By Shaista Gohir
When the six-episode Indian series, Bombay Begums, first released on Netflix about four months ago (March 2021), I didn’t bother watching it. However, when I read it was embroiled in some kind of controversy, my curiosity got the better of me. Suddenly I was intrigued to find out more about the drama set in modern-day Mumbai about a 13-year-old girl (Shai) and four women (Rani, Fatima, Ayesha and Lily), at different stages in their personal and professional lives. The story centres Rani (played by Pooja Bhatt), who is the CEO of a national bank – it’s great to see her back on screen after a long hiatus. The five ‘begums’ stories are interconnected, each fighting their own battles whether it’s with their own bodies (e.g. periods, pregnancy or menopause), in their personal lives (e.g. motherhood, sexuality, relationships, sex and desires) or in their careers where they have to deal with everyday sexism.
They probably view interfaith relationships between Muslims and Hindus and lesbian relationships as lifestyles they do not want to see normalised.
So, why has the show been controversial and who has been complaining? Well theNational Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), an Indian statutory body, called for Netflix to stop streaming it citing that the show was inappropriately portraying children such as showing them taking drugs and that it would ‘pollute’ young minds. Although some of the Indian public is supporting the NCPCR, others disagree and suggest that its actual motives are probably related to the other stories. Having binge watched the show over two days, I would agree. They probably view interfaith relationships between Muslims and Hindus and lesbian relationships as lifestyles they do not want to see normalised amongst the public.
So, what about the scene showing minors taking drugs? Yes, there was such a scene where the 13-year-old girl is takes drugs. She also wants to have a relationship with a boy at her school too. However, these issues are tackled, and her motivations challenged. Surely this storyline should therefore be viewed in a positive light because this is the reality for teenagers in society. TV dramas such as this can be a good medium to raise awareness especially to parents.
... women’s bodies are often not treated with respect or dignity in the public space, at work and in relationships including in marriages.
The NCPCR probably was not thrilled with the numerous sex scenes either, which were between adults by the way. There were too many and not all necessary. Fortunately, I was watched Bombay Begums on my own, so there were no awkward moments with the family. I have to say Indian film and TV really have come a long way from stealing kisses behind a rose bush! As there is still much stigma around discussing sex, pleasure and consent in the South Asian culture though, I welcomed the fact that women’s desires were touched upon in the storylines. Women too want to enjoy their bodies. In one scene, Fatima, (one of the Bombay Begums) discloses that she ‘wants her body to feel alive and wanted.’
This is an important conversation – women’s bodies are often not treated with respect or dignity in the public space, at work and in relationships including in marriages. Alankrita Shrivastava, whose creation this is, also wrote and directed ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ which touches on a similar theme of women’s dreams and desires. The director says that she created a world that reflects the realities of urban working women in Mumbai. However, women in other parts of the world, including in the UK, may also see elements of their own lives reflected in the characters and / or storylines – internal conflicts, challenges they experience and their dreams and desires. Can we too become the ‘Queens’ (Begums) of our destinies? I really liked some of the dialogues, here are a few that may resonate with some of you:
“I want you to know that you don't have to do anything to please a boy, okay?”
“Some women secretly aspire to be queens (begums). But society has stopped them. They can't dare aspire for these things. So, they lie about their true desires. And make choices they don't fully believe in. Do all women have to lie to themselves to survive”
“Then there is desire. It just burns, like a flame, coursing through my whole body. I feel so many things...”
“Sometimes what we want is to push it all away. To forget, to pretend that it never was. But the memory stays alive inside of us, like a living, breathing thing.”
“Women can have a career and a family.”
“What matters is we mend the pieces and move on, until it (heartbreak) happens again. Because it will happen again.”
“It's like I'm constantly at war with my body. Making it do stuff and... hating it, being angry with it. It's like I'm constantly on a treadmill, and there's no getting off.”
“Tu karle na ishq, jisse bhi karna hai, dil kholke... kisi se bhi.”
(You fall in love, with whoever, fully with an open heart, with whoever (you want).
“Nothing is more precious than a room of one’s own (Virginia Wolf), where our wounds can heal and our souls blossom.”
I would give Bombay Begums a 3.5 out of 5 stars and look forward to Series 2, but with less sexual content and more happiness in their lives of the five Bombay Queens! I also hope to see more dramas centred around strong women who take back control of their lives.
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