Digital Review: ‘Bombay Begums’ (Netflix)

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Imagine an AI generating a TV script after consuming all the quick, easy feminist click-bait on Instagram. That is what the first episode of ‘Bombay Begums’ feels like. The dialogues are robotic, the drama is unnatural yet predictable, and there is a need to achieve universal relatability through the intertwined stories of just five women. The show, thankfully, improves by the final episode, even if it is built on shaky ground.

First we have our narrator Shai (Aadhya Anand), a teenager on the cusp of puberty, exploring the meaning of womanhood. Her step-mother Rani (Pooja Bhatt) is a newly appointed CEO at the Royal Bank of Bombay, surrounded by a boardroom of men who are waiting for her to fail. Below her in the hierarchy of privilege is Fatima (Shahana Goswami), who is struggling to tame her career ambitions in order to fulfill her husband Arijay’s (Vivek Gomber) dream of a family. Then there’s Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) – a small town girl trying to make her place in a big city. And finally, Lily (Amruta Subhash) – a bar dancer who wants to gain respect in society for her son’s (Sachin Chaudhary) sake, by hook or by crook. These women come together to fight their own individual struggles (sexuality, societal pressures, glass ceilings, the MeToo movement), but all ultimately have the same villain in their lives – the patriarchal society they live in.

‘Bombay Begums’ would have been a great soap opera if it didn’t take itself so seriously. The show could have been vastly more enjoyable if it had leaned into the pretentious, over-dramatic musings of the teenager guiding its path with more self-awareness. As it is, the writing tries to justify Shai’s thoughts with an unironic earnestness, but frankly, how many of us had an accurate worldview at 13 years old? Shai as a character is written insightfully and may perhaps be the closest representation of the inherent awkwardness of teenage life in recent Hindi media. As a framing device though, it does not work.

There are two reasons to still tune in to the show, despite the bland writing: Shahana Goswami and Amruta Subhash. Both actresses fill the gaps of their script so effortlessly. They have such great camaraderie with their scene partners Vivek Gomber and Sachin Chaudhary, who make the otherwise passive and uninteresting men of ‘Bombay Begums’ seem compelling. Pooja Bhatt nails the gravitas required for the role, but lacks nuance and sometimes comes off as too intense.

It is so exhausting that the conversation around feminism refuses to move beyond strength, courage and power. ‘Bombay Begums’ tries, by examining intersectionality in terms of economic class and social standing, but doesn’t go much further than mildly calling out the women of privilege. It never shifts the onus of equality away from women. Ultimately, the series loudly preaches the same noise we have been hearing all these years, imposing its viewpoint instead of trusting the audience to come to the correct conclusions. Whatever happened to show, don’t tell?

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