Alankrita Shrivastava’s latest, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, is a drama about appearance and deception: who we are, and what we hide. Whether it’s the principal – Dolly (Konkana Sensharma) and Kaajal (Bhumi Pednekar) – or the ancillary ones, such as Dolly’s younger son and Kaajal’s love interest (Vikrant Massey), they’re all playing the game of hide and seek. What needs to be sought first needs to be hidden, as desire has eluded them for so long that it has become taboo-like. And then there’s Greater Noida, the film’s setting, a city doing some hiding itself: in this jungle of towering buildings, there are beasts aplenty, telling people who, how and where to love.
Dolly’s cousin, Kaajal, has come from a small town in Darbhanga, Bihar, to earn a living in the city. But a dignified life still remains out of reach. She works in a shoe factory, as an assembly-line worker, where her boss insults her. At home, her brother-in-law, Amit (Aamir Bashir), touches her inappropriately. Fed-up of constant dehumanisation, Kaajal moves out and finds a new job. The new work, for a dating app, involves talking to strangers over phone, alleviating their loneliness and satiating their lust. Kaajal is both the beneficiary and the victim of gig economy.
Dolly, on the other hand, has a seemingly perfect life: a job, a husband, two kids and aspirations of a glitzy future: the couple has recently booked a flat in a swanky apartment. Yet Dolly – or “Mrs. Yadav”, we don’t know her formal name till the very end – is as dissatisfied. Her colleagues are sexist – she’s expected to make tea for them every morning. She hasn’t had sex in two years. She hustles money from her office to pay for the flat’s monthly instalment. But Dolly, too, benefits from the gig economy. She orders food from a restaurant and befriends the delivery personnel, a young man named Osman Ansari (Amol Parashar).
A portion of the film’s title – “chamakte sitaare [sparkling stars]” – is a hat-doff to the precarious nature of that work: the stars awarded by consumers to service providers, the metric that determines their worth, the only thing twinkling in their lives. Before watching the film, I mistakenly assumed that the titular stars were literal – a cosmic representation of desire – but I had forgotten that in a city engulfed by the smoke of forest fire for at least two months, the only stars visible are the ones on phone.
The film plays with a few other metaphors, too – none of them ‘highbrow’, and that’s precisely the point. Small worries acquire big meanings here. The first is the air conditioner (“AC”) – the eternal symbol of Indian upward mobility. Dolly’s house doesn’t have an AC, neither does her workplace, but when she finds out that Kaajal works in an air-conditioned office – and that the company cab provides a ‘pick up and drop’ service – she’s stung by a tinge of envy. There’s something, after all, at the end of nothing, and Dolly wants her share: a ‘modular kitchen’, a fancy kitchen tap, an airy balcony. Dolly, though, is not unidimensional. Shrivastava, also the film’s screenwriter, sees her with impressive empathy and clarity.
Like the AC, the words ‘I love you’ and the colour red recur throughout the film. Dolly, still a virgin, is pestered by countless men to say “I love you” – a phrase used so often, and so mechanically, that it feels as if the real machine is not the app but its users. Even red – a symbol of love and passion – is present all around, yet elusive: Kaajal holds a rose during an intimate conversation, which is soon crushed; the name of the app (well, ‘Red Rose’); her work desk is shot via a red filter; the colour of Dolly’s bedsheet and pillows, the only colour in her life.
Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare’s biggest achievement is that it looks and feels real. The excellent production design (by Tiya Tejpal) is a recognition of the middle-class scramble. Dolly’s house is suffocated by furniture, a dance of exhibition and desperation – a sign of being there, and yet not quite. Just like her future house, like Kaajal’s “boyfriend”, like Greater Noida itself. This is a story of (literally and metaphorically) living on the edge, of people in transit, always in a state of arriving, always consumed by plans.
The main actors help Shrivastava realise her vision. Pednekar, who excels at portraying vulnerable characters, is impressive, encapsulating the varying shades of an outsider’s journey. Dolly, a jaded wife at the start of the film, has an opposite trajectory: she’s trying to regain her innocence. Sharma melds the different aspects of her character – of a wife, mother, sister, lover – smoothly, largely maintaining a credible front. The only disappointment is Bashir, who struggles to nail the Bihari diction and, due to weak writing, seems clichéd.
The film, like its central characters, is not short on ambition. Which is indeed heartening, but that scope also overwhelms Shrivastava, resulting in some contrived plot turns and sloppy and ‘shocking’ scenes, such as the one between Dolly and her mother, Kaajal’s friend having sex with her boyfriend in her presence, Kaajal and her ‘boyfriend’ getting picked by the cops, she extracting ‘revenge’ on him, and another crucial plot twist at the end. Even the angle of Hindutva goons feels like a prop, popping in and out of the story. Besides, the subplot centred on Dolly’s younger son – who is more interested in dolls and feminine attire – is quite similar to Zoya Akhtar’s Bombay Talkies short, right down to Katrina Kaif’s poster in the boy’s room. It may well be a homage (given that she and Akhtar have collaborated in the past, for the web series Made in Heaven), but even then, Shrivastava’s piece revolves around that idea, doesn’t take it forward.
But despite occasional flaws – and the fact that it has more false notes than her debut, Lipstick Under My Burkha – this is a very impressive sophomoric effort: it tries more, it risks more, it expands the filmmaker’s intellectual curiosity. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (almost) glows with the charm of literary journalism – it is an examination of quiet desires, an immersive account of people considered too insignificant for news.
And as always, Shrivastava’s attention to detail is gobsmacking, slaying the audience with a touch so fine that they crave more. At one point, Kaajal is out on a date with Pradeep (Massey). She’s met him for the first time; it’s a blissful afternoon, they are in Agra, on a rooftop café overlooking Taj Mahal. They’re both nervous, and when he’s just taken his seat, Kaajal, unasked, reverts to the role she best knows – of a caregiver, of a server, a conditioning both personal and professional – and she simply asks, “Paani dein [Should I serve you water]?”, unmindful of the fact that, in a restaurant, it is she who should be served. The one doing the ultimate deceiving then is Shrivastava’s movie, where a glass of water contains an ocean of subdued storm.
The film has been released on Netflix.