“Bombay Begums” and the Missing Subtext

Billed as a feminist series, the Netflix show ends up serving standard Bollywood fare of wrongdoing and retribution.

Poulomi Das

March 8, 2021

“Bombay Begums” and the Missing Subtext
Pooja Bhatt as Rani in "Bombay Begums" (Netflix)

There’s a distinctly female gaze that writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava brings whenever she lends her name to a project. Her breakout feminist hit Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) captured lightning in a bottle by foregrounding older female desire. The 55-year-old Usha (Ratna Pathak Shah) reads steamy paperbacks and lusts for a younger man, indulging in a display of sexuality at an age when women are typically considered asexual. In 2019, Shrivastava directed Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, a Netflix film about two sisters that captured the minutiae of middle-class female existence. The movie was revolutionary in its suggestion that sexual dissatisfaction was a dealbreaker for a woman in any marriage.

In Bombay Begums, the glossy new six-part series that Shrivastava created, co-wrote (with Iti Agarwal and Bornila Chatterjee), and directed for Netflix, the filmmaker is once again telling a story about the smothered female existence. But there’s a change in setting, from the confines of a home to that of sprawling boardrooms, spaces effectively designed to facilitate the accomplishments of men. If her previous two outings revolved around small-town women whose lives are marked by a daily language of suppression, then Bombay Begums is a departure, focusing on seemingly empowered, urban women. And yet, despite the freedom afforded to them, these women are still suffering at the hands of a misogynistic society threatened by the idea of a woman in charge. With Bombay Begums, Shrivastava seeks to not only paint a portrait of the working Indian woman but also to reveal the costs of female ambition. 

But the series is unable to make a compelling watch out of its premise. The trouble with Bombay Begums is that it becomes a show that sounds better on paper than it translates on screen — it relies unhealthily on voiceover for exposition and plot twists for easy resolutions. Bombay Begums spoon-feeds its intentions to the point of exhaustion.