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Ayesha: A Bombay Begums’ Character Review

Female sexuality is at the heart of all of Alankrita Shrivastava’s oeuvre. Previously, she co-wrote a few episodes of ‘Made in Heaven’, which also features a gay character in one of the leading roles. So, it was only a pleasant surprise to find a bisexual character (Ayesha) in her latest Netflix series, ‘Bombay Begums’. The series follows five women of varying ages, who are fighting the personal and professional battles of being a woman in the strenuous city of Bombay.

The title track presents each character in a unique way through a collage of their personalities. In Ayesha’s collage, the faces or the eyes of all women are either smudged or replaced with something else, alluding to the initial denial of her bisexuality. We also see two orange (or some citrus fruit) halves – which are often used as a symbol for the vagina – as a hint to her sexuality. The butterfly in the middle suggests her free-spiritedness in the newly inhabited environ of the city, while the tall sky-scrapers become a symbol of the professional ladder that she wishes to climb. Through this first collage, the viewers get subtle glimpses of the character even before they are completely immersed in the plot-line.

Ayesha (Plabita Borthakur) is a feisty, young woman from Indore who is new to the city of Bombay. In the first episode, she gets fired from her job at the Royal Bank because of a misstep. However, the CEO of the bank, Rani, comes to her rescue and offers her a job in the Welfare Schemes department – giving her a second chance. In this department, she befriends Ron, played by Imaad Shah. Ron makes it clear that he likes her but Ayesha doesn’t pay heed to his advances initially. At this point, Ayesha is unsure about everything in her life – who her friends are, how she wants to grow professionally, who she likes, and so the list goes. Although she comes across as naïve, the viewers know that the city of dreams is about to change her.

Each episode is titled after pioneering works of feminist literature. Episode three, ‘The Colour Purple’, is particularly interesting because a direct connection is made to the theme of abuse from Alice Walker’s renowned book. Another obvious connection is that in the book, the main character, Celie, finds herself falling for the blues singer, and in the show Ayesha finds herself attracted to Chitra – a famous jazz singer in the city. The series seeks inspiration from pioneering women writers and tries to reverently create its own universe.

The creators employ, what in recent years has come to be known as, ‘bisexual lighting’. Bisexual lighting blends or applies the three colours of the bisexual flag – blue, purple and pink – in a single frame, typically placing it on the faces of the bisexual characters in question. This type of lighting was previously employed in Black Mirror’s famed episode, ‘San Junipero’, and in the film, ‘Atomic Blonde’, as a recognition of the character’s sexuality. In ‘Bombay Begums’, when Ayesha first meets Chitra, we see the pink and blue in the background but as the scene progresses and Ayesha’s gaze lingers on Chitra, a mild purple settles on their faces. The purple tactfully depicts her attraction towards both men and women.

The show also captures the initial denial and fear that comes with accepting your sexuality. In episode two, she innocently asks her friend, Lilly,”Kabhi ishq kiya hai kisi se aur hone nahi diya?” We learn that she is attempting to stop herself from falling for Chitra, but clearly failing, as she says this completely mesmerised by her voice. Lilly’s advice to her –”Kar le ishq kisi se bhi” – prompts Ayesha to go to Chitra’s house and kiss her, but right after, she leaves and rushes to Ron’s house. She kisses him, as if to check if she is still attracted to men. This is an anti-climactic turn, but perhaps a necessary one for her to come to terms with her bisexuality.

The next time she meets Chitra, she is much more confident about her sexuality. Shrivastava doesn’t shy away from showing female pleasure between two women. Ayesha moves into Chitra’s apartment for a while as she is still trying to find her own place in the city. At times, her character becomes very volatile and there is a divergence between her actions and words. She seeks refuge in other people, because of her financial and emotional instability, and this somehow translates to her flitting between lovers. It gets a little wearisome to watch after the first few times.

Only after she starts seeing value in her job, does her character evolve. She decides to work on Lilly’s dream of opening a factory and manages to find a rootedness in the city through her work. In the last episode, titled ‘A Room of One’s Own’, she finally gets her own apartment and also finds the strength to come out to Ron, who is now established as a good friend of hers. The act of coming out gives her a certain ownership of her sexuality as she is now able and willing to voice her own needs. Ayesha goes from being a naïve, passive outsider to a confident transplant – revelling in discovering her sexuality and  navigating the harsh realities of the city. In an interview with ‘Film Companion’, Shrivastava highlights what went into bringing each of these characters to life: “They (characters) discover something about themselves. All the external things happen, for the characters to find something internal. Whether there is an external resolution or not, there will always be an internal resolution.” In Ayesha’s case, external factors like her sexuality, abuse, and challenging work environment bring about this resolution of developing independence and resilience.

Although the storyline of the show can be criticised for its melodramatic convoluted plot, the firm grasp of each character keeps the viewers hooked to the show. Season one ends on a hopeful note for Ayesha. It will be interesting to see what season two has in store for her, after having grown so much.

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When I am not chasing sunsets, you will find me wrapped up in books and discovering new films on letterbox.
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