Once upon a time in Mumbai, there lived a woman whose gangster husband was murdered by a rival mobster. The woman adored her hunky husband. She swore revenge, not only against the killer and his collaborators in the police but also their boss, who lived far away in Dubai. To achieve her goal, the woman transformed herself from a grieving widow into a temptress. To find out if she succeeded, you will have to wait until the end of 14 episodes of Ek Thi Begum.

The plot of the MX Player web series is both fantastic and familiar. To anyone who has read S Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai, a collection of profiles of female criminals, this recalls the story of Ashraf, whose husband Mehmood was killed by Dawood Ibrahim in 1986. Despite not knowing the first thing about Ibrahim, who had already fled Mumbai for Dubai, Ashraf decided to hunt him down. With the help of Ibrahim’s enemy Hussain Ustara, Ashraf picked up martial arts skills and learnt to fire a weapon. She took on a new name, Sapna, and was all set to travel to Sharjah and kill Ibrahim as he watched a cricket match.

However, after Ibrahim was tipped off about her plan, Sapna was murdered. Ustara, who had fallen for Sapna, spun this yarn years later to Zaidi. It had the texture of a screenplay, and it inevitably inspired one – Sapna Didi.

The movie version of this credulity-challenging story was to have been directed by Vishal Bhardwaj. Deepika Padukone was cast as Sapna, and Irrfan was pencilled in for a major role. Sapna Didi was shelved after Irrfan fell ill in 2019, and it is unclear whether the film will ever be made.

Ek Thi Begum has been written and directed by Sachin Darekar. The series is set in the mid-1980s. Its lead character is named Ashraf. She calls herself Sapna when she adopts a new avatar. Maqsood, the criminal mastermind whom she wants to hunt down, is inescapably based on Dawood Ibrahim. Any further resemblance to Zaidi’s book is presumably a massive coincidence.

Abhijeet Chavan and Chinmay Mandlekar in Ek Thi Begum (2020). Courtesy MX Player.

The series winds past the relics of the golden age of the Mumbai underworld genre. All the characters you expect to see in this throwback to the 1980s and ’90s are present: daredevil hoodlums, corrupt policemen, compromised politicians, bar dancers, truth-seeking journalists. The men swear frequently, and they are most inventive in finding new ways to describe the damage they will visit upon their enemies.

The series kicks off with Sapna (Anuja Sathe) in seductress mode, and rewinds to when she was Ashraf, the homebound wife of the racketeer Zaheer (Ankit Mohan). Zaheer is killed by Maqsood’s Mumbai pointman Nana and crooked police inspector Tawde for daring to go his own way. Ashraf’s attempt to file a case and resolve matters the legitimate way comes to nought. She decides that she will pick off Nana and his men all by herself and eventually make her way to Maqsood.

Stranger things have happened in the annals of organised crime in Mumbai. If Sapna did not exist, we would have had to invent her. It doesn’t actually matter whether the character is not based on a real person. The challenge for Ek Thi Begum is to offer a convincing account of a woman navigating an overwhelmingly male world.

How does Sapna manage to hoodwink seasoned criminals and stay a few steps ahead of them? Other than cleavage baring and bedpost hopping, does Sapna have any strategies at her command? And is she the only woman available when the gangsters are feeling frisky?

Ek Thi Begum is hard-pressed to answer these questions despite 14 episodes at its disposal and the promise of a second season. Despite ample opportunities, Ek Thi Begum turns out to be a damp squib that ultimately adds little to the gangster canon in popular culture.

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Ek Thi Begum (2020).

Among those who invariably fall for Ashraf is honest police inspector Bhosale (Chinmay Mandlekar), who blushes in Ashraf’s presence ever so often and tries to help the vengeful widow. Mandlekar, along with Anuja Sathe as Ashraf and Abhijeet Chavan as the evil Tawde, are among the better performers in the cast. A spot of unintended humour is provided by Ajay Gehi’s Maqsood, who wears dark glasses indoors, puffs on his cigar and attempts to convey dread through the fog of ensuing smoke. Maqsood’s characterisation conforms to the popular depiction of Dawood Ibrahim, but he also weirdly resembles Chunky Pandey. Or maybe self-isolation is finally getting the better of us.

Ajay Gehi as Maqsood in Ek Thi Begum. Courtesy MX Player.