As in real life, all the crucial conversations in Bombay Begums unfold in the ladies restroom. Underneath her designer linen saris, Rani (Pooja Bhatt), the CEO of a private bank who was once a “bank teller from Kanpur”, has middle-class values—she isn’t comfortable with the domestic staff washing her lingerie. In easy messaging, we learn that the “best local broker” is a woman. It is details like this that make Bombay Begums get under your skin.
Best known for writing and directing Lipstick Under My Burkha, Alankrita Shrivastava’s six-part series, which launched on Netflix on International Women’s Day on Monday, follows five urban women from different demographics. The ensemble cast includes Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur (the girl in the burqa from Lipstick…) and Aadhya Anand. It marks Bhatt’s full-fledged return to acting after 20 years.
While Bhatt and Subhash deliver stellar performances, Bombay Begums often has too many tracks to follow. There’s work-life balance, infertility, infidelity and the idea of motherhood, all stitched together with a pretentious teenager’s voice-over. The best parts of the show are not when the women battle the external world but when they are forced to confront their own prejudices. It is also perhaps India’s first post #MeToo show, though Shrivastava sees it as “much more than that”.
In a video call, Shrivastava spoke about how a conversation with her mother led to Bombay Begums, the thrill of casting Pooja Bhatt, and how OTT platforms are helping film-makers serve alternative narratives. Edited excerpts:
Each of the six episodes take their titles from iconic feminist literature. Did books like ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Color Purple’ guide your storytelling or were these added later?
I had this idea that I would love to name the episodes after books by female writers about the female experience. But it was a passing thought. During post-production, I decided I am going to do it. The titles resonate with what’s happening in the episodes. The last one is named after Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own—it’s one of my favourites and I feel what the book says about women having their own space is important.
‘Bombay Begums’ picks up many threads from women’s relationships with their bodies, to subverting the evil stepmother cliché, to #MeToo. Did you have a checklist of issues you wanted to address? What was the seed?
The seed of it was when I had a conversation with my mother, who is from IIM (Indian Institute of Management), Ahmedabad. She graduated in the late 1970s. There were 70 people in her batch, of which four were women. None of them pursued their corporate careers. My mother entered the development sector, someone else was teaching, etc. That conversation stayed with me. It got me thinking about women in the corporate sector, about these women being in marriages where they have to do well but they want their husbands to do well. I was interested in examining that.
Once I thought of the characters—I have been incubating this idea since 2014—it came to me very instinctively who these people are. I did want someone at the entry level, someone who is mid-career, and someone right at the top. The last character that came to me was the sex worker Lily (Subhash)…
Who is completely out of the system, so to say?
Exactly! I got her in because it was a very sanitised world and I needed a view from another world to reflect on the ethics and dilemmas of this world. I am character- driven. The moment I start digging into a character and what’s happening in their life, it brings up issues, rather than the other way around. So whether it’s sexual harassment at work, examining motherhood, the idea of female bonding, it’s all driven by the characters. I think issues are not outside of us; what the characters are going through gives you a sense of what many people are going through.
It’s not possible to imagine Rani without Pooja Bhatt. I read one interview in which you said that you watched ‘Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin’ 21 times. She was busy when you approached her and you changed the schedule to accommodate her?
All the time that I lived with this idea, from 2014 till we got into production in 2019, I hadn’t thought about who’s going to play the part. When I am writing, I don’t want to get into that because then I think it will influence my writing process. It was when my casting director and I were jamming that Pooja Bhatt came up. She’s someone I have been fond of since my school days—so fresh, so real, so ahead of her time. Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin was my go-to video-cassette for the summer holidays. I also loved her in Zakhm and Daddy. When we reached out, she was busy working on Sadak 2. When we met in person, I was just so amazed. She had read all the material and she responded to it so well. She had the same magic of her youth in terms of energy, but also vulnerability and strength. I left that meeting knowing she was the one. After that I didn’t meet any other actor and just hoped that she would agree.
Your ‘begums’ have their contradictions. Was it important for you to focus on their ambivalence?
Yes, I don’t like the idea of women being boxed. People are never one thing. I enjoy characters making conflicting choices. Like Fatima, for instance, she thinks she’s ramrod straight but is she? Women carry a lot of internalised patriarchy and in Bombay Begums I wanted to explore how the characters unlearn that. In our heads, there’s so much conditioning that what you are battling is not just the obstacles outside, you are always battling the ideas inside you.
The idea of women as enablers is tough terrain in a post #MeToo era. One international show that did it well was ‘The Morning Show’ with Jennifer Aniston. Have you watched that?
Not yet, it’s on my list. Women have been trained to be watchdogs of patriarchy. Patriarchy works as the idea of a collective of men, the idea that they will back each other, but women are trained to bat against each other. Our social structures have made women feel so isolated that all they want to do is self-preserve and therefore they might feel that giving a helping hand to another woman will diminish their own position. Rani’s character feels that way because she started out at a time when there were very few women in the corporate space. Whereas Ayesha’s (Borthakur) generation finds it easier to ally with other women.
There has been criticism about the depiction of “progressive” urban women. The idea that film-makers take the short-cut of showing women smoking, drinking, using cuss words and casual sex. What are your views on this?
I get asked that a lot: Why are your women smoking and drinking? I think it’s so funny that we never ask that question of our male characters. I feel the question itself comes from a very deep-seated patriarchal mindset. I have been asked this question right from when I made my directorial debut with Turning 30 (2011). I have never reduced my characters to being cool just because they are doing a certain thing. Rani only drinks tea, for instance. Ayesha is a young girl from a small town and she wants to live it up. She will do whatever she finds exciting. I find this question problematic because that means somewhere you feel women should not be doing something. I am not a schoolteacher with my characters. I feel women should be represented in all ways so that we normalise women doing whatever they want.
Projects with Raveena Tandon and Madhuri Dixit Nene have just been announced. Do you agree that we are in the midst of a peak with women’s stories in India? Is it about more women as creators or the audience appetite changing?
It’s definitely about women being in deciding positions. When representation behind the camera changes, everything changes. Many more women are gatekeepers too—they are running the networks, green-lighting shows. They see merit and depth in these stories and are not afraid that these stories will not find an audience. Unlike theatrical film distribution, streaming platforms are not worried about where audiences will come from. Their goal is not to have every piece of content cater to all kinds of viewers.
When there weren’t women in this space, we had stereotypical characterisation: virginal pure love, the vamp, the sacrificing mother. It’s also a reflection of changing audience tastes. But with audiences it’s a chicken and egg story. Audiences have been forced to consume a male hero narrative because the machinery was like that.
You have made it clear that the idea of the male hero does not interest you. How did you write the men in this show? Apart from the character of Deepak (Manish Chaudhari), all the men are unidimensional wimps. I felt sorry for them.
The stories I am telling are from the POV of the female characters. I don’t have the space to tell the stories of the men in their lives independently. So you only see the men in relation to the women. It is definitely a conscious thing. It is a female universe.
If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?
Rosa Parks, Virginia Woolf, Ismat Chughtai.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.