Dolly aka Radha Yadav (Konkona Sensharma) is a middle-class woman in Noida working a clerical job while managing two kids, her husband Amit (Aamir Bashir) and the instalments due on their dream flat.
Her cousin Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar) comes to stay with the couple. She soon shifts to a hostel to escape Amit's wandering hands and ends up employed by an app that offers men lightly sexual telephone conversations with women in a bid to persuade them to spend money on the company's gift shop. Kitty is her assumed name for these chats.
The two women are initially close, but disagreements over Kaajal's work choices cause a rift between them until they bond again over painful secrets.
Dolly/Radha and Kaajal/Kitty are the protagonists of writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava's new film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (Dolly, Kitty and Those Shining Stars). Shrivastava's calling card so far has been the superb, clear-headed 2017 feminist saga Lipstick Under My Burkha and chances are it will remain so. Because well-meaning though this one is, it tries to stuff too much into one storyline and does not manage to say enough about anything.
That criticism is not to be interpreted literally. In real life, it is not impossible at all that a single individual's life story might feature her own frigidity, her spouse's sexual frustrations, gender prejudice at the office, financial problems at home, fears that her child may be trans, a beloved relative who is being nudged towards sex work and a clandestine relationship with a man from a minority religious community. Truth, after all, is often more cluttered, troubled and melodramatic than fiction. What renders Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare largely ineffective, however, is not merely this multiplicity of elements but the script's inability to blend them into a cohesive whole, resulting in its thematically over-crowded feel and its vagueness about most.
The film's progressive aims are never in doubt. Shrivastava's intent itself results in several crucial positives. It is refreshing, for instance, to see the actual diversity of north Indian society being represented in a Bollywood venture, that too without making too big a deal of it. The presence of an OBC family, a Muslim delivery boy, a Muslim hostel mate and a Christian-run hostel all in the same narrative with varying degrees of importance here is more realistic than the upper-caste Hindu socio-cultural homogeneity depicted in most Hindi films.
Awareness building need not necessarily come from sermons and speeches " it could, for one, come from fleeting passages in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare in which a woman character is shown in a Muslim burial ground, belying the widespread assumptions prevalent in India about gender segregation in the Muslim community.
It is unusual too for a Hindi film to dwell on women's sexual desires or portray the mundaneness of sex, not just its romantic aspects " such as with that scene in which a man helps a woman wash the blood off a bedsheet after her first sexual encounter.
Everything that is right about Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is done in though by the fuzziness in the storytelling, occasional tackiness and overall lack of depth.
The treatment of the hostel where Kaajal ends up staying exemplifies the blurry nature of this narrative. The building is filled with Christian symbols while the signs at the entrance say, "Twinkle House: by the blessing of Virgin Mary: healthy facilities for lodging and food (for women only)", but it is not a regular women's hostel " this becomes clear as soon as Kaajal enters, as one woman is being taken out in a wheelchair, several pregnant women hang about, residents inquire about Kaajal's marital status and ask if she is there as a surrogate or for an operation. What exactly is this place? It is not made clear.
The lack of clarity is all-pervasive. Kaajal quits one job over a minor matter because she cannot stand the boss' high-handedness, but sticks with another that makes her loathe herself to the point of getting physically sick " her commitment to the second one is never explained. Dolly's mother abandoned her as a child, but her reason for doing so is glossed over in broad statements, even though the woman actually makes an appearance in one scene.
The film also seems to be making a point about being located in Noida and Greater Noida " the expanding Uttar Pradesh satellite cities bordering Delhi " but neither is given a precise character.
It is odd that so much could go wrong with a film that has so much going for it. Apart from Shrivastava at the helm, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare has a dream cast with a great track record. Sensharma and Pednekar's natural sensitivity and charisma are in evidence here, but both artistes are overshadowed by the haziness of the script. Vikrant Massey and Amol Parashar are charming in the best written of the important supporting roles. Kubbra Sait has a striking personality that is given short shrift by the indistinct writing of her character. And the lovely Neelima Azeem is totally wasted as Dolly's estranged mother.
If thematic courage, a feminist soul and liberal ideals alone were the determining factors, then Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare would have deserved a thumbs up. They are not sufficient though, and whatever Shrivastava wanted to achieve with this film is lost in a fog of good intentions, nebulous writing and detached storytelling.
Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is streaming on Netflix India.