For the second time in two months, a Netflix title from India is hobbled by a voiceover in English. The White Tiger’s narration was stilted and ornate, but for sheer teeth-grating qualities it can’t match the one by 13-year-old Shai (Aadhya Anand) in Bombay Begums. When Terence Malick had the teenage Linda narrate Days of Heaven (1978), the writing and delivery were deliberately flat. Shai, however, enunciates in a Bandra-via-American-TV accent, and everything she says sounds like the beginning of an op-ed.
Barely has the series begun than we hear: “Some women secretly aspire to be queen, but society has taught them they can’t dare aspire for such big things.” Eight minutes later, obligatory Bombay plug: “How far can you go to survive in this city of dreams?” Of her stepmother, Rani (Pooja Bhatt), Shai says, “Her closet, of course, is not just full of saris but zillions of secrets”. A little later: “Do queens always have to have big bosoms?” Mercy. And this is just the first episode.
Rani—Hindi for ‘queen’—is the CEO of Royal Bank of India (the show isn't exactly subtle with imperial metaphors). Her MD has moved on to another bank, and Rani chooses Fatima (Shahana Goswami) over senior partner Deepak (Manish Chaudhari) to fill the position. Fatima refuses at first; she and her husband, Arijay (Vivek Gomber), who also works at Royal Bank, have just found out they’re having a baby. But then there’s a miscarriage and Fatima, whose marriage is visibly fraying, takes up the offer, while continuing to visit Deepak, her mentor, for advice. Meanwhile, Rani’s stepson, driving while drunk, runs into a young boy at night. The mother of the victim, dancer Laxmi (Amruta Subhash), immediately blackmails Rani, who is forced to make her the first beneficiary of a scheme for women entrepreneurs, a project headed by eager young employee Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur).
Bombay Begums is recognizable as an Alankrita Shrivastava joint. After Amazon’s Made in Heaven (2019- ), this is the second series she’s co-written and directed, and the first she’s created (Bornila Chatterjee and Iti Agarwal have two screenplay credits each, and Chatterjee directed three episodes). Her films Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitaare (2020) are uniquely candid about matters of female sexuality and autonomy, which is true of Bombay Begums as well. Few other filmmakers would risk having their series lead say, in reference to a planned surrogacy, “It’s just a womb”. Nor would many execute as matter-of-factly the sequence where Ayesha kisses, for the first time, a girl she’s been crushing on, then abruptly leaves, goes home and makes out with the boy she’s rooming with, the scenes linked by shots of the shorter person in each case standing on their toes to kiss.
Of the many cross-currents of conflict—the power struggle at the bank, Fatima and Arijay fighting, Shai rebelling—one expands and takes over the narrative. One night, after an office party, Ayesha asks Deepak if he can drop her home. She’s asked for a transfer to his department, and might be nursing a tiny crush on him. In the car, he forces himself on her, and, over her protests, sexually assaults her. When the matter is brought before Fatima and Rani, they follow procedure but are less than encouraging. Ayesha is asked at different points if she wants to withdraw her complaint, whether she imagined it, and to think of the abuser’s family. We’re shown—perhaps for the first time—a detailed picture of post-#MeToo life in corporate India, with the language of abuse now commonplace, the system still rising up to protect the powerful, and whisper networks instrumental in breaking the silence.
This particular storyline, directed and performed with detail and empathy, makes the strongest case for Bombay Begums. But what is timely and important need not be good art. This isn’t a visually arresting show. The boardroom scenes feel anything but organic. Despite Shrivastava’s feel for the messiness of desire, it can sometimes seem like one taboo scenario after another—teens doing coke! Rani’s husband masturbating while wrapped in his dead wife’s clothes! And the relatively short run of six episodes might have hurried the ending: the way Ayesha’s complaint is resolved, with sudden changes of heart, feels wishful, especially coming from a director who’s been anything but in the past. Yet, the biggest drawback remains the writing, which is often blunt but rarely memorable. Whenever the characters speak in Hindi, it instantly hits harder. There’s no better line in the series than Laxmi saying, “Marzi ke bina sex mein apan ka PhD hai (I have a PhD in sex without consent).”
Shrivastava has shown in her Hindi films she can write colourful, candid dialogue. Bombay Begums squanders this to a large extent. The reason, one has to assume, is that Netflix believes their big Indian titles are likelier to be successful abroad if they’re partly in English. Everyone was up in arms about the English writing and accents on A Suitable Boy last year but since then we’ve had to endure the voice coach contests of The White Tiger, The Girl On the Train and now Bombay Begums—all on Netflix in India.
Laxmi is a bit of a caricature, but Subhash—a character actor who ought to be getting leads—is funny and charismatic. Bhatt finds real soul in Rani in the later episodes, and there’s a minor turn with great charm: Imaad Shah as Ayesha’s helpful friend. With a second season clearly hoped for, Bombay Begums might have an opportunity to take its acrid corporate politicking and fractured relationships and make them wittier and more resonant. A good first step would be canning the voiceover.