In filmmaker Alankrita Shrivastava's Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar play cousins reclaiming and claiming their sexual desires and aspirations, respectively, bonded by secrets, in a testosterone fuelled environment. Shrivastava's drama is also about the men that populate middle class working mother Dolly and 'cyber lover' Kitty's worlds.
Reactions to the film, which released on Netflix on 18 September, have run the gamut but the performances have garnered praise universally. Sen Sharma is particularly pleased about this, having bitten into a role that is unlike her those that dominate her oeuvre.
Besides reuniting with her Lipstick Under My Burkha director, Sen Sharma said she was drawn to playing Dolly because the character broke the mould. "There are women we are allowed to watch on screen, and there are things these women are allowed, and not allowed, to do on screen. I was so happy to get a part like Dolly so late in my career, where I don't have to play a strong woman or someone who is morally irreproachable, always correct and never transgressing in any way. I found that liberating," said the Mr and Mrs Iyer and Talvar actress.
Sen Sharma says she enjoyed exploring Dolly's quirks including and performing in spaces she has thus far not occupied. Asked what those were and she said, "I have done things in this film that I have never done before in a film, such as beating a child, adultery, stealing, living in denial. I love that Dolly orders food and lies about it."
Two-handers with women leads are rare in Hindi cinema in particular. But Shrivatava didn't envisage her story in that. The interplay between Dolly and Kitty was almost organic to her process. The setting of Greater Noida came first, she said, adding, "The characters also emerged from the space of Greater Noida. I started thinking about women who might be working there. So first Kitty emerged in my head and as I started thinking about this young girl who may have come from a small town and is working in a call centre, I imagined what her life would turn out to be. Then I thought about where she would be living and that made me think of a cousin. And that's how Dolly emerged."
If the women occupy centre stage, the men in their worlds are not ornamental but catalysts. Interestingly, the male characters in the universe of Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare are seen only through the eyes of either Dolly or Kitty. "We never go into their lives without the women present in that sense," explained Shrivastava of Amit (Aamir Bashir), Osmaan (Amol Parashar), DJ Teja (Karan Kundra), Pradeep (Vikrant Massey) and the two boys Pappu (Kalp Shah) and Bharat (Hearty Singh).
Hence the need to add another layer to their lives, which is why Osmaan is not just a delivery boy but a young man with struggles and aspirations. "Then there's Pradeep. He's not the greatest character, from a moral point of view, but he is trapped in this boring job as a caretaker in an old age home, with a wife and child at home. So I tried to bring a hint of something deeper to each of those characters," said Shrivastava.
But casting the male parts was a great challenge. Some actors were upfront about not wanting to be part of a film where they were not going to get as much importance. "Which is strange because for decades and decades women have continued to play supporting parts to male protagonists. So I am grateful to the male actors who work with me," said Shrivastava.
It was not the filmmaker's intent to fashion a feminist sisterhood saga. "That's why there is jealousy, anger, judgement and strife in their relationship, and yet they are enablers for each other," explained Shrivastava. These women, with all their flaws, are contrary to Indian cinema tradition of painting female characters as goddesses, sacrificing women, or vamps. Here are women who live in the spaces between black and white, which includes having sexual desires.
"We don't acknowledge female desire at all, especially for an older woman," said Sen Sharma. "We look at them as recipients for male desire. We need to normalise female desire."
But gender equality is years away they agree. A few films with strong female parts and women at the helm does not signal normalisation. Shrivastava described these as "specks" in a slowly changing landscape.
Sen Sharma admits that she is fatigued with questions about gender stereotyping and women filmmakers. "Ask the question to the filmmakers who are perpetuating gender stereotypes. We are not answerable for this. Perhaps if more films broke these conventions, or were a little more imaginative, non-judgemental, or we had more roles for women of all ages, things might change. I wish there were more filmmakers -- female and male " making more of these films. We need to break out of conventional filmmaking of just casting young women, fair women, decorative and pretty women."
While there is incremental progress, the journey is long. "Along the way we must celebrate each small step forward while also keeping an eye on the bigger picture " of the minuscule numbers," said Shrivastava, pointing to the lens with which female characters are viewed. "It's about the female gaze, which does not just mean a female protagonist, but also the prism through which you are looking at these characters. What are you exploring? How are you shooting them? When the lens changes, you find more interesting and complicated characters, full-bodied people with all their complexities, and you see them with empathy."