Bombay Begums: As Alankrita Shrivastava described bisexuality and infidelity on her Netflix present

Bombay Begums is full of bisexual images that have long been absent from the on-screen portrayal of the female experience. But it is not a portrayal of bisexuality to break new ground.

Plabita Borthakur as Ayesha. Netflix

In “Love,” the second episode of Bombay Begums, the new Netflix series created, co-written, and co-governed by Alankrita Shrivastava, there is an unsuspecting scene that I thought was subversive at her agency. Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur), a young bank teller who is turning the company’s welfare system into a reality, sits in a pub with her first beneficiary, Laxmi Gondhall (Amruta Subhash), a commercial sex worker. Although this moment represents some kind of icebreaker between Ayesha and Laxmi, it is a red herring. Ayesha is really there to see Chitra (Sanghmitra Hitaishi) a jazz singer. The camera captured the duo several times in the course of the evening. Every moment is full of tension and ambiguity to lead several backstories of their own. Chitra continues to sing about the tragedy of waiting a long time for “another song”. Then she blows a kiss to Ayesha. Unprepared, Ayesha replies with a short smile and looks down as if overcompensating for the acknowledgment of her wishes.

While the show doesn’t make it explicit, there are numerous references to something potentially romantic between Chitra and Ayesha. What caught my attention in particular was how Shrivastava staged this scene, essentially designing it as a reversal of the often reliable meet-cute of Hindi cinema. Think a hero who stumbles upon a young, attractive actress in a crowded pub (Aashiqui, Rock On 2). The plot looks like this: he becomes irrevocably possessed by her, takes her under his wing, and then begins a romantic relationship with her. What the films do not emphasize is the power dynamic in such a situation: the woman is always “seen” by the man, is always the object of desire and rarely takes part in it.

Due to a gender reversal, Bombay Begums gets out of the way. Neither “discovers” the other in this scene, nor is attraction a means to an end. Shrivastava manages to imagine a meet-cute equipped with an agency in which one person does not have power over the other. In this way the two women can move from objects of desire to living, breathing subjects of desire in many ways.

Of course, this scene is designed to have more questions than answers. Is Ayesha, an attractive 20-year-old who otherwise appears on the show as the proverbial straight girl (after Ayesha was banned from paid hostels, seeking refuge in the tight 1BHK of an ex boyfriend), bisexual? Are there actually sexual undertones between Ayesha and Chitra or is it an invention of our production? Although Bombay Begum evades clean resolutions, it provides a hint towards the end of the same episode in another sensationally designed sequence.

Bombay Begums How Alankrita Shrivastava rewrote bisexuality and infidelity on her Netflix show

Ayesha is waiting in front of Chitra’s house. Netflix

The scene begins with Ayesha standing nervously in front of Chitra’s house. She rings the doorbell; Chitra opens the door. We get the feeling that Chitra is happy to see her. Ayesha enters the house and kisses Chitra after indulging in the usual subtleties for a minute. The camera pays extra attention here, taking the time to record the gentleness of the kiss, creating the exact feeling that someone is unlocking a part of themselves that is instantly familiar. The following shot focuses on her feet – as they get closer, Chitra is standing on Ayesha’s feet. The pleasant hypnotic quality of that moment is broken when Ayesha leaves in the midst of the act without warning. In the next moment she is standing in front of another door. This time it’s her male colleague Ron (Imaad Shah). We see Ayesha initiate another kiss. It feels similar and yet different. There’s the same shot here too, except Ayesha has to stand on tiptoe to reach Ron. Your feet, which used to be on the ground, now have to strain.

Bombay Begums How Alankrita Shrivastava rewrote bisexuality and infidelity on her Netflix show

Ayesha and Ron (Imaad Shah). Netflix

I’ve repeated this sequence several times since the show was released a few days ago, and each time I’m impressed by how much the creators have managed to convey without really revealing much of anything. As a viewer, you have the choice to read this sequence as an outbreak, this is a protagonist who is just about to master her bisexuality fluently. Or you could read it the way I would have liked to: As a reckoning, this is a little town girl who holds back and was conditioned for a lifetime to embrace the heteronormative expectations of a romantic life. Regardless of how the scene works for you, it still feels like an achievement, largely because it manages to analyze the origins of bisexuality without a judgment lens that alienates the experience from the status quo.

In the later episodes, Bombay Begums, otherwise unnecessarily made up and verbose in its intentions, maintains this reserved approach to Ayesha’s romantic worries. The show is full of bisexual imagery – two women kissing, cuddling, and going after each other – that have long been absent from the on-screen portrayal of the female experience, a void that Shrivastava’s past excursions have consistently focused on. But it is not a portrayal of bisexuality to break new ground.

For me, the uniqueness of Shrivastava’s attitude was based on her willingness to crack down on two-headedness and, ultimately, on the chains of confusion that keep someone from being who they really are. Ayesha eventually confronts the nature of her sexuality at the end of Bombay Begums, but she doesn’t start out so clearly. Their latent desires overshadow any sexual interaction. The first time after they meet, Chitra asks Ayesha if she has ever been with women. Ayesha doesn’t have to answer her for us to learn the truth, but it takes an astute filmmaker not to fall into the trap of viewing Ayesha’s inexperience as a deal breaker or even romantic dishonesty. Instead, Bombay Begums creates its straightforwardness as a result of sexual oppression. The fact that Shrivastava recognizes that any authentic representation of bisexuality, especially one that consists of patterns, is incomplete, even if it leaves no room for two-headedness, is proof of the indispensability of the female gaze. For example, Ayesha’s bisexual encounter with Chitra is not designed to compete with the sexual relationship she begins with Ron. This is a representation of bisexuality that is not based on a script or even an audience, but on a representation that is shaped by the perspective of the woman. Its intent is to simply measure the distance between a woman’s behavior through society and what happens when that mask is finally removed.

It’s the same approach that affects Bombay Begums’ portrayal of infidelity. Even for a show with some of the worst sex scenes in Indian streaming history, Shrivastava gives real empathy to the implications of the plot. Rani (Pooja Bhatt), Fatima (Shahana Goswami) and Laxmi, the other three protagonists, are shown at various points on the show doing business with men other than their husbands. They are all stilted in their own domestic reality in their own way, but their decision to start an extramarital affair is based more on attraction than domestic unfulfillment. As a result, they are never burdened with guilt. That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t emphasize that they are effectively cheating. What it does is resist being a moral authority deciding on a universal idea of ​​right or wrong and passing it off as fact.

In her latest outing, Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare, Shrivastava, an unrelenting record of the way women are denied ownership of their own needs, implied that a woman’s sexual satisfaction should be seen as vital to any marriage. If anything, Bombay Begums builds on these ideas in a way that is downright revolutionary. I wasn’t a fan of Bombay Begums, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by its moments. If Shrivastava does it right, there really is no stopping it.

Subscribe to Moneycontrol Pro for the first year for £ 499. Use code PRO499. Limited offer. * T & Cs apply

Comments are closed.