How Alankrita Shrivastava, Pooja Bhatt put together their Netflix show Bombay Begums
'I am just trying to tell stories that I find interesting. Besides, it’s not like I suddenly made Bombay Begums. These are characters that have been with me for many years,' says Bombay Begums creator Alankrita Shrivastava.
Alankrita Shrivastava remembers watching Mahesh Bhatt’s Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahi, the 1991 romantic comedy that propelled Pooja Bhatt’s acting career into fruition, atleast 21 times. Her fixation had acquired a certain notoriety in her neighbourhood video parlour where she would promptly be handed the video cassette of the movie the minute she appeared. “After a point, they wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted to watch,” the writer-director adds. We’re talking over Zoom, the video-conferencing app that has over the past year, shrunk down the world to our living rooms. Bhatt listens in on the same call. “We’ve kind of realised that 21 is our lucky number,” she chimes in. “Alankrita watched Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahi 21 times and it took me 21 years to kind of come back to acting.”
Pooja Bhatt’s comeback vehicle is Bombay Begums, an opulent six-episode Netflix series created, co-written, and directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. Like her two previous outings Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare, Bombay Begums revolves around women who are in a state of transition – personal and professional – examining the illusion of freedom afforded to them in modern India. Indeed, the show’s central conflicts exist at the intersection of female desire, ambition, and freedom – themes that have in the last three years come to be tempered with the Srivastava trademark. Set in the backdrop of the male-dominated banking industry and featuring intersecting narratives, Bombay Begums (the screenplay is co-written by Iti Agarwal and Bornila Chatterjee) hurtles toward answering one question: Is a powerful woman nothing more than just an oxymoron?
In the show, Bhatt is the fulcrum around which the plot churns. The actor plays Rani, a middle-aged CEO of a bank who wields power like it is her mother tongue, hiding her insecurities even when it might look like she is revealing them. The last time Bhatt appeared in a lead role onscreen was in Mahesh Bhatt’s 1998 film Zakhm. Shrivastava reached out to the actor with her script exactly 21 years later in late 2019, “What I was really looking for in Rani was someone who had a combination of strength and vulnerability, someone who has many layers to them, someone who you never know completely and keep discovering things about. I really felt that Pooja would have that quality.” Still, the filmmaker was hesitant whether her gamble would pay off because Bhatt technically hadn’t been acting. On her part, the actor was equally surprised that a filmmaker thought of her for a leading role, given Hindi cinema’s selective short-lived memory. Shrivastava’s worries disappeared on their very first meeting, “After I met Pooja, I never met another actor for the part because I was that convinced that she would be Rani.”
In a sense, Shrivastava is one of the very few filmmakers working in the Hindi film industry today for whom the personal is political. It helped that she stumbled upon a collaborator in Bhatt who was cut from the same cloth. One of the reasons that the actor was taken by Bombay Begums was that it was a role written for a woman of a certain age, a rarity in an industry unhealthily obsessed with youth. In the show, Rani is meant to be 49, revealing her age candidly in a scene with her 13-year-old step-daughter where they discuss underwire bras. “I just turned 49 in February last month and I told Alankrita that I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday gift than Bombay Begums” Bhatt says. The show is rounded off by a murderer’s row of a cast, which includes Amruta Subhash, Shahana Goswami, Plabita Borthakur, Rahul Bose, Vivek Gomber, and Danish Husain.
By virtue of being an older female protagonist driving a plot forward instead of merely servicing it, Rani is an anomaly in Indian pop-culture, otherwise known to put a premium on female attractiveness. Our movies and shows have historically denied curiosity and screen time to female actors once they cross a certain age, which is in itself an industry shorthand for not just suggesting that an actor isn’t commercially viable for a film but that she is also not considered sexually desirable for an audience. The lack of opportunities for talented older actors like Bhatt then, doesn’t just become a personal grievance but also transforms into something far more insidious – a sort of a systematic erasure of women’s stories. Still, the renewed gaze toward the inner lives of older women (Neena Gupta in Badhaai Ho; Shefali Shah in Dil Dhadakne Do and Delhi Crime; Soni Razdan in Your Truly, Ratna Pathak Shah in Lipstick Under My Burkha) in the last few years has proved to be a counter.
Yet, even when she agreed to do Bombay Begums, Bhatt was acutely aware that getting to play her actual age onscreen was more of a privilege than her right as an actor. To her, the fact that Hindi movies and shows have consistently refused to look at the process of female ageing seems like a direct upshot of a society’s fear toward mortality. “It felt liberating to be on set with a director who didn’t demand that I iron out the passage of time from my face either by losing weight or by getting a shot of Botox. The rough edges show,” says Bhatt. “That’s a rarity because this is an industry where even when you’re looking at a female actor who is of a certain age, you don’t want to address the elephant in the room because everybody is competing with somebody who is 20 years younger.”
It’s a bit of a poetic coincidence that the 41-year-old filmmaker’s inspiration for Bombay Begums was predominantly the idea of being able to challenge the status quo. Back in 2012, she found herself wondering about the double lives of urban Indian women who join the corporate workforce and excel at their jobs but still have to confront gendered expectations back at home. “My mother passed out from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad in the late 1970s. There were about four or five women in the batch and I remember my mother telling me that none of those women actually pursued their careers,” she says. “All of them worked but they never got to really go straight into it because they had all of these other things happening in their lives. All the men from her batch on the other hand were heading companies. That really stayed with me.” She originally conceived Bombay Begums as a television show and started writing the script. But it was only in 2017 that she found producers for it. The Los Angeles-based Chernin Entertainment expressed interest in Bombay Begums and Netflix came on board soon after. (Shrivastava’s last film had circumvented a theatrical release and directly streamed on Netflix) now, Shrivastava has built a reputation for being a filmmaker who makes the kind of movies that aim to fill the gaps in Hindi cinema’s collective understanding of female existence. Bombay Begums (the look of the show seems visibly inspired by the flamboyance of Made in Heaven, the Amazon series that Shrivastava co-directed with Zoya Akhtar, Nitya Mehra, and Prashant Nair) cements her ability to mount stories that look at the female experience from several different vantage points.
The show can often seem conveniently rebellious and burdened by the chaotic nature of its own ambition. But it is enlivened by Shrivastava’s small, significant details that become a testament to the indispensability of the female gaze. In one scene, a flustered Rani walks out of a boardroom meeting and reaches the office washroom. Her ploy to put herself back together includes washing her face but also airing her sweaty armpits under the machine meant to dry one’s hands. It seems almost natural that Rani would do that but ask yourself this: When is the last time you remember watching a scene that was centred on a woman’s sweaty armpits? In another scene, we learn that Rani still washes her own underwear, an intimate act that surpasses class and status and is a reality for most Indian women. There is talk of menopause and period; we see the actual blood and agony that accompanies a miscarriage instead of someone just splashing in a lachrymose pool as well as the lack of grieving time afforded to a working woman in the face of such a tragedy. It feels revolutionary solely because of how quotidian Shrivastava makes these occurrences look.
But Shrivastava is also aware that in all likelihood, Bombay Begums will be compared to her previous work, mostly notably with her 2017 breakout film, Lipstick Under My Burkha. In some ways, it’s hypocritical on one hand to insist that Hindi cinema make more space for a range of narratives that revolve around women and on the other, indulge in an act of gatekeeping with regards to the kind of stories that are being told about women. Shrivastava isn’t necessarily perturbed by whether people perceive her latest outing as something that is similar to her previous work or as something that is wholly different. “I feel like right from my first film there are certain themes that I am drawn to and these are the things that I continue to explore in my films. I am just trying to tell stories that I find interesting,” she says. “Besides, it’s not like I suddenly made Bombay Begums. These are characters that have been with me for many years.”
Bombay Begums will premiere on Netflix on 8 March.
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