It was not purely by design, but Bollywood actress Pooja Bhatt marked this year’s International Women’s Day by making a fierce acting comeback in the female-fronted web series ‘Bombay Begums’.
Bhatt last appeared in a leading role in her father Mahesh Bhatt’s acclaimed 1998 film ‘Zakhm’ more than two decades ago, that is if we discount her cameo in ‘Sadak 2’.
In the glossy and gritty six-episode series, which premiered on March 8, Bhatt plays a high-profile banker, Rani. The series, directed by the incredibly talented Alankrita Shrivastava, explores the themes of ambition, freedom, and conflict through the lens of five working women living in Mumbai.
While Bhatt’s character is a glamorous sari-clad gladiator in a boardroom filled with male bankers, her personal life is relatively troubled with her constantly trying to win the affections of her grown stepchildren.
Like most working women, Bhatt’s complex character is wracked by guilt and often compensates for her working long hours by being over-indulgent. And, that begs the question: Can women have it all?
“Depends on what that ‘all is’ and you need to decide that. Sometimes, no matter what you achieve in your life, you are looked upon as a failure because you are not married. Or when you are married with children and you are a homemaker, you are looked at as a failure because you are not a career woman,” said Bhatt in a joint interview with her director Shrivastava, ahead of their show’s premiere on Netflix.
“And if you happen to be both a career woman and married, then you are often asked why you don’t have a child. It’s almost like until the woman doesn’t have a child, she’s not a complete woman … So, what we need to do decide for ourselves what that ‘all’ is.”
If Bhatt were to apply her philosophy of what that ‘all’ is, then this versatile actress believes she hasn’t done too shabbily.
“Well, I am 49 now and I don’t feel like my life is over. I feel perfect right now because my life is just beginning all over again with ‘Bombay Begums’ … And the day I tell myself that I have it all is the day when I realise it’s the end of the road for me. So in that sense, I don’t have it all. All I want is to live with a certain degree of satisfaction,” said the actress.
It’s safe to say that director Shrivastava, whose credits include highly engaging female-fronted projects such as ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ and ‘Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare’, appeased Bhatt’s need to be satisfied creatively.
“I am ecstatic that life gave me this opportunity and that Alankrita thought I was worthy enough to play Rani. She saw in me something that perhaps I had even forgotten that I was capable of putting across … I lived my life in a certain way, but to know that she [Alankrita] would be able to harness that and place me in this world where I play Rani is incredible … It’s always the gaze of how people see you. You need new eyes and not new people,” said Bhatt.
The ‘Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahi’ sensation who ruled the 1990s with hits including ‘Sadak’, in which she played a troubled prostitute, and ‘Daddy’ in which she played an estranged daughter of an alcoholic father, is thrilled to make a comeback.
“Even if I don’t do something after this [‘Bombay Begums’], I am OK. From acting in ‘Daddy’ in 1989 and the kind of culmination of my career in 2021 with ‘Bombay Begums’, I think it’s OK. I did all right so far.”
The series also features a clutch of rich talents including Plabita Borthakur, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash and Sanghamitra Hitaishi in powerful roles. But Bhatt is clearly in charge and her comeback role is layered and complex. In the series, you will see her character make a series of questionable parenting choices.
When her spoilt stepson gets embroiled in something shady, she condones his bad behaviour and tries to cover up his crime, or when she blows off her stepdaughter due to work commitments, she’s wracked by guilt.
“There’s a scene where Rani makes a promise to her daughter that she will go for a first trainer bra shopping as it’s a pivotal point in a young girl’s life. But work takes over and she is wracked by guilt … Somehow you wouldn’t put any guilt on a man for having missed even their kid’s birthday party, graduation, football match, or that dramatic class,” said Bhatt, pointing to the inherent patriarchy and sexism that exists in modern India.
Fathers are let off easy when compared to working mothers who are expected to balance mothering and their work-lives seamlessly. Striking a work-life balance isn’t a must for men, but society is more unforgiving towards women.
“I have discussed this a lot with Alankrita and I have said often that if he were my son in real life, I would be the first person to turn him in. But with Rani, the dichotomy is that he’s not her biological son and she has this desperate need to be liked. And, to find that acceptance she does immoral things. Her decision to cover for him stems from wanting to earn brownie points,” said Bhatt.
As we progress into the series, the stepson turns on her and brands her as an immoral person.
“The same son whom she goes out to protect calls her names and begins blaming her in later episodes … He plays the typical male card then. She has this pathetic need to be loved by her kids and craves to be this perfect mother … She yearns for respect that her son is not possibly giving her,” said Bhatt.
Her comeback series, which opened to good reviews with Bhatt’s performance being hailed as compelling, is an incisive and cutting gaze into the lives of working women, their gender-related conflicts, and more. And, who better than the director Shrivastava, Bollywood’s go-to sensitive and sensible filmmaker for female narratives to take charge of ‘Bombay Begums’.
When asked if women directors tell female stories better and if a superlative film is gender agnostic, Shrivastava felt that the gender of the filmmaker can give a certain slant to a story.
“There is something about a film that has a female gaze and one that doesn’t have a female gaze … There’s something about a gendered gaze. Some films have an obvious non-female gaze that is often jarring and may not be looked at in a more sensitive point of view,” said Shrivastava. In an ideal world, both Bhatt and Shrivastava want a better representation of women in the world of Indian films.
“Cinemas has been moulded by men for decades and decades the entire cinematic language has been created by men. For women to make space over here, it’s important to look at their point of view as well. That’s why representation is important behind the camera as well. I see the change in front of the camera, but the change needs to happen behind the camera too.”
She hopes ‘Bombay Begums’ triggers a dialogue and conversation on those fronts. All the six episodes are titles of feminist tomes such as ‘The Bell Jar’, which she says shaped her life.
“I don’t know how much power one story holds to change things, but it has the power to make people think, question things, examine and provoke thought … For instance, if a woman is aggressive at work, it isn’t seen as a desirable trait. But if a man is aggressive is never a bad thing. Ambition is an attractive quality in a man, but in a woman is it looked that way. I want everyone to reflect on things that women experience in the workforce and how they balance different aspects of their lives through ‘Bombay Begums’. Nobody asks a man: how’s it being a father and a banker?,” said Shrivastava.
“I am very happy that I’m able to tell the stories that I want to tell and that’s my greatest driving force in life. Stories give me a lot of joy … And I don’t need a lot in life. I just want to make sure that I have time to spend with my friends, read and drink my coffee. I have a low threshold of what I want from life … I want my own space and I am content … I want to always grow as a person,” Shrivastava when asked if women can have it all.
Don’t Miss It!
‘Bombay Begums’ is streaming now on Netflix.