On Bossy Women
This is a review of a review of Bombay Begums, a limited episode drama that first aired on Netflix in March 2021, and was recently released on Youtube.
The CC-Kitchen blog is about Indian food. why this?
I was commissioned to write a review of Bombay Begums when it was first announced after an editor saw my honest and scathing review of Indian Matchmaking on PopSugar. But by the time the show aired and I wrote the piece - commissioning editors changed, the structure of what the publication covered changed, and the piece was relegated to my writing archives.
Seeing that it is now available to more audiences, and after being recently interviewed for an App, Uplevly where I talked about what it means to be a professional South Asian woman, I decided to share this after all.
Is food discussed in this Show?
Yes. The show starts with the lead character remarking that her day does not begin without her husbands' Lemongrass Chai - and this sets the tone for many things - interactions over drinks, food, and drinks. If you've never made Lemongrass Chai, I have two Instagram Reels for you:
As this blog is about food, women and life - here is what I think of a show that centers around the narratives of five powerful South Asian women, and what makes them real.
Women are tethered to memories of youth,
who they once were, a context, a secure space,
offered circumstance, a gilded cage,
and high window-sills, their “place”.
Open-air fuels desire
to soar, to dream, be more.
We may never hear them sing
unless we open the door.
~ Nandita Godbole, 2021.
Among the many things these last two years have has taught us, is the truth that women’s lives are incredibly complex and layered, burdened with the pressures of socio-cultural and economic conditions. Their ability to manage a public persona and their private life is seldom discussed. Until it unfolded in the shared timeline during a home-bound year. We witnessed women’s relationships to their body, and the expectations made of them both physically and figuratively. And women can only hope that others in their life – understand.
After the uncomfortably escapist and controversial yet unsurprisingly successful Indian Matchmaking, Netflix redeemed itself with Bombay Begums.
Set in the west coast city of Mumbai, India, the financial capital of the country, Bombay Begum is about five women in different stages in their life. Each woman is challenged with fighting for and shaping their identity in a culture that has historically been overly eager to undermine their potential.
Created by Alankrita Shrivastava, of Made in Heaven fame, her choice of actresses for this show is nothing short of brilliant. The story begins with the commanding presence of a bank CEO, played by accomplished actor, director, and social activist Pooja Bhatt. As Rani, Bhatt plays the role of a CEO trying to protect her new position as her male colleagues find ways to undermine her authority. It explores the parallel lives of two of her female colleagues, a middle-career Fatima, and a young recruit Ayesha – both trying to swim against the currents of social pressures, and keep pursuing their careers. The story explores Rani’s relationship with her two stepchildren, particularly her teenage step-daughter, Shai - caught between mourning her dead mother, despising Rani as an unfit replacement, and struggling with her own identity. Lastly, but perhaps most poignantly, Bombay Begums explores the life and ambitions of Lily, a sex-worker, toiling to break away from her circumstances, not for herself, but her son.
The sub-plot of this series also offers its male actors the space to counter the otherwise stereotypical roles, and are presented as ambitious and flawed individuals struggling with their own emotions. One easily missed exchange happens between two sub-characters - that all relationships, particularly marriage - is imperfect. What may appear missed opportunities to correct or redirect bad behavior, the lens instead shifts to the consequent burden of indignity that women choose to either shoulder, cover, accept, or ignore, until they cannot.
The genius of this show is that the gritty narrative of Bombay Begums approaches many subjects seldom discussed in Indian media, or from a South Asian perspective: from trusting women’s financial literacy and aptitude, their relationship with matrimony and domesticity, and their pursuit of love and desire, in the manner they see fit. It discusses body image, depression, mental health, drug use, social biases, surrogacy, sexual exploitation and sexuality, menopause, and a toxic culture of systemic sexual assault: all heavy and taboo subjects in the South Asian context. The plots invite a somber reflection on how often systemic issues are swept away, hidden, or worse, ignored. It asks us to think about who/what is to blame: age, gender, status, society, something else. Each character and their attached storyline offer a framework of multifaceted topics, contextualized by their social circumstances and pressures. They each offer a window into their emotions: the longing to fit in, relationships and responsibilities towards loved ones, their complex kinds of desire, and most importantly, their quest for identity and independence. Within this tormented storyline emerges a camaraderie of women believing, trusting, and supporting other women, one that must be celebrated.
Every aspect of the production appears to be a deliberate choice. For instance, choosing it to be titled “Bombay Begums” versus “Mumbai Begums”– reflects a reverence to the spirit of a more cosmopolitan urban environment. Bhatt’s career spans across the timeline between Bombay and Mumbai and may be part of the reasoning. By Shrivastava’s admission, each episode also shares its title with important feminist books. Critics have been quick to bemoan this, that the dialogs echo’s too much feminist literature, forgetting that many iconic one-liners have been often reserved in the past for India’s leading male actors only. Why not have a strong dialog for women too? Is that questioning their intellect?
Others compare the angst-laden voiceover of the young Shai as a distraction. However, there is nuanced artistry in Shrivastava’s direction - this voiceover could very well belong to any other woman in the story: within every young girl, lies the desire to be a woman, and within every woman beats the heart of a young girl she once was.
What is troubling is the attempted censorship of an entire series for depicting the very real problem of underage drug-use, while social issues like the exploitation of women continues unchecked and rampant. Instead of censorship, this is an opportunity to offer support and education.
In this hauntingly near-perfect series, Shrivastava has quashed the stereotypes around the superficially conservative South Asian culture and swiftly brought the world up to speed with how South Asian society treats its working-class women on its home turf. Barring a single sub-plot, the show does not distract the narrative with subtexts of religion, instead stays focused on the crux of the issue. Bhatt leads a cast of powerfully depicted women, whose strong performances convey the complex humanity and hauntingly familiar flaws that ultimately fuel their resolve to succeed. Bhatt is an accomplished veteran actor and has worked both in front of and behind the camera. She has more recently championed social causes through her work, and Bombay Begums addresses many of them under one deftly crafted umbrella. As Bhatt’s triumphant return to an on-screen presence after two decades, audiences hope she continues to enthrall and delight.
In Bombay Begums, Shrivastava has created a very poignant series about many unspoken truths around women in the South Asian culture. It exposes the ills in South Asian society and emboldens audiences to speak up against injustices when they seem them happen. These stories must continue to be discussed and championed, so we may acknowledge women’s trauma and make room for them and their stories to emerge and shine.
If you have not watched the show, you must.