Hindi cinema has always shied away from showing female desire seriously. Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (DKAWCS) is a rare instance where that does not happen.
The sisterhood saga, up on Netflix, deals with plenty of emotions, resolutions, and acceptance in the world of sanskari Indian culture. Radha (Konkona Sen Sharma) is from a backward caste from Bihar, is a devoted wife, a doting mother and a dutiful employee. However, she suffers from many conflicts stemming from her work-life balance – childcare, her desire for a new home and her ‘frigid’ sex life (which she is gaslit to believe is her fault).
Her emotional load is so high that she even ignores her husband’s moves on her cousin Kaajal (Bhoomi Pednekar). Instead, she says that it is probably a young Kaajal who is enamoured by the ‘mature Amit’. As Kaajal aptly points out later, Radha is merely surviving and not living her life. Over the course of the film, Radha slowly escapes her dull survival through food delivery boy Osman. Only then does she begin to realise what she is missing out on in life and thus decides to end her misery.
On the other hand, Kaajal wants to escape the mediocrity of her life and make a place for herself in the city of dreams, Noida, where Radha resides. She refused to be a modern-day ‘slave’ in the shoe factory and leaves the job for a call-centre that provides phone friendship/sex as a service.
Initially, she suffers from the social construct of morality but finally accepts the career choice as a regular, honest service-based job. She hopes for love and finds a spark with one of the callers – hospice attendant Pradeep (Vikrant Massey) – to whom she eventually loses her virginity. After being let down by Pradeep, who turns out to be married, Kaajal has a profound realisation about her freedom, sense of self and ambition.
The film deals with multiple issues through various subplots, some of which could have been dealt with more finesse. The subplots include casual sexism, housework at the office, Radha’s son Pappu struggling with their gender identity, the story of Radha’s mother who left young Radha as a child to pursue her own happiness, Noida housing scams, Hindutva goons, moral policing, etc. Some of these subplots have abrupt endings and unnecessarily meander from the main plot.
So what are the feminist ideas that the film propagates?
Like its sister Lipstick Under My Burkha, this film attempts to change the narrative of Hindi cinema’s strongly-established structure – which is made on the heroism of men, by men and for male viewers. Politics of representation makes a real change in society – which also means that Hindi cinema has been successfully feeding patriarchal society and doling out misogyny for a long time.
DKAWCS most definitely challenges the socially-established heteronormativity that controls our visuals, ways of thinking, and conventional practices of movie-making. Shrivastava deserves the praise coming her way for trying to deconstruct deep-rooted assumptions of the patriarchal subconscious, and for opening up conversations about female sexuality.
When it comes to erotica, heterosexual desire is slowly learned through various discourses, and cinemas heavily influence this discourse and teach us how to be desiring subjects and objects. Famous feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that the mainstream cinema has coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.
Shrivastava has been trying to challenge and de-habituate this narrative of the male gaze. Her women are firm, resolute, and are making changes despite the discriminations associated with their caste and gender.
This film also propagates the idea of the incredible bond of sisterhood that women share across spheres. A standard and carefully built patriarchal notion are that women are their own worst enemies. However, in DKAWCS, the women, who are ill-treated in their relationships, silenced by the society, discriminated against because of their gender and choice of work, are seen unapologetically standing up for one another.
The scene in the image below beautifully portrays the idea of sisterhood, where a heavily conflicted Kaajal tries to adjust with the idea of doing sex work. Her friends are seen trying to put together the torn pieces of a beautiful sequinned blouse (read her heart and mind) from the previous night that she wore for and later cut into pieces out of despair. There’s also the moment where Shazia jumps to Kaajal’s defence and asks Radha to respect her, which is when Radha finally learns and accepts the idea of sisterhood.
So finally, how feminist is the movie?
Feminism is a political movement and an intellectual commitment that seeks justice for women. It fights to end sexism in all forms. Driven by the idea of social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on the social, cultural, economic and political phenomenon. We have already discussed how popular culture shapes the narrative of society.
Hence, in that respect, DKAWCS successfully breaks the stereotypical, hyper-sexualised, heteronormative story, but while saying so, it also unconsciously creates another stereotype. The fourth wave of feminism is mostly about the values of feminism as per our understanding, which may or may not is related to feminist theories. Thus there is an extraordinary rise in the ways feminism is being discussed and understood. So we must pay attention to the ways the issues are being simplified.
When we glamorise heterosexual sex and portray it to be the only way to self-realisation and to taking back our agency, we unconsciously create another stereotype. A misogynist country with severe orgasm inequality, India needs to be destigmatised when it comes to the idea of women taking care of their own sexual pleasure. However, it has to be carefully done as sex is not and can never be the only path to liberation.
These days, movies that claim to portray female empowerment are getting slowly confined within the space of sex. The message is that having more sex with men leads to empowerment. Thus, in an attempt to break the taboo, aren’t we always portraying that sex is the only way to be a feminist and empowered woman? Is it really all only about the vagina?
A woman is unarguably more than her vagina and sexual pleasure. There are tonnes of women from all spheres, lesbian women, queer women, asexual women, and sexually satisfied women, facing different kinds of oppression and so much more. Sexual freedom should be one of the ways and not the only way for a woman to fight the patriarchy. Liberation and empowerment might come from smoking or drinking (the movie’s poster highlights this), and having casual sex or any kind of sex, but it definitely doesn’t start from there and neither does it end there.
Tuli Bakshi is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Earth Science, IIT-Bombay.