Promoting The Freedom To Bind: Women And Narrative Entrapment In ‘Bombay Begums’
This article contains spoilers!
As Bollywood uses snippets from reality to portray honest accounts of sexuality, stigma, and spatial changes, on-screen representation of femininity in India’s entertainment industry easily becomes a scale for measuring women’s acceptability in the real world. With the recent release of Bombay Begums, a 2021 Netflix original series written and directed by Alankrita Srivastava, the idea of a female-controlled narrative has resurfaced at the forefront of discussion among audiences.
However, women continue to exist as vestigial organs of the cinematic body despite being the center of stories. This production doesn’t have a fresh theme when it comes to parochially voicing women empowerment, Srivastava is, in fact, an acclaimed creator of other women-centric tele-fiction such as Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare and Lipstick under my Burkha in addition to others. All these features wonderfully depict realistic issues that women in India face. Still, they remain problematic in how they limit women’s effigy, growth, and desires to their sexuality and bodily experiences.
In this new 2021 release to one has to give credit to the Begums’ aura, no matter how it slips into a kind of dehumanized model as each scene unfolds. The series revolves around five females who are in full control of their personal and professional lives. However, they soon become victims of men or other women, whether that is emotional or physical. This forces these women and their integrities to fall apart before they regain control of the lives they are living by standing in solidarity with one another, even if it requires spilling their personal secrets.
The disclaimer at the beginning doesn’t change how this fiction emblemizes women’s growth to be a dependence on her meek, sorry-faced, independent sexuality. Each woman’s survival instinct and their ensuing mechanism remain individual yet alike. The problem and its answer are their body and compromising abilities alike.
Bombay Begums begins with Rani (Pooja Bhatt) getting dressed for a press-con. Her opening dialogue “under eye cover kardo” (“Please cover the under-eye”) sets the tone of the show in general from the very instant her character is realized. When she asks for her under-eye to be concealed with makeup, it has been implied that she is trying to hide emotional baggage, pain, burdens, and indecencies which is the central plot of every female character’s life in this drama. The use of costuming of dark and earthy hues, nude shades for makeup, and gold jewelry is made to create an illusion of purity and docility– not just to mark the authority of queens/begums but also to create a mystique around the hidden agendas.
The Background Monologue
The unraveling dialogues then start revealing layers of rivalry, dysfunction, and multifarious affairs. Soon after Rani’s dialogue, Shai’s (Aadhya Anand)–Rani’s stepdaughter– constant background monologue begins. She’s asking questions related to femininity to her dead mother. The onset of her words highlights traces of colonial aspects and postcolonial insecurities, making the series a suggestive adaptation emulating British monarchy on the commonplace Indian notion of the oppressed woman.
“Some women are born to rule.
We call them queens.
They bleed for their dreams and expect others to bleed for them.
I’m not sure I want to be that kind of queen.”
The Share of Struggles
On the contrary, Shai wants to rebel but doesn’t know what to rebel about, implying how an Indian woman is kept from the notion of rebellion, and so when the time actually comes, she is unaware. The women in this series hold a position, yet they are struggling to find an actual authoritative place for themselves in the face of male supremacy. They come and live in the city fraught with its power imbalances, gendered relationships, and bias, first fighting social stereotypes and later becoming a contributing factor in the name of survival.
Portraying how ‘becoming a queen is difficult in Bombay,’ each woman has her share of struggles, to counterattack which they also know how to have the upper hand in the domestic environments of their household. This is where the alleged power dynamics each woman is trying to play with becomes problematic.
Rani, the CEO
To understand the problems, we begin looking at the contrast provided in women’s characters, starting with Rani’s (Pooja Bhatt). She is the CEO, alleged begum, queen, running the Royal bank of Bombay. She takes immense pride and puts effort into running the bank smoothly– with some of its faults, of course. She’s heading a board meeting where one of her colleagues suggests that she promote the bank by promoting herself as the ‘good Indian housewife’ on bank hoardings. To this statement, she sarcastically laughs, saying that she has bigger plans for the bank. The problem here is not just one but many– on the one hand, Rani, is a believer that women can do it all. On the other hand, when it comes to promotion as an Indian housewife that she flinches.
The other problem which arises is that the writer has degenerated women’s natural bodily processes of menopause. Because Rani is allegedly on the onset of menopause, she gets hot flashes. However, she never admits getting menopause because that is made to appear as something which her colleague and rival– who wants to dethrone her as the CEO– Deepak Sanghvi (Manish Choudhary) can use against her. If women will be shown and made to believe that their bodily experiences are a problem to their social and professional stature, how are they going to accept themselves and those around them?
Naushad, the Husband
As a defense mechanism here, Rani has an upper-hand on her cinematically meek (second?) husband, Naushad (Dan Husain). In the opening scenes of the show, the husband is carrying a tray of water around to serve to the photographers and media officials. Does the writer want audiences to know that men should help, or is she trying to frame a petty rivalry against the opposite gender? This question particularly makes sense when Rani’s hot flash follows eerie music with her male colleague eyeing like a vulture who has found the means to dethrone her as the CEO. Rani is being itemized with all the unnecessary over-inquisitive male crowding around her, as compared to her husband serving her guests where she happens to have an authoritative upper-hand.
Shai, the Rebel
Similarly, Shai, Rani’s 13-year-old step-daughter, struggles with the notion of ‘love’ and hopes to get menarche because that would make her more appealing to the male counterpart. As Iris Marrion Young asserts that women face forms of physical and emotional distress both after and during menarche and menopause. However, this kind of depression or loss of identity does not become a reason for petty rivalry or female oppression, as the show suggests.
Since teen attraction is such an important attribute to Shai’s role– which is otherwise very mature as it is later seen when Shai discovers Rani’s open-relationship with Naushad (Shai’s father) and a liaison with Bank Governor Mahesh Rao (Rahul Bose) and she acts cool about it– she goes to the extent of painting false blood on her skirt just to lure her crush into liking her. And she does get attention as the boy comments, “I can smell you’re growing up.” This objectification does not seem appealing, no matter how digressing and good the intentions behind making menstrual blood normal in Indian TV are.
Fatima, the Boss Lady
Another woman who plays a vital role in having an upper-hand over the husband in contrast to her own faulty decision-making is Fatima Warsi (Shahana Goswami). She portrays a very strong, boss-lady role which is adorable and deviant at the same time. This woman promotes horizontal violence and sadomasochistic judgments. It’s actually the couple that is problematic as a whole, both Arijay Sinha (Vivek Gomber) and Fatima.
On the one hand, their intercaste marriage is a breakthrough that everyone would look-upon. On the other hand, from the moment their screen appearance is realized– which is in the first two minutes itself– the audience is made to think of Arijay as a dominant jerk who is probably jealous of his wife’s senior position as he drops her in her cabin and goes to his shared one. He is constantly urging her to resign now that their fifth IVF is successful, to look after the baby and be a mother.
Arijay, the Husband
Fatima, on the contrary, is indecisive and lets her expressions do the talking. The audience understands she is in a fix and doesn’t want to let go of the position she has achieved, but she also wants to make the husband happy. Later, when she has a sudden miscarriage, it is shown to look like her fault for being ‘greedy’ for wanting promotion and hence losing the child. Arijay is distraught at the child’s loss and taunts Fatima with a congratulatory remark on her promotion without any obstacles. They become cold. With further development, their bond improves when Fatima suggests surrogacy as an option so that ‘half the baby would be Arijay’s’– sounds crazy and wrong, but Arijay rejoices! However, Fatima is unable to accept how the child won’t belong to her and sets to have an extramarital affair to ‘feel something because she feels hollow.’
Even when Fatima has taken on the role of the sadomasochist in hurting her husband and breaking her marriage, she accuses another employee Ayesha Agarwal (Plabita Borthakur), of seducing Deepak Sanghvi when Ayesha presses charges of molestation against him. Thus Fatima indulges in horizontal violence against another woman. The show becomes suggestive of how one woman– who is an infidel in this case– always finds it easier to blame another woman for being responsible for her own physical or emotional abuse.
Ayesha, the Small-Town Girl
Ayesha Agarwal is a small-town girl who has moved to Bombay to become something and escape the sundry wedding proposals her own parents have in store for her. She has high hopes and aspirations and is very confused at the same time. Before Deepak molests her, she is trying to get her attention all the time. And the manner in which this attention is being demanded is, in fact, rather sexual and dependent.
She is additionally unaware of her own sexuality, which is a cause of the stigma revolving around it in Indian society, but to figure out her sexual preferences, she gets involved with multiple partners– hurting everyone in the process. The woman, Chitra (Sanghmitra Hitaishi), whom Ayesha falls for, is a jazz singer. Chitra never commits to Ayesha but definitely confuses her with on and off intimacy, living together, and then pushes her away by getting involved with other women in front of Ayesha.
The following scene is where Ayesha is dressed in pastel shades and returns to live with Ron (Imaad Shah), who really loves and appreciates her. The colors are figurative of her newfound independence and personal growth, despite the heartbreak from Chitra. She now knows she is Bisexual.
Laxmi, the Beneficiary
She then refocuses herself on the work she’s been assigned by her boss Rani, which is to help Laxmi, aka Lily (Amruta Subhash), who is their first beneficiary of the ‘Shakti–help the needy women’ welfare scheme. How Lily became the lucky beneficiary is another hypocritical story projected as a pun at motherhood and life decisions.
Lily works as a prostitute only because she has a growing son to provide for. It’s one such night where Rani’s step-son and Naushad’s son Zuravar aka Zuvi, loses his virginity with Lily, and on his return home, he hits a boy crossing the road who, in fact, happens to be Lily’s son. There is it. It goes without saying that the hospital expenses have to be taken care of by Rani’s family. However, Rani doesn’t want police involvement, so she offers Lily a bribe to remain quiet. Lily answers back, saying, “my son is priceless,” and yet she asks for 30 lacks.
This is a problematic display of femininity and prostitution because even if Lily wants respect, she’s constantly harassing Rani, who was offering help irrespectively. Additionally, the way Lily’s role is displayed glorifies a difference between good and bad women by pressing prostitution as deviance.
These five women’s characters are problematized and how a woman behaves socially and morally defines her. The writer’s curiosity of exploring women’s double lives as a homemaker and professional has led her to over-dramatize possibilities and set a tone similar to (unnecessarily) vamp-irized TV soaps. If, as Mollie Gerver states, “the function of providing individuals the autonomy to give others permission,” these women are aware of the changes their actions result in. Gerver’s description might then suggest that women surrender themselves to misogynistic attitudes, thus violating their rights and participating in societal abuse (targeted at other women as well).
Even though the season finale sends a message how women must break their silence against sexual harassment, as the five women come together to take on the world against male perpetrators of abuse; the show sends mixed messages about how women are initially subjected to bodily degeneration and abuse as a vital presence. They are either involved in physical relationships to feel something–that seems nothing more than a satisfaction of their ego–which they otherwise don’t otherwise through their work or spouses. Or they’re abused by both men and women alike and have to struggle to prove themselves only because of their low positions in the work system.
Looking at violence projected upon women, resembling that of several women’s realities in neoliberal India, as a conceptual rationale suggested by Gerver, however, risks reinscribing the strictures we aim to change. Thus, with an open-ended conclusion, I would stress the necessity of writing women’s experiences with new and improved forms of narrative because accepting these narratives means giving consent to the use of gendered violence (regardless of which gender becomes the abuser).
Featured Graphic Design: Vijaya Srivastava