How does one attempt an astute reading of a difficult text like Bombay Begums where what is real seems so elusive, where pain constantly seems to surface in ways and at places you can’t seem to put your finger on and where power shifts happen when you least expect them? At one level it is the story of women who make it and how! With what insurmountable determination and clenched fists and jaws in a man’s world; at another, it is a story of tragedies and heartbreak, of being hurt and broken and falling and failing and then rising slowly and collecting the many smithereens of the shattered selves and putting them back together to fight a new battle.
In Bombay Begums, if Rani Irani (Pooja Bhatt) the newly appointed CEO of Royal Bank of Bombay tries to do it by refusing to cow down under pressure or retract her steps or give in to misogynistic vibes which she predictably prompts by the virtue of embodying the uncomfortable paradox of being a woman and at the helm of affairs, Fatima Warsi (Shahana Goswami) her junior, does it by subverting the patriarchal institution of marriage and motherhood from within, albeit unconsciously at times. Lily or Lakshmi Gondhali (Amruta Subhash) the bar dancer-turned-sex-worker is out to dismantle the system by trying to force her way into the genteel society which will not have her and faces her fair share of misogyny and humiliation from all ideological institutions whereas Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), a new joinee at the Royal Bank is wobbling on shaky terrain trying to explore her sexuality and her career prospects simultaneously, oscillating between the two. Caught in the flux is also Shai (Aadhya Anand), Rani’s step-daughter who is preoccupied with imaginary conversations with her dead biological mother and trying to deal with her tremulous adolescent nerves and making sense of this new personhood that is slowly rearing its pubescent head.
Bombay Begums will show you how nearly impossible it is for women-who-have-made-it to show even the slightest vulnerability in male spaces and how this vulnerability, in case it somehow manifests, is held against them by everybody. This is primarily because by virtue of simply being women who are at the top, they just don’t have the privilege of making mistakes or feeling unwell or displaying passion; in other words, of being human or being in their bodies. Premenopausal hot flashes are frowned upon while miscarriages are shrugged off. The women can be on top of their game only by winning endless power games or they may as well choose to say goodbye to their career and their reputation with it. This is not true for men however, for apparently, they are naturally idolised. This is apparent in the differential treatment Rani and Deepak (Manish Chaudhari), another senior employee who is her junior, get at the bank in Bombay Begums.
While the expose of Rani’s extra-marital relationship with the PRB governor Mahesh Rao (Rahul Bose) results in a board meeting, with members demanding her immediate resignation, when the sexual harassment case against Deepak Sanghvi comes up, the same board members want Rani to make the case disappear.
The women in Bombay Begums somehow, though perfect as career women can never really be deemed “perfect” for they have failed to successfully “balance” their personal and professional life, their dichotomous selves brazenly exposed by the camera. What is remarkable is the amount of perfection they strive to achieve with untiring emotional zeal even within the domestic familial space. Rani is constantly trying to be “there” for her step-children who repeatedly reject her while waiting for her husband to get over his dead wife whose loss he has been secretly mourning for years. Fatima, on the other hand, is desperately pretending to be all set to tie the apron strings to please her husband. Only when they allow themselves to fall from grace and acknowledge their vulnerabilities in the personal space are they truly able to reconcile with their split selves.
Rani’s moment of striking a connection with her estranged step-daughter Shai comes about in an intimate conversation she has in which she allows her distraught daughter to see her, not as the infallible queen who runs everything to perfection whether it is a house or a bank but as a woman who has been vulnerable, a woman who has erred and suffered because she had no one to turn to. It is Rani’s confession of being a victim of sexual harassment for years and therefore someone who needs to be cared for and not only as someone who extends care support that makes her human to her daughter in Bombay Begums. Her daughter’s affirmation in her then gives her the courage to take on sexual predators in her own bank and go public with it thus breaking the long standing status quo.
On the other hand, only when Fatima reconciles to the fact that it is perhaps acceptable to be ambivalent about motherhood and choose personhood over motherhood that she truly begins to confront herself as an individual. Likewise Fatima’s search for companionship outside her marriage gives her a space to acknowledge her burnout and her vulnerabilities and also question her relationship with her husband. Lily, who has tried her hardest to conform to the ideal construct of motherhood in Bombay Begums, also feels a release when she vents her anger at her son and thereby dismantles the stereotype of the self-effacing all-sacrificing stoic mother, her act indicating the shift of motherhood from a rigid mythicised category to a work in progress where it is okay to sometimes lose your cool and make mistakes. Each woman in Bombay Begums, thus, embraces her humanness, her weaknesses and turns them into strengths by acknowledging the parts of her which need nurturing and tending to.
While the older women work towards a reconciliation and a more unified sense of personhood by choosing to deconstruct/decenter the myth of patriarchal motherhood, the younger woman Ayesha chooses to do so by embracing her queerness and taking a stand for herself. Ayesha accepts her fallibility in her own way by confessing that she is still exploring her sexuality and perhaps not “there” yet thus implying her preference to keep her choices in a fluid state rather than rigidifying them into diminutive political labels. Ayesha’s character also brings out the predicament of the bisexual person who faces a kind of dual dismissal from both the world of heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Each older women in a way leads by flawed example for the younger woman who toes her line bequeathing her heartbreaks and joys to her successor and paving the way for her. And in the process of paving this path, one sees small ruptures growing into sizeable fissures in the status-quo-ist structure of prescriptive norms that govern the home, the family and the workplace. Whether it is about exposing sexual predators at the workplace or a sex-worker’s gumption to be a factory-owner or a new recruit’s accomplishment as she finally manages a “room of her own” or a teenager’s decision to find new meaning in her life through her art, Bombay Begums can be flawed for its unapologetic utopian zeal but needs to be acknowledged for attempting to start some very difficult conversations which have been brushed under the carpet for too long now.
Featured image source: Orissa Post