Back in 2017, the Pahlaj Nihlani-led Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) notoriously banned Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha for being “lady oriented,” coming just short of claiming that its commemoration of female sexuality was against Indian culture. Three years later, Shrivastava, a crafty filmmaker, winks at the ridiculousness of that attack in her latest outing, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. A climactic moment sees an army of right-wing goons vandalise an art installation of a vagina, accusing it to be against Indian culture. On its own, the sequence is an all too believable re-enactment of art routinely being under censorship. But with the added context (replace the goons with the CBFC and the installation with Shrivastava’s film and the outcome is familiar), this moment is also an indictment of a culture that disguises its ignorance of female desire by swiftly suppressing it.
Now streaming on Netflix, Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare sees Shrivastava – perennially fascinated with the inner lives of Indian women – build on the whistle-worthy ideas that defined Lipstick Under My Burkha. Female desire and oppression are the fulcrums around which the plot churns here as well. But even as a companion piece, Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare is a quieter and more reflective outing, shorn of grand statements of rebellion that took away from the larger purpose of Lipstick Under My Burkha. The intimacy that Shrivastava manages to evoke by narrowing the scope of the material helps primarily because it is the writer-director at her most direct and unhurried. The result is a tale of self-actualisation that does not pontificate.
The film opens in a Noida amusement park. Midway during their ride inside a house of horrors, Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar), who has just migrated to the city after calling off her wedding back in Bihar, confides in her cousin Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) about a terrible secret. Kaajal tells Dolly that her husband Amit (Aamir Bashir) has touched her inappropriately, an act that acquires greater levels of distress given that Kaajal is putting up with the couple in their cramped two-room quarters. Dolly laughs off the severity of the accusation, turning the tables on Kaajal by telling her that maybe she is the one attracted to him. This moment sets the tone for Shrivastava’s incisive examination of the inherent moral conditioning that women have to conquer before they can take charge of their own lives.
Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare feels like a story of not two, but three women breaking free from their own reputations.
A middle-class mother of two, Dolly is stuck in a fruitless marriage: she isn’t particularly in love with her husband and the couple hasn’t had sex in two years. On his part, Amit, has convinced her that their stilted sex life is an outcome of her being frigid. Just the same way he has washed his hands off shouldering any responsibility toward their younger son’s inclination for playing with dolls. He also doesn’t earn much, forcing Dolly who holds a generic government job for “fun,” to meet much of the expenses, including the installments for the swanky apartment they’re trying to purchase. Yet for the most part, Dolly remains oblivious to his indifference, willingly looking away from her unhappiness. An unintended consequence of that approach is the distance she ends up creating between her and Kaajal, who moves out after landing a job at a call centre for an app where women provide “companionship” to lonely men. (A standout moment captures a seemingly gentle client suddenly devolving into an abusive, masturbating man. The next second, the camera reveals that he does all of this while his comatose wife lies inside.)
On its own, the trajectory of Kaajal having to negotiate life in the big city, replete with the standard threats of Greater Noida and patriarchy rearing its head upon single women, isn’t particularly novel. But Shrivastava renders the messiness of her desires fascinating, simply by making it intersect with the curious lives of others, which include an ill-fated romance with a male nurse (Vikrant Massey) leading a double life.
In comparison, Dolly’s arc is far more layered and rewarding. A scene that observes her charged reunion with her estranged mother (Neelima Azim) throws up more evidence of her latent potential is goosebump-inducing. Has there been any other film in recent times that has suggested this bluntly that a woman’s sexual satisfaction should be indispensable to a marriage?
Obviously, none of this would stick if the film wasn’t tempered with evocative performances. If her filmography is any proof, it’s now a fact that every single actor gains from being in the same frame as Konkona Sen Sharma. That is especially true of Bhumi Pednekar’s turn that has a blazing intensity to it, enriched by the tension Sen Sharma’s Dolly affords it. On her part, Sen Sharma gives a spare performance, employing small gestures – a coy smile, unresponsive body language, vacant looks – to deliver hard-hitting truths, like the exhaustion of being a woman held hostage behind rose-tinted glasses of her own making. Indeed, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare lights up the most when it brings its two leads in the same frame. A confrontation scene is crafted with the kind of unnecessary pettiness that goes to the heart of any bond between two sisters. Another emotional scene, pivotal to the wisdom earned by its two leads, is especially moving in its implication that the sisterhood is the last frontier available to women that hasn’t yet been invaded by the rest of the world.
If her filmography is any proof, it’s now a fact that every single actor gains from being in the same frame as Konkona Sen Sharma.
Shrivastava's directorial touches – the red and pink colour palette, the use of mirrors to shatter hypocrisy, and the idea of defeating casual misogyny with a cup of tea – betray an impressive understanding of the politics of womanhood. The film’s juxtaposition of the lack of space informing the language of Indian courtship is as evolved. If in Gully Boy, lovers shared earphones on crowded buses, then in Dolly Kitty Aur Chamakte Sitare, a couple has passionate sex on the bed in the same room as their friend who lies awake on a mattress on the floor. Dates take place in the unlikeliest of places: a graveyard and an under-constructed building. Together, they underline with ample curiosity how women use their bodies as well as how it is used against them. Not all conflicts add up (one particular shootout is needless in its posturing) but you can’t fault Shrivastava for trying. In that, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare feels like a story of not two, but three women breaking free from their own reputations.