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Sex and the City

Imagining a Bombay with women in charge

I have never been able to visit Bombay, but the city, or rather the ghost of it, lingered in the plotline of my Pakistani childhood. Both sides of my family were from Bombay: on one side were Iranian exiles from the uprooting of the Qajar dynasty in the 1920s, and on the other, Muslim businessmen from the heart of the city. Both sides decided to leave after Partition in 1947 and come to Karachi, where I was born. Disparate as their worlds may have been in Bombay, they had merged in Karachi, then a desert backwater. Neither seemed particularly sanguine about the choice, a judgment I made based on the frequency with which the magical Bombay of their memories and imaginations appeared in conversation. As a Pakistani born in the place wrested from India and the British, I could not go and see the city of Bombay.

Naturally this has meant that I relish any chance to catch a glimpse of the “real” Bombay, even if it is provided via the very unreal creations of Bollywood or, more recently, the reality dramas dished up on Netflix. I devoured Indian Matchmaking in an afternoon, the tone and timbre and accent of matchmaker “Seema Aunty” as familiar to me as the soundtrack of my childhood, made up of just such gossipy fare exchanged by my migrated grown-ups. Then came The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, and now another one, a show called Bombay Begums.

Unlike Indian Matchmaking and Bollywood Wives, Bombay Begums is a drama, its protagonist played by the actress Pooja Bhatt, a once-upon-a-time Bollywood star looking to make a comeback in the relatively less-ageist environs of the Netflix drama. Her character, Rani Irani, is the just-ascended CEO of a powerful bank (the fictional Royal Bank of Bombay). Having beat out many men for the job, Irani has a lot to prove and she sets about doing just that. She is clad in the most resplendent silk saris, many of which hang in her office, a deliberately feminized backdrop to the conversations about sex or money or bribes that take place in the cream upholstered and tastefully backlit space.

Irani roosts over a gaggle that is almost entirely female. Her right-hand woman is Fatima, who is enduring multiple rounds of IVF and is ambivalent about staying in the rat-race instead of quitting to be a stay-at-home mom. Then there is Ayesha, a young girl who, like Irani herself, has arrived from outside Bombay to make it in the big city. The narrative of each episode is pushed along by the all-observing Shai, Irani’s stepdaughter, who makes pithy observations about the goings-on as she writes and sketches them in her journal. Together, this gang of women make up a Mad Men­–like production, with the central setting of an advertising agency exchanged for a bank and with all the sex and corporate intrigue centered on women.

Because of this, Bombay Begums is a show worth watching, even if you have no particular interest in Bombay or begums (meaning “queens”), because it investigates the question of women’s freedom, the possibility and extent of their freedom in a society still dominated by men. In one episode, Irani’s stepson hits the son of a prostitute he has been visiting with this car. At the scene, Irani arranges to pay the prostitute, named Lily, to lie to the police and not implicate him. Lily does it, but not without later extracting from Irani fees for her son’s school and a bank loan that helps her start a factory where she can employ all her friends who, like her, have been working to attend to the sexual needs of Bombay’s rich boys and men.

The themes of sexual desire and power recur in each one of the episodes of Bombay Begums. Director Alankrita Shrivastava skillfully tends to the ambiguities of all the sleeping around (and there is, as in Mad Men, a terrible lot of it). Does young Ayesha, a new hire at the bank, willingly have a sexual encounter with one of the male vice presidents? The issue of whether the encounter counts as sexual harassment is the subject of a hearing. Everyone present is a woman but not everyone believes Ayesha. “You may believe me or not believe me,” Ayesha says to the disbelieving Fatima. “You’re choosing to believe the person who assaulted me; that is your decision.” The mere presence of women in leadership roles in Bombay Begums does not ensure an empowering or even egalitarian workplace.

Bombay Begums investigates the question of women’s freedom—the possibility and extent of their freedom in a society still dominated by men.

Similarly thorny is the question of what women, or rather the women in the show, want. After a bout of IVF failures, Fatima falls into the arms of Jeff, head of a British corporate firm. In his arms at the hotel where they rendezvous, she feels “like she can breathe” in a way she cannot in her marriage or at work. This is shocking; her husband, who has recently lost his job, is hardly the domineering sort, and has volunteered to be the house-husband who will take care of the yet-unborn children so that Fatima can be the corporate big shot, a la her boss Rani Irani.

What do women want? is the obvious question. Fatima finds her housebound and jobless husband inadequate as a man or perhaps as an individual. It is difficult to tell, perhaps impossible to know. At the end of the episode, Shai, eagerly awaiting her period, writes in her diary, “Sometimes our bodies just betray us and we hate our bodies for not letting us live the life we want.” It is an observation that is true for nearly all the women in the show. Irani herself must hide her menopausal hot flashes, Ayesha her budding lesbianism, and Lily the fact of her prostitution.

In this sense, Bombay Begums rises above the particularities and culture of a single city; these, after all, are questions all women are grappling with: the nature of consent, the gendered roles of breadwinner and housekeeper, the role of weaponized femininity, and the supposed goal of all urban life—making it big.

Indians seem less sure about Bombay Begums. In mid-March, not long after the show was made available to international viewers, India’s National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights asked Netflix to stop streaming the series and also asked the streaming giant to remove five scenes, some of which include children “snorting drugs and taking indecent pictures and selfies in the classroom.” The scenes, which feature Shai, Irani’s stepdaughter and the show’s narrator, are not exactly wholesome, but in relation to the vast oeuvre of Bollywood films, some of which feature child abuse as well as drug consumption, they are hardly worthy of notice.

The National Commission is not having it; it also wrote a letter to the police asking them to “investigate” the scenes.

Other Indian reviewers of the show hid behind other objections. Writing for the website The Wire, reviewer Tanul Thakur called the show “sloppy at such an obvious level—constantly interrupting and re-aligning our feelings that it forbade basic engagement.” A right-wing site called the show “unintentionally hilarious and high on nonsense.” Some, like the reviewer for Feminism in India, were more appreciative of the groundbreaking nature of the show, noting, “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.”

As the setting for this ambitious and complex drama, Bombay too is elevated to the “everycity,” a megalopolis where making it is enough of a possibility to goad millions into risking everything. Within it are the contradictions that are the constants of urban life: one woman selling her body to support her son, another paying huge sums of money to have an artificially created embryo implanted inside her. I feel the contradictions myself: perhaps I would have been a woman of the city had the British not severed the subcontinent. Instead, I watch on Netflix this new Bombay that has grown out of the one that my family left behind, still forbidden from entering the city itself.