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Bombay Begums on Netflix has a lot of flaws, but it deals with issues central to women’s lives that we are routinely silenced for in Indian society.
Like most people I too usually check the ratings online (via IMDB) to assess whether I should watch the show or not, and I was stumped to see a 4/10 for Bombay Begums. Upon reading comments I realized the amount of hate that existed for a show where women were making their own choices and leading life their own way. Misogynists in the comments basically.
Bombay Begums has 5 strong women as protagonists who have acted well and put forth issues that we usually as society, brush under the carpet.
As the name suggests the series take place in Mumbai (Bombay) and details how these 5 women are interconnected. From the CEO of a bank to her daughter, a senior colleague and a young team member to a sex worker, the first episode of the 6 episode series introduces us to all of these women.
What is most interesting is that these women are shown as both their strong selves while also displaying their vulnerable side. Women who are confident, hard workers with their goals in place, while also relatable and flawed in ways unique to each of them.
The series highlights women’s issues that are rarely visible on screen – more so in Indian series.
Pooja Bhatt, who pays the CEO of a bank, is shown having the onset of menopause with symptoms like hot flashes – something she refuses to acknowledge initially. She is also taken aback when he realizes that others too have noticed this, when they offer advice.
It is heartwarming to see that an older woman’s physiological side is addressed which is usually never brought up, as thought women are just always well turned out and gorgeous 24/7. There is also the fact that she knows that as the CEO of a bank, which is traditionally ‘masculine’ territory, she cannot risk showing signs of ageing, lest others think her incapable of performing her job.
It further brings to light body image issues that a woman faces; whether at the onset of menstruation or menopause, in case of an inability to conceive a child, or accept her body as it is, causing immense emotional and physical struggle.
Pooja Bhatt’s character’s young daughter on the brink of puberty is shown dealing with self/body image issues, as she notices other girls in her class developing physically, feeling excited about these changes, and thus making an attempt to appear attractive to boys.
She also learns of how a women’s smell is linked with her fertility. To this end she too, in an attempt to turn a boy’s attention to her, pretends to be on her period.
This portrayal shows how not just the body changes during puberty, but also how the thought process of a young girl starts to evolve. How others view her starts to become a major focus – all this around 13 – 14 years of age, a very vulnerable stage in a young girl’s life.
The story of the sex worker highlights how she started as a bar dancer, but to make ends meet and provide for her son, also works in the sex trade.
In the series she refuses to sleep with a politician, telling him she has left this work to start a factory. However he starts to harass her – his ego of course unable to handle a woman saying no.
Her journey highlights that while a woman can be a part of sex work, she has autonomy over her body, has the right to say no at any given time, and withdraw consent. She too has the right to dream big and set goals for herself and her child.
With a woman’s pregnancy loss, Bombay Begums brought to light the inner turmoil a woman experiences. Not just the physical pain but the tumultuous emotions such an experience carries. The best part is that the show did not only lean towards this topic in an indirect manner, as usually depicted, but shows the woman bleeding heavily when she wakes up in the middle of the night.
Normalizing such bodily concerns is crucial rather than shying away from how it looks because isn’t that actual reality? That IS what happens to the body. Miscarriage, better known as the pregnancy loss, is not something that happens without physical traces.
We all have a cookie cutter idea of what marriages look like or must be. What we as society either forget or refuse to acknowledge, is that all marriages are different.
Pooja Bhatt’s character’s marriage is a prime example – her husband is unable to forget his first wife, something which occurs even in their intimate moments. Bhatt has accepted that the first wife’s presence would continue. Her husband on the other hand knows that the shortcomings his wife feels in their marriage may be fulfilled elsewhere. So when he learns of her affair he is not really upset – rather stands by her in the face of a very public scandal.
The young team member, Ayesha, is shown living at her ex boyfriend’s house. Soon she meets an attractive singer and realizes that she wants to be with her.
The show effortlessly displays her confusion regarding her sexual orientation while she tries to understand her feelings towards the woman while dating a man at the same time. None of this is exaggerated as her being rebellious or just trying this out of curiosity – but clearly informs us of her bisexuality. Something she does understand and gradually acknowledge, hinting that this has been so for years.
The concept of sexual harassment is as old as time itself. Whether in daily life situations or workplace harassment, it is sadly all too prevalent. I have yet to come across a woman who hasn’t been harassed/sexually assaulted at some point in her life. Says a lot about safety of our women – be it rural or urban.
We see how Ayesha is sexually assaulted by a senior and while she wishes to file a formal complaint even senior women in the company find it tough to believe her.
Victim blaming, protecting the attacker, intimidation, as well as telling a woman how her job would suffer if she speaks up are highlighted clearly. Women are not silent but are silenced with these veiled threats of losing their public image, their income etc. Ayesha refuses to budge from her statement and the show highlights how women too are part of the problem revealing a startling confession by Bhatt, the CEO in the last episode – of how she too was sexually assaulted for years and years by her mentor.
One of the most poignant scenes is when Bhatt tells her daughter to always live her life for herself first and foremost and not for some boy. A lesson I wish all women were taught in their childhood – that they are their own priority first, not a man whom they need to cater to or please.
While Bombay Begums may not be the best series, it certainly is commendable how these multiple issues are highlighted across a mere 6 episodes so beautifully – showcasing reality – showing us a true woman.
Strong, sensitive and absolutely splendid!
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