From 'Bahu Begum' To 'Bombay Begums' — Creating New Stereotypes

From 'Bahu Begum' To 'Bombay Begums' — Creating New Stereotypes

by Sumedha Verma Ojha - Tuesday, March 23, 2021 03:47 PM IST
From 'Bahu Begum' To 'Bombay Begums' — Creating New StereotypesBombay Begums.
  • The vision of feminist missionaries, like the makers of 'Bombay Begums', does not seek to remove distortions, but perpetuate them with different dramatis personae.

This is the age of women, the age when they come into their own and march into a golden future, escorted, presumably, by the thought leaders from the media of the day, OTT platforms et al.

Many web series, women-centric they call themselves, show you a brave new world diametrically different from and better than the old one.

The people who think up these concepts, write the screenplays and direct or act in these films or web series think of themselves as revolutionaries dragging the backward Hindu society into the progressive future much as Dushasan dragged Draupadi into Dhritarashtra’s court by the hair.

They congratulate themselves on breaking backward stereotypes and opening up new roles and vistas for women. These roles concentrate on identity, individualism, victimhood and rebellion sometimes only for the sake of it.

There are learned articles being written about the courage of the protagonists of such series, women’s summits laud the role models presented by these stories and encourage young women to identify with them and behave as them.

Now, these are made for a particular demographic which is very far from being the average Sita or Radha of India. However, these have a dangerous aspirational value even for those it is not targeted at and those who do not identify with it.

The new stereotypes being created have a seductive attraction to them. Again, many of the OTT platforms are accessible across the world and so are views of India coloured by such series.

Although these are in the popular domain, they have decades of theorising and even, I would go so far as to say, proselytising, behind them.

Let us examine the concept, story and theoretical underpinnings of these series with the example of Bombay Begums.

It purports to be a story of four women and a girl drawn from different parts of Bombay (of course, it could not be Mumbai) headed by a bank CEO, her step-daughter and two women she works with as well as one other, a prostitute the bank is giving a loan to.

It is a look at the lives and choices of these women, a slice of their lives.

It is a conceptual rip off from Hollywood films and American web and TV series just with Indian, or should I say, Muslim names (more of that, anon) albeit with a strange throw back connection to Hindi films.

The women are discontented, grasping at “more” and lead arid lives running after material success; and in the case of the sex-worker, Lily, after some form of “honour”.

The CEO is saving the bank and her job as are her subordinates. One of the latter is looking to have a child through various medical procedures and the other is looking for a job and indiscriminate sex.

To make the series “raw” and “edgy”, there is a good deal of gratuitous and ugly sex with bibhatsa rasa predominant ; and no, the story-line does not demand it and could well have done without it.

Mandatory lesbian/gay sex scenes are there. How could any series be 'progressive' without it? Aesthetics in the depiction of sexual activity, however, is an alien concept to the makers.

The characters are two-dimensional and 'progressive' ideals substitute for an interesting storyline and engaging characters.

The series does not tell you a story or present a slice of life, it is a mere vehicle for the “progressive” opinions of the scriptwriter and director and therein lies the problem.

The direction is stilted, the acting appalling (except for Pooja Bhatt) and watching the series to review is a species of torture (Watch Renuka Shahane’s film Tribhanga for a real story of real women who make choices and live with them).

Circling back to the question of the theory behind the practice; it comes in the long line of feminist theory, both Liberal and Marxist. The long shadow of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which popularised the devaluation of the domestic, the attack against grihasti and made “housewife” into a term of abuse and patronage it is today, looms large.

The first five minutes tell you so when the protagonist makes it clear in a terribly dismissive way that she is not a housewife — that most despicable of creatures, that fantasy of the male chauvinist.

The other target, of course, is the traditional family in keeping with Marxist theory. The young and single protagonist has one and they pop up like caricatures from time to time screaming “marriage” at the daughter, a fate worse than death, apparently.

Another protagonist’s husband has the temerity to wish for a child, forcing this woman into a paroxysm of self-hate and humiliation; the man, of course, is responsible for that.

She kills his career prospects, too, but no time is wasted on that. He is a man after all, so who cares. This man could legitimately claim victimhood perpetrated by his wife but he is the wrong gender.

The family in the Marxist feminist model is the home of abuse and exploitation, it has to be neutralised and replaced by something no one is clear about.

Women-to-women networks phasing out men wherever possible, perhaps? Thus, the relentless attack on the family, which is not a source of support and succour but persecution and attempted obfuscation of the beautiful individual identities of these women.

Interspersed is the most boring voice-over of the coming-of-age travails of a young girl I have seen in a long time. It comes from a cookie-cutter of such similar dull monologues pretending to be profound and understanding of young girls’ travails, all revolving around sex and the physical body, of course, with some mom-hating thrown in.

Interesting that the stepmother and daughter finally bond only over rape and sexual assault.

Which brings us to the ubiquitous #Metoo. A movement which has run out of steam because of the various problems associated with it which seemed to give weapons to the elite rather than power to the weak.

There is supposed to be a catharsis when a burlesque of a predator gets his comeuppance. While I am not commenting on individual scenes, the one where this man (Dileep, of course, not Taufeeq or Imran) beats an internal enquiry and sits on the sofa in his female colleague’s room is straight from a theoretical description of the toxic male and a nod to “manspreading”. Ludicrous!

An associated and serious problem with such series is the negative, almost manic approach to Hindu women, Hindu dharma and society. These are seen as part of the problem and all blame, real or imagined, is attached to its practices, indeed its very existence.

Since the actual knowledge of those such as Alankrita Shrivastava (the screen writer and director) about the Bhagavad Gita is zero, anything can be attributed to it.

So it is that a local corporator, a Hindu, exploiting and trying to force a sex-worker to have sex with him “quotes” the Gita, indeed, he is seen to be reading from it while making atrocious claims on the sex worker.

The abusive and exploitative men are Hindus, the corporator, the sexual harasser in the office. The main protagonist is a Parsi and the rest of the population of the serial, barring the villains (and very few others) are all Muslim.

Even if a company is owned by the Mukherjees, the father and daughter are also Muslims. It makes for a surreal and confusing scenario; like those popular Hindi films set in Australia or the UK/US where all the characters are Indian barring the token few locals.

This is a peep into the mental landscape of the writer, but far be it from me to understand this aggressive Islamisation of the series. What purpose does it serve apart from making it look extremely unreal?

Even the heartthrob of the young pre-teen is an Imran.

To return to the title, Bahu Begum is not a film the average OTT platform viewer of today will be familiar with.

It was a film in the genre called the “Muslim Social” which was all the rage in the '50s and '60s and even up to the '80s.

The last blockbuster in this genre was Nikaah and it has now fallen out of favour. It took up stories set very specifically in Muslim families and society.

It perpetrated many stereotypes of the day, the dutiful daughter, the repressed and oppressed woman, the pure woman versus the impure courtesan, the sacrificing lover etc.

None of these will be palatable to Alankrita Shrivastava, but she is merely an inheritor of the same tradition, the production of stereotypes. Never mind whether they have any relation to reality or not.

These web series are in the same business of creating stereotypes, false ones. Bombay Begums is but a revised Bahu Begum; even to the attempt to show most of the characters as Muslims.

Now my contention is not that I would like a sugar-and-spice series where all is well with the world and no woman faces any problems. The vexed issue is the solution imagined to real problems in these parallel universes which are very far from the Indic model which thinks in terms of the ashrams and emphasises the importance of grihasti.

The onus is not, as feminists would have it, on women, but both women and men, the grihapati and the grihapatni to make the model work. It is around the family that society revolves.

We have to work with the family not dump it as an imagined centre of all problems.

In further Indic terms, the goals of life in the Indic framework are dharma, artha, kama and moksha; a balance between these leads to self-fulfilment. For modern women, however, there is a focus on artha (and perhaps a bit of perverse Kama) to the exclusion of everything else.

Material success and money is the holy grail. Ethics, of course, counts for nothing and moksha is a joke no one thinks of.

To me, it seems a no-brainer that for a fulfilled life, all four goals of life should be pursued in a balanced way within the framework of job/occupation and ashram/ grihasti/ family. Not for the modern seekers of the one truth about women, though.

Feminism of the Western variety has made an unholy alliance with the conflict theory of Marxism and posits an unending war between women and men, victims and perpetrators.

There is no possible acceptable end-game in this which does not envisage flipping this relationship so that women are perpetrators and men victims. The future looks bleak.

There is an equally unholy alliance with capitalism to cast women’s lives in terms of money to the extent of monetising everything, even those most tender relationships, between mother and child, between wife and husband.

Nothing is beyond the grasping hands of filthy lucre.

The vision of these feminist missionaries is the complete masculinisation of women and emasculation of men. It is not a world any Indic woman can look forward to with equanimity.

It is a sterile, dark, dreary and ultimately defeated world, because it does not seek to remove distortions, but just perpetuate them with different dramatis personae.

After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

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