Like most movie genres in Hindi cinema, the women's empowerment film – or what I like to call #SmashThePatriarchy filmmaking – has its share of tropes. If the story is set in North India, these tropes can't afford to be subtle. She rolls down the window of a moving car and, with the wind in her hair, screams joyously for no apparent reason. Some sort of quasi-rock "Jeena Hai" (I'm paraphrasing) song scores her giddy phases. She drinks beer straight from the bottle. She smokes cigarettes and makes out on a terrace whose walls have Virgin Mary posters. Every vehicle passing by has lecherous men making lewd comments. When all is lost, the girls unite and drown their woes in whisky. Sometimes, they smoke weed. You know how it goes. All's fair and lovely in gender wars.
Just as in writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava's previous film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, there's all this and more in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. The four ladies of Lipstick allowed for a more distributed sense of inclusivity. Religious minorities, erotic expression, monstrous husbands and clandestine affairs were evenly spread across four narratives. But Dolly Kitty crams everything – a Muslim lover, a queer child, a phone-sex app, Hindutva moral brigades, sexless marriage, estranged parents, woke monologues – into the crowded universe of two cousins, the married Dolly (Konkona Sen Sharma) and the fresh-from-Bihar Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar). As a result, even though the older Dolly envies her cousin's free-spirited "mistakes," they seem to be at the mercy of a long-form story that's constantly battling its feature-length limitations. So we see rushed resolutions – the cross connections between the two worlds are far too frequent. A shootout at a funfair, in particular, makes for one of the most awkwardly crafted scenes in recent memory. And I thought "When in doubt, kill" was a Scorsese trope.
Such films are rarely new in terms of tone and theme, so it comes down to the milieu, the moments and the individuality of the characters. Or the "how" rather than the "why". It comes down to context: Does the bottle-drinking feel earned or like a gimmicky hashtag? Is the cigarette only a symbol of equality? Is women's empowerment only an end goal or does it gradually infect the characters? Is breaking free an abrupt solution or a difficult process? The film often offers easy answers, but it isn't afraid to keep asking these questions. Given the similarities to Lipstick, Dolly Kitty may not seem like evolution for its storyteller. But it's important to note that the story she's telling is evolved to begin with; her comfort zone is anything but comfortable.
Dolly is a Noida-based wife who works at a government office "for fun". She has middle-class dreams: a new air-conditioner, a family trip, EMI payments for a flat in an under-construction skyscraper. In the very first scene, Kaajal, who is temporarily putting up at her place, tells Dolly that her creepy husband Amit (Aamir Bashir) made a move on her. But Dolly blames it on Kaajal's hormones; she's in denial about her truth. Until, slowly but steadily, she notices Kaajal turning into Kitty – the flawed and self-sufficient girl who works as a voice operator at an adult call-center called Red Rose. Every time she calls Kaajal a slut who's bringing disgrace to the family, Kitty responds by showing her the mirror to her own hypocritical existence. The scenes between the two actresses bristle with both respect and tension – both do a fine job of being immersed in different worlds instead of just reacting as opposites of each other. Things start to get complicated once Dolly meets a Muslim delivery boy (Amol Parashar), and Kitty starts developing feelings for a regular caller, Pradeep (Vikrant Massey). The first call between the two is striking; there's a tenderness to the flirting that reveals Kaajal's insecurities as well as her hidden history.
The skeleton of the premise is familiar, but blood flowing through its veins is unmistakably red. Some of the details are uncanny. The title, for instance, sounds like a structural swipe at the sexist comedy, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety. Dolly and Kaajal are in a theme park ride in a horror house – two girls in a land of monsters – when Kaajal calls out Dolly's husband. Dolly's younger son, a soft kid who loves dolls and cross-dressing, is called Pappu – a discriminatory nickname for reticent and dim-witted men. At one point, Dolly angrily rips apart a Katrina Kaif poster in his room – a nice ode to Zoya Akhtar's Bombay Talkies short, Sheela Ki Jawaani, about a little boy who aspires to dance like Katrina. Her older son – who favours the father – is named Bharat, a play on how a country with a female name is notorious for its dated norms of masculinity. Greater Noida as the setting makes sense, not just for its reputation as a hell for women's safety but also for its figurative landscape of unfinished buildings. They mean separate things to the two protagonists: While Dolly dreams of owning one of these conflicted spaces, Kaajal loses her virginity in them. Like in Thappad, Dolly's tea-making plays a role in evoking a culture that equates domesticity to womanhood.
Most of all, Kitty's job – as a voice operator who "relieves" both horny and lonely Delhi men – is designed with thought. At most points, we see her face through the rose-tinged glass partitions on the desks: a riff on how her rose-tinted view of the world is leading her to build castles in stale air. One of the film's best scenes features Kaajal hesitating on an early call. A frustrated man demands "khushi" and instead of turning him on, she ends up singing a famous Sridevi song to him while he touches himself. The viewers have by now labelled him a pervert, but the film does something surprising: It refuses to judge him. The final shot of the scene reveals the man masturbating against the backdrop of his comatose wife. The image is fleeting but poignant. The most memorable moment of Lipstick, too, featured masturbation: the oldest (Ratna Pathak Shah) of the four climaxes (we see her from behind, legs spread) while having phone sex with a young man.
Which brings me to this film's filming of sex as a language. Sexual liberation is a crucial device here, and the performers – both male and female – deserve huge credit for normalizing the act through their sense of timing. It can't be easy to make the body replicate a primal instinct on screen, more so in a nation coy about its favourite "vice". It's not so much the major gestures – the thrusts and the orgasms – as the in-between pauses: the way a man hurriedly slips on a condom, the wincing, the clutching, the clumsy posturing, the sloppy kisses and sighs. The camera seems to keep rolling; the shots don't cut out the flab. We're fortunate to occupy a time where the creative freedom of streaming platforms is merging with artists unabashed in their framing of Indian desire.
Alankrita Shrivastava is one of them. The sex in her films looks necessary, not new. It feels uninhibited as well as brave – a sign of mutual trust – and it makes "coming" of age sound deeper than a pun. It's no coincidence that Shrivastava also directed the Made In Heaven episode with one of the finest sex scenes in Hindi cinema: it's only a footnote that two men did the love-making. It's this fluid control – of action over words – that helps Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare shine despite its bouts of scripted darkness. In her world, feminism is not a loud narrative tool: it is simply femininity finding a release.