EXCLUSIVE! Shahana Goswami Talks Bombay Begums, Working With Vivek Gomber, And The Impact Of #MeToo On The Industry
It’s hard to not get excited over Bombay Begums. For starters, it’s got Alankrita Shrivastava (co-writing and co-directing it with Bornilla Chatterjee) at the helm of things. And she does have a knack for mounting on screen some fascinating stories about women that seem real and relatable. Next, of course, is that ensemble cast, brimming with talent and bringing their A game—Pooja Bhatt, Shahana Goswami, Amruta Subhash, Plabita Borthakur, Aadhya Anand, Danish Husain, Rahul Bose, Vivek Gomber, Imaad Shah and Nauheed Cyrusi. And last but not the least, are the themes that the series, in its six episodes, tackles—from women’s bodies undergoing change, to their agency, sexuality, the road to ambition paved with gender bias, sexual harassment in the workplace and of course respect and dignity.
When we last saw actor Shahana Goswami, she was reigning bold, flamboyant and a woman way ahead of her time as Meenakshi in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy. A character, I personally loved! In Bombay Begums, she plays Fatima Warsi, a strong, level-headed woman in her 30s who is faced with a choice that most married women who take their careers seriously have to confront—motherhood or that promotion you always wanted? Alas, it’s never that simple, is it? When it is a woman’s life, everything from biology to politics wants to interfere and make the decision harder for her!
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Clearly, playing Fatima would be quite an interesting gig, one that Shahana Goswami landed pretty much because she seems to have channelled Fatima’s dedication for her work! In an exclusive conversation, Shahana talked about how she landed the role of Fatima Warsi.
“Shruti Mahajan, the casting director, got in touch with me and told me about Bombay Begums. I just found the premise of the show very interesting, that there were five women connected in some way through their work, but also being in different phases of their lives and their careers, going through bodily changes and womanhood. And, of course, exploring their own personal journeys and lives in that period.
I remember auditioning for it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is such an amazing part and I can’t believe that I am being considered!’, because I haven’t been around on the Indian scene that much. I was based out of Paris at the time the audition happened.
In fact, the way it happened, I was on a shoot for another show in Sikkim and we didn’t have any network there. I was trying to squeeze in the audition somehow while also attending my stepsister’s wedding in Delhi. I landed at home, greeted everyone, and told them I had an audition so to leave me alone for a few hours! I used the beautiful décor of my dad’s house to my advantage, did the audition and then forgot about it. And then I found out that I got it!”
Turns out, the creator of Bombay Begums, Alankrita Shrivastava, and Shahana Goswami have been friends for some time now, but this was the first time they got a chance to collaborate on a project. It was exciting for Shahana, and I can imagine why. The Lipstick Under My Burkha filmmaker writers such richly layered female characters that seem like they walked off real life and onto our screens. They could very well be you and me.
I wondered if Fatima Warsi, a woman with a struggle that’s so relatable for career women like me, was all Alankrita and co-writer Bornilla. Or did Shahana draw from other real women around her or personal experiences?
“I do channel characters through myself and through my emotional experiences, of course. But in this case, all of it, in terms of who Fatima is and how she is, was there. I think all the nuances, layers and complexities were there and then it was more about how to feel all that, make it my own and put it back out. So I would say I was hugely supported by the writing.”
Also Read: 5 Thoughts I Had About Netflix’s ‘Bombay Begums’ Trailer: Pooja Bhatt And The Begums Exude Power And We’re So Ready
Bombay Begums has quite the cast, and while some have worked together before, some are friends but working together for the first time. What helped these Begums add more depth to their portrayal of these interesting women were the workshops that they got to do with each other. Reveals Shahana, “Pooja Bhatt, I knew, but we had never worked together before. Amruta Subhash I had worked with very closely and we are great friends. Plabita, I hadn’t even met before. But the workshop was the first time we all met and the way it was designed helped us break through all the façades and really bring it down to the bare vulnerability. And immediately, there was a bond between all four of us, which was very important.
Because despite the kind of characters we were, there had to be a level of trust and and friendship for us, as actors and coworkers, to be able to create authenticity even in the conflict. It was something that Bornilla and Alankrita really ensured and worked towards achieving, along with the rest of the team.”
While it is good to see Shahana back on our screens so soon after A Suitable Boy, what adds to my joy is that her pairing with Vivek Gomber returns too! He won my heart in Sir—Is Love Enough, but it was his Arun Mehra act, opposite Shahana’s Meenkashi, that made the both of them my favourite couple on the show. Watching them slide into that easy chemistry once again is an easy acceptance for me as a viewer. Has it become that easy for these two actors as well?
“With Vivek and I, from the minute we met each other on set, we were just on the same page. He’s a wonderful human being, and a very dear friend of mine. And I think we had that bond instantaneously, and therefore there was that trust and camaraderie as co-workers you knew that you could collaborate, talk, communicate honestly and trust each other to make a scene better.
I think that’s a very rare kind of comfort and it really helps in making your character come out better. Even in A Suitable Boy, we were such an interesting couple. I remember Mira Nair telling us that their (Arun and Meenakshi’s) partnership is very good; they’re a great team, which was a nuance we were playing off of. On Bombay Begums, the relationship was a lot deeper, with lots more drama and layers, which was again so nicely. Fatima and Arijay’s relationship is based off of things you see around you, or have been through yourself.
It was a joy to be able to carve out those scenes with Bornilla, Alankrita and Vivek. And if that relationship works, a lot of the credit goes to Vivek Gomber for creating that space with me, and making me feel that connection.”
Also Read: A Suitable Boy Review: Mira Nair’s Immersive Adaptation Proves Not Much Has Changed For India Or Its Women
One of the things that has been highlighted as the USP of Bombay Begums is that the show tackles some serious, real problems that women face. In fact, sexual harassment in the workplace and the #MeToo movement are themes explored in the series, and Shahana’s character, Fatima, plays an important role in the scheme of things. I had to ask her if she thought the #MeToo wave in India actually garnered some substantial change or not.
“I would say yes and no. I think when an important movement like this comes to the the forefront, it brings a certain amount of awareness and conversation, which is important. In that sense, yes, it has caused a change because now, whenever we start a project, there is a conversation around harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace. I think it happens not just in the film industry, but also in the HR teams of various companies. So these are things that are now given more importance.
And I think the conversation will keep growing because while it has been majorly centered around harassment that women have faced, it can go the other way too, with situations where people are falsely accused as well. So it’s a very tricky space and there’s a lot to discuss, a lot to keep in mind.
At the same time, I think India is also a place that is rather hierarchical in the way that it functions. There are a lot of things that manage to always come back to status quo. Let’s be honest, we all know that there are a lot of people out there who should have and could have been named (in #MeToo) and were not because they are powerful people. While, the reverse also has happened, where people have been named because they’re powerful just to put them down and they cases may not have been valid.
So it’s a situation where I think very little change may have happened in terms of getting justice for things that have already happened. But my hope is that just the fact that there is a conversation and awareness about it, everybody will will be a little more conscious.”
While it is time to end my conversation with Shahana Goswami soon, my curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always wondered if actors ever take the traumas of their characters home, after the director has yelled “Cut!” To this, Shahana has a very telling answer, that sums up what I assume an actor’s learning curve ought to be.
“I think with every role, one ends up learning to be a little less judgmental, right? It’s because it allows you an insight into somebody’s behaviour that has a context. The beauty of Bombay Begums, again, is that you when you see Fatima on the outside, the projection is that she’s a very hard kind of a boss and co-worker. But then, you see her personal life and what’s going on in there, and you know that behind all of that, and there’s a context to it.
If there’s one thing that the show, I hope, will bring to people is a sense of empathy. Because none of the characters are very obviously likeable or obviously unlikable. They’re a bit of everything and you will go through a journey with them as you do with yourselves or with other people around you.
So you’ll feel a sense of pride coming, then judgment, a sense of betrayal, disappointment and even warmth and affection. This constant ebb and flow of different emotions towards other people and ourselves is what the show reflects and that, I would say, is the key learning and a takeaway from all the characters.”
Shahana Goswami will soon be seen on Bombay Begums, which drops on Netflix on March 8, just on time for International Women’s Day.