Exclusive: Pooja Bhatt on Bombay Begums, finding OTT liberating and why Sadak 2 is not a failure
LIFE COMES A full circle for Pooja Bhatt! At the age of 17, she made her debut with the telefilm Daddy (1989), which was seen by many as an unconventional choice. Cut to 2021, the 49-year-old actress, producer and director, has made a smashing OTT debut with the web-series Bombay Begums. “It started with television and reached audiences we otherwise couldn’t. Once again, people will be watching my work on television,” points out Bhatt who is extremely happy to be part of something that allowed her to play her age.
With Bhatt at its helm, Alankrita Shrivastava’s web-series, Bombay Begums features the lives of five women living in Mumbai who are at different junctures of their lives dealing with a wide range of issues, including puberty, sexuality and menopause; while also hustling with the outside world day-in-day-out.
Released this week on International Women’s Day on Netflix, the series — which has brought Bhatt in front of the camera after a decade — has opened to positive reviews. But, what are the challenges of shifting medium? We ask Bhatt, who spoke candidly about finding OTT liberating, why it was important to open up about alcoholism, societies’ double standards towards women and the creative freedom of expression and ‘failure’ of the much anticipated Sadak 2. Excerpts from the chat:
Q: What was the brief given to you for Bombay Begums? What made you choose it for your OTT debut?
Usually people want to meet you and then outline the character or plot and only once you both are interested would they share something with you. But here, they reached out with a clear idea that they are producing a show called Bombay Begums and that they want me to play Rani and even shared the script with me. For someone who is also a producer, I understood the trust that they had put in me. And, when I read it, I liked how well this character was sketched but I was working on Sadak 2 at that point and I couldn’t leave it, so I had to turn down this offer. It was August 2019.
A month later, they reached out again asking if I would like to meet Alankrita Shrivastava, the creator of the show and I agreed. When she started speaking about the show, I could see how clearly she knew Rani and for how long she must have lived with her. Rani is a very powerful but complex character, it wasn’t one tone from any angle and so was the case with other women characters. Miraculously everything fell into place and we started shooting by the end of October and finished just before things came to a standstill globally. We think that we choose the project. But, I think projects and roles choose us. Rani chose me. And, I couldn’t have asked for a better OTT debut.
Q: What was it about the series that you found most fascinating?
While the most appealing thing about my character is the power she exudes, for me, the key really was to be able to play my age. Alankrita was very clear that Rani is a 49-year-old woman dealing with menopause. It was a relief to be able to play your age and talk about the real issues, be it me dealing with menopause or a 12-year-old navigating puberty or a woman in her 30s battling with pregnancy.
The introduction in itself was very fascinating. In the very first line that I read, Rani looks at herself in the mirror and asks the make-up artiste to cover the under-eye because she wants to give this impression of perfectionism. It is so telling about the times we live in and about the pressure on women to look a certain way, whether you are a CEO or doing any other job. We are judged on the basis of how we look.
Q: How did you discover Rani?
When Alankrita and I discussed my character, she told me that Rani is very understated. While she exudes her power in the way she walks into a room, she doesn’t have to scream it out loud and I understood why. She is graceful even under pressure and is resilient even amid difficult circumstances. Besides, she is not somebody who expresses too much because, for her, an expression of vulnerability can be used against her as a weakness because unfortunately, in the world we live in, emotions are equal to weakness. Of course, at home, she has a meltdown at one point. But, at the workplace, she is in control.
Q: How challenging is it for an actor who has spent most of her life working on films to switch to television?
When it comes to Bombay Begums, you are watching six one-hour-long episodes, which means you are watching three films. So, that’s the amount of effort that goes into telling this story. But, the medium is not new to me because my launch came from Daddy (1989). And, it wasn’t a typical big blockbuster film. It was a television film and at that point, it was considered a very unconventional debut and people even asked my father why he was launching his daughter on television and not on a theatrical screen. But, I am glad it came on Doordarshan because it was watched by a lot of people, it went into parts of India one wouldn’t be able to permeate through a film in theatres.
Twenty-one years later, I am making my debut again with something which will be watched on a television screen or laptop or even a mobile phone. Things have changed but yes, the medium is not so different for me. Only the storytelling format is lengthier but this story needs six hours to bring forth each woman’s story and stay true to it.
Q: Sadak 2 was one of the highly anticipated films of 2020. How do you perceive its failure? What do you think went wrong?
Everybody determines success in different ways but for Alia and I, it was the joy of being on set with our father, which is why we always say that Sadak is more than a film for us. It was about life coming full circle for us. Besides, Mukesh Bhatt made more profit from it than he did from his last 15 films, so I don’t think he looks at it as a failure. The rule of the business is that if a film makes a profit, it is a hit.
Of course, Sadak 2 released at a time when there was a kind of negativity in the air for more reasons than one. I think people were upset with the tragic death of Sushant Singh Rajput and films like Sadak 2, Laxmii (originally titled Laxmmi Bomb) and others were where they expressed their angst. So, yes, the timing could have been better. If we had waited for three to four months, probably the negativity in the air would have died down. But as far as views are concerned, I have been told that at one point Sadak 2 had as many searches as Avengers and when it comes to the profit, I can assure you that my uncle is laughing all the way to the bank.
Q: Your family is criticised for various reasons. Do you think people have been unfair towards your family?
There is a saying I strongly believe in — tough times don’t last long but tough people do. We live in a free world where everybody has a right to have an opinion, regardless of however true or false it is and I have accepted this because I believe in democracy. But, it is a free world and I am free to respond. I will respond to what I feel is a worthy question or statement. I don’t take everything seriously and I sincerely believe that manufactured hate has a life span of its own. One can’t fight time and truth. Truth is like water, it will eventually find its way out. But when people choose to be hate-mongers, I deny them the fuel i.e. my response.
Q: Four years ago, you chose to speak out about being an alcoholic. What led to that decision?
I spoke about it four years ago. I speak about it every year. And, I spoke about it some months ago as well — when I had an urge to pour myself a drink. The reason I choose to speak is because in India and in large parts of the world, women are made to feel ashamed for even drinking, leave alone having a space to talk about alcoholism — as if alcohol belongs only to men. If you look at my film Daddy, the father who is an alcoholic goes away and returns after many years to reclaim his relationship with his daughter. I often ask my father whether society would have accepted that story had it been the mother. Would a mother be given a second chance? So, I think it was important to break this glass ceiling, not to hold myself as a role model but to make the person going through this battle realise that they aren’t alone and if I could do it, they can also do it. If my frailties can become their strength and help them face their demons or acknowledge them, it will make me feel that my life has done more than just being an entertainer.
Q: Do you think creative freedom of expression exists today when it comes to filmmaking?
It is not just about today. I made a movie called Zakhm in 1998 which won Ajay Devgn a National Film Award for Best Actor and ironically, it was awarded by the NDA government of that time. The film also won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. But before that, when we went to the censor board, a respectable person from the film industry refused to give it the certificate saying it is a controversial film. We fought a battle before it saw the light of the day. Yes, we are living at a time when people outrage far more than earlier and everybody has an opinion, but I think art thrives when there is a restriction. As a filmmaker, your intentions should be right. If your intention is to provoke, then people will be provoked, but if your intention is not to provoke, then that gets communicated as well.
Q: Lastly, do we see you making something for OTT?
Why not? This format is not new to me. In fact, this format has given a lot to me. We call it OTT now, we used to call it Satellite then because there was no internet and one would watch it on television. Mahesh Bhatt’s Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee starring Rahul Roy and myself premiered on Zee TV way back in 1993. The film had a good viewership and the music was a hit. In 2019, my film Cabaret, starring Richa Chadda and Gulshan Devaiah, released on Zee5 in 2019. So, for me, it is a very liberating format because you go past the exhibitors and distributors. Especially now, during the pandemic, we don’t know when people are going to return to the theatres the way they used to but at the same time, we are lucky to have alternate platforms to tell our stories and put our work out there.
But, for now, I want to enjoy this moment. Bombay Begums has given me much to dance about. And, I hope there is another season so that I get to work with these amazing people again and if something comes my way, I will definitely consider it.
Bombay Begums is streaming on Netflix.