The actor joins director Alankrita Srivastava to talk about exploring sisterhood and sensuality in their new show, Bombay Begums
Years ago, director Alankrita Srivastava's mother, an IIM (Ahmedabad) graduate, told her that there were only four women in her batch and none of them pursued a ‘full-fledged corporate career'. This got the 41-year-old thinking about women and ambition. Somewhere along the way, this crystallised into an idea that is now Netflix India's latest offering, Bombay Begums. Set in the high stakes world of banking and finance, the story follows Rani (Pooja Bhatt), Fatima (Shahana Goswami), Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), Lily (Amruta Subhash) and Shai (Aadhya Anand), whose circumstances are different but whose lives are interconnected.
As in her earlier work, Srivastava has trained her lens to examine the ‘complex inner lives of women'. “Ever since the economy opened up in India there were many more women in the corporate workforce, but they have always had to do a balancing act. There's this pressure of having a perfect life — being great in your family life, managing your home and excelling at work,” says the filmmaker. Of the five women, Lily's character is the only one that seems to be an outlier of sorts. “Lily was the last character I thought of and she came in because I felt this world was too sanitised. I felt like I needed someone from another world — to juxtapose them and see what one arrives at,” she adds.
Female body as subtext
Along with a cameo in the eminently forgettable Sadak 2 (2020), Bombay Begums marks Bhatt's return to the front of the camera after a gap of 21 years. Her character, the CEO of a bank and a stepmother of two, is unlike anything she's played before. “Alankrita was very clear that this character is a combination of power, strength and great vulnerability. What she said to me is that real power does not scream. While Rani is quite over-the-top in that she's perfectly turned out, with not a strand of hair out of place, even at home, that's her shield. Yet, her body is falling apart,” says the actor. The female body and its transformations is a subtext that Srivastava explores with each of the five characters.
For Bhatt, the level of detailing that went into making the show is a sign of how storytelling is changing. “When I walked into the cabin that was created for my character and stood behind that desk, I felt this sense of power that made me feel like this was my kingdom. It was created with every prop that was there; everything was thought through. Even the artwork that Shai is doing, for example, is so detailed. There were so many such little things that the audience will never really see but it adds so much in terms of authenticity to an actor's performance.” A pleasantly surprising Easter egg thrown into the mix is how each of the show's six episodes have been named. “They are named after all the books by and about women that I love. They have all had some kind of impact on me,” shares Srivastava.
While Srivastava was a part of the writing team of the much-acclaimed Amazon Prime show Made in Heaven, she has created, co-written (with Iti Agarwal and Bornila Chatterjee) and co-directed (with Chatterjee) Bombay Begums.
Her filmography — Turning 30, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare — is testament to exactly the kind of stories she's interested in telling. “I don't want to make films for the heck of making films. These are the stories I'm drawn to and the characters and worlds I want to explore,” she says, adding, “I don't want to say that I'll never make a film with a male protagonist — I am doing Made in Heaven. But again, one of the lead characters there is a woman and the other a gay man. I think I'm interested in people who don't have it all. Somehow I have nothing to say or examine about an upper-caste, cis-gender man. Right now I'm very happy to work on more stories about women, their thoughts, their lives and their complexities.”