There’s a simple but effective directorial touch 40 minutes into Alankrita Shrivastava's Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar) is speaking to Pradeep (Vikrant Massey). She works at a gift shop that employs women to talk to horny men through an app and sell them chocolates and plastic flowers. Pradeep is a client, but she’s falling for him. Pednekar is shot in dreamy red shades almost throughout their conversation, till the point he asks her real name. She almost tells him it’s Kaajal, then recovers and says it doesn’t matter. For that one moment, we see her in the white light of a call centre office.
Kaajal’s just falling in love and already her rose-coloured glasses are slipping. This kind of return to reality is becoming a signature Shrivastava move. Both Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and this film turn on moments when the scales fall from its protagonists' eyes and they start seeing things for what they are. The wisdom is almost always hard-won. At the film’s start, Kaajal tells her cousin Dolly (Konkona Sensharma), whom she lives with, that her husband, Amit (Aamir Bashir), is handsy with her. Dolly laughs it off, telling Kaajal it’s probably because she’s attracted to him. Dolly isn’t ready to explode her family life yet—she has rose-tinted glasses on too.
Kaajal moves out when she gets the job at the gift shop, leaving Dolly to confront problems she’d rather keep buried: the delayed work on the new apartment they’re trying to purchase, her stalled sex life, and her young son’s fascination with dolls. She's in some ways similar to the supressed housewife Sensharma played in Lipstick, who finds unexpected joy in taking up a sales job in secret, though Dolly is more assertive, even in denial. Kaajal, meanwhile, is negotiating being a single girl in Noida. There’s the telling detail, familiar to so many broke young people working jobs in big cities, of her piling her plate high with food at the office—likely her only real meal of the day.
A date in a graveyard. Virginity lost in an under-construction building. Shrivastava’s films are about the messiness of desire, the way it overwhelms and disappoints and races ahead of good sense. Kaajal falling for her smooth-talking client isn’t sensible but Pednekar, in a beautifully open turn, makes it seem like the only possible course of action. Similarly, Dolly’s attraction to a polite delivery boy, Osman (Amol Parashar), is clearly heading towards complication. Yet, they jump in, Kaajal head-first, Dolly more warily.
As the film switches between the two dovetailing stories, a list of small and large rebellions are recorded. Dolly starts sneaking drinks. Her son insists on going to the doll museum with the girls in his class instead of the rail museum his school is sending the boys to (Dolly’s curiosity about her own tomboyish nature as a child leads to a jagged, fascinating scene). Kaajal eases into her job and lets her hair down in the company of the supportive Shazia (Kubbra Sait). The film also spends time detailing the restrictions these people are trying to escape. Dolly is stuck in a civil but emotionally abusive marriage, her husband having convinced her she’s frigid. Kaajal is nearly raped on an evening out, but somehow even more shocking is her second “romance" call, where the client switches in a second from talking about his pet cat and making tea to addressing her as "saali" and masturbating loudly.
Sometimes the film piles on more conflict than it can properly reckon with. A scene with goons harassing lovers to the accompaniment of an angry rap number comes out of nowhere. A similar scene towards the end is worse, seemingly inserted to resolve loose ends. Kaajal saying she belongs to a backward caste—to Dolly, who would know that—feels like a way to add to the list of obstacles the character has faced, but little else. Osman being Muslim does lead to something, but it’s not clear the film needed that either.
With two storylines to deal with, instead of the four of Lipstick, Shrivastava’s writing is more relaxed. It ties up a little too neatly, but there are memorable turns of phrase—Dolly gushing over a “modern nalka" in her otherwise unconstructed flat, Kaajal’s boss saying “Changa tha, buddy" after she ends a call—and moments of supreme discomfort. When Dolly asks her estranged mom why she abandoned her as a child, the response is brutally honest: “I wasn’t happy with my life. So I left, that’s all." This is echoed in a later scene where Kaajal confronts her cousin with the emptiness of her life. She calls her existence napunsak (impotent)—which, given Dolly’s worries about her frigidity—stings her badly. This word was famously used back in 1983, in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya, about a volatile and emotionally repressed young man. It’s quite something to see it turn up all these years later in a film about women trying to break free.
This piece appeared on 18 September 2020.