The Writers’ Woman Character Conundrum

“Women can have a career and a family,” says Pooja Bhatt’s character, Rani in Netflix’s Bombay Begums. These are her words of wisdom to her associate, who refuses to take on a lucrative position because she’s pregnant and isn’t sure if she can handle both.

I agree that this statement needs to be reiterated time and again. Most women around the world still struggle to balance their homes and careers, and coming from a character who has just been made CEO of a large bank and posed for a perfect family portrait, it’s sure to carry some weight. There’s just one problem though, Rani – the second wife of a millionaire, stepmom to 2 indifferent, foul-mouthed teenagers, and CEO of a bank that needs a major overhaul – doesn’t have a great career or a “happy” family. She’s struggling to stand up against her male peers. Her first big initiative as CEO comes from a need to fend off a blackmailer. Her marriage is not exactly made in heaven. She’s also having an affair and it’s not clear if it’s because of her marriage or despite it. And amidst all this there are the pre-menopausal symptoms that she is in denial of. So, what career? What family?

Bombay Begums is the latest addition to a list of Indian web series that claim to break the idea of an “adarsh nari”, give them a voice, and bring their dilemmas and struggles to fight patriarchy to the fore. But what it is, is another shallow portrayal of the so-called modern woman, in a so-called modern city. It’s yet another failed attempt to showcase real emotions and battles. Another piece of confused, cosmetic writing that needlessly complicates issues and unnecessarily paints all the female leads in various shades of grey. Yet again I cringe, roll my eyes and shake my head thinking why? 

It’s the same reaction I had when I saw Four More Shots Please! Bhaag Beeni Bhaag, Guilty, Out of Love or Black Widows, although I must confess that these stories are still better. There are honest and with a sense of purpose. Then I watched Aarya, The Test Case, Criminal Justice: behind closed doors and Mirzapur, especially season 2 and I thought finally, writers and makers are looking beyond the stereotypes, sex, lies and vulnerabilities and etching out women characters that impact and influence the storyline. But when I saw Bombay Begums I wanted to bang my head against a wall! The only character you relate to or feel for is the prostitute-turned-business woman, Lilly, who’s determined to make the most of her horrible situation and turn her life around. The others seem hell-bent on messing up their own lives and for no particular reason.

Time and again I come across the same superficial, one-dimensional characterization of women across series and channels. If a small-town woman has moved to a big city then she must have only picked up bad company and habits. An ambitious, career-oriented woman must be gay, bi or having an affair with her married boss. Either writers are living in the wrong society or simply don’t have an imagination or for that matter, access to the right sample size. It’s the writers who have managed to look beyond this frivolousness that have given us an Aarya or a Captain Shikha and God knows we need more of these because women can have both a fulfilling career and a loving family. And we can get them without compromising on our dignity and integrity.

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