Rani Irani, who landed in Mumbai many years ago from Kanpur without a penny, has just been named CEO of a major bank. She in turn picks hotshot banker Fatima Warsi for a key position. Neither can afford a slip-up. The bank’s male-dominated board would love to see Rani come a cropper. And Fatima’s husband would rather have her chuck up her career and raise a child.
Rani (Pooja Bhatt) and Fatima (Shahana Goswami) are two of the five protagonists of Bombay Begums, a Netflix Original series that showcases women navigating a milieu that militates against their quest for independence, recognition, equality and dignity. Imaginatively scripted and propelled by adroit performances, the show mines multiple layers of conflict for understated and consistently engaging drama that judiciously steers clear of overkill. The punches it throws are measured and well-directed.
All the five women of Bombay Begums – their lives are intertwined because three of them work in the same organisation and the other two share their orbit either through family ties or a twist of fate – rise above their wounds and scars to forge ahead in life. But they aren’t without their share of flaws. They are real women with real feelings fighting to hasten the death of gender disparity. None of them is averse to a transgression or two.
Bombay Begums, created by Alankrita Shrivastava (Lipstick Under My Burkha), who shares screenwriting and directorial responsibilities with Bornila Chatterjee (The Hungry), strikes an instant chord because it strings together relatable, rooted stories. Moreover, none of the plot strands, despite the familiar channels that they wend their way through, has a done-to-death feel.
The show addresses a multiplicity of themes – love, motherhood, unsatiated desire, infidelity, growing-up pangs, workplace rivalries, sexual harassment, and the everyday tussle to stay sane and steady through severe setbacks. But thanks to the controlled writing, the various elements that make up the narrative tapestry flow unhindered without getting in each other’s ways.
Ayesha Agarwal (Plabita Borthakur), a new recruit, is as keen as Rani and Fatima to race up the ladder. From a small town and without an elite B-school degree, she has a tough time finding her feet. She is fired, then hired back and told to oversee a social welfare scheme for women who have fallen off the grid.
The first beneficiary of the scheme is former bar dancer Laxmi “Lily” Gondhali (Amruta Subhash), a feisty sex worker who wants to claw her way out of poverty. Life hasn’t been kind to her. She is therefore driven purely by her survival instincts because, in her own words, “insaaf ki ladaai ladne ki luxury nahi hai apne paas (I don’t have the luxury of fighting for justice)”.
In portraying the bitter struggles of the four, pushes 13-year-old Shai Irani (Aadhya Anand), Rani’s painfully reclusive step-daughter, to the fore. She is the narrator and commentator who puts her own agonies and Rani, Fatima, Ayesha and Lily’s bruising skirmishes with patriarchy and conservatism in perspective.
Each one of them, including Shai herself, is in search of fulfillment. Rani wants to turn the bank around. At home, she tries her best to win over Shai and her elder brother Zuravar (Neel Raj Dewan), neither of whom have gotten over the death of their mother Zenobia. Especially at odds with Rani is Shai, a creative but forlorn soul. The pubescent teenager wants to wish away the pain points in her way and grow up quickly.