opposite ends of their menstrual cycle (“I’m not going through menopause,” Rani insists twice). Fatima’s pregnancy weighs upon her rocky marriage to Arijay (Vivek Gomber). Ayesha is confused between a co-worker and a female jazz singer she meets. Even Lily, who’s turned to prostitution for a living, hinges her hard life on a former lover in Dubai.
While the characters are fascinating, the show struggles to bind them together imaginatively. There’s an overreliance on chance I found particularly grating. After Fatima fires her, Ayesha ends up homeless. She winds up at the bank where Rani hires her back. Rani’s step-son injures Lily’s son after a tryst with Lily. The early episodes have a constant edge: the heroine in one arc turns up as a villain in another. This is lost once the narrative goes into high gear, with Manish Chaudhary playing a predatory boss and Rahul Bose as Rani’s secret lover.
The connections, when lightly made, do strike a chord. The festival of Karva Chauth becomes a view into how each character thinks — and thinks differently. In a magical sequence, Ayesha visits Lily at her chawl (she’s helping her set up a factory under the bank’s welfare scheme) and watches her perform. “You have a choice to fight,” Lily tells her later on. Bombay Begums does grapple with sexual harassment comprehensively — with equal credits to Plabita’s performance. Yet the last episode left me unconvinced, a flattening of corporate malice for a sunny finish.
The show’s title credits are a delight. We see a cutout of each begum, animated around familiar Mumbai sights: a taxi, Sea Link, Gateway of India. Lily reminiscing about her bar-dancing days gives us a sense of the city’s storied past. Equally poignant are the shots of Ayesha, her multiple suitcases around her, drifting from home to home. None of the characters spell out their relationship with the city. Like their deepest bonds, they leave it all unsaid.
Cast: Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Plabita Borthakur, Amruta Subhash, Aadhya Anand
Director: Alankrita Shrivastava