When writer-director Alankrita Shrivastava ran into Konkona Sen Sharma at their neighbourhood salon in Versova, Mumbai, one afternoon in 2018, the former mentioned a new script that she had written. The two had become friends while working on Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) and understood each other’s creative worlds. When the script, titled Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare reached her inbox soon after, Sen Sharma read it and was impressed. Dolly is a woman who aspires to a picture-perfect life while hiding her conflicts behind an effervescent manner. When Shrivastava, 40, offered her the role, Sen Sharma agreed immediately.
“As you grow older — I am 41 now — you get fewer meaty and fulfilling roles. For most of my career, I have played women who are strong, morally upright and responsible. Often, that’s boring and not very truthful. Women are complex. It is nice to play a character who is not always making the right decisions or is always likeable,” says Sen Sharma, who has acted in movies like Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002), Omkara (2006), Luck By Chance (2009) and Ek Thi Daayan (2013).
A theme that runs through much of both Shrivastava and Sen Sharma’s work is gender. Sen Sharma’s directorial debut A Death in the Gunj (2016) is a tender yet unsettling exploration of masculinity, while all three of Shrivastava’s directorial ventures — Turning 30 (2011), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017) and Dolly Kitty… — have women characters and their desires at their heart. “I inevitably find myself drawn to the interior, complex world of women. The moment you start exploring those characters, issues related to gender crop up. I try to look at these characters honestly and holistically,” says Shrivastava.
According to Sen Sharma, what’s interesting about these stories is the conflict that’s generated when social expectations are at odds with individual desires. But a lot of women, she says, are unaware of this conflict themselves, while some are only just beginning to understand it. “Many women can’t do anything about it as they don’t have choices. I also find it interesting how men behave (in such scenarios),” the actor-director says.
A growing number of storytellers, including Sen Sharma, Shrivastava, Meghna Gulzar, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Anvita Dutt, are telling stories from women’s point of view and talking about women’s desire. This is a significant step for the Hindi film industry that often doesn’t make much space for women characters as the centre of their own stories or allow them to celebrate their imperfections. Shrivastava’s characters aren’t formulaic, whether it’s the elderly Rosy from Lipstick…who enjoys erotica and has sexual fantasies, or the young Kitty in the new film, who has just arrived in Noida from Bihar and is struggling to make her own choices.
“Women’s desire, historically, has not been looked at. By and large, women are seen as objects of male desire. That (women’s desire) is a direct threat to patriarchy. This could also be because women are not viewed as individuals, but as those who fulfil certain reproductive and sexual urges,” says Sen Sharma. Shrivastava echoes her thought: “There is very little sexual agency that women enjoy. That is kind of suppressed. It’s also about (the suppression of) other desires, like wanting to go watch a film or on a Sunday outing.” Shrivastava, who wrote the first draft of Dolly Kitty… in 2014, started shooting it towards the end of 2018 and the movie premiered at the Busan International Film Festival last October.
Key to the exploration of desire — both female and male — is the sensitive, meaningful depiction of sex, as seen in both Lipstick…and Dolly Kitty…, as well as Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj (2016). “In A Death in the Gunj, sex scenes communicate many more things. It shows how Shutu (Vikrant Massey) is feeling when he has sex for the first time and how he is going to react to Mimi (Kalki Koechlin) later, and how sex between a married couple is different. Usually, a sexual act has layers (that are) unspoken,” says Sen Sharma.
Good narrative intentions apart, such scenes also require great care because, as Sen Sharma says, they might make an actor “feel vulnerable”. She says,“A musician will have an instrument, a cameraperson has a camera. As an actor, you have the body and you can’t just give it away to be used as a prop. What’s an actor’s relationship with his/her body? Your body is yourself and it also belongs to the character you are playing.” For Shrivastava, making her actors comfortable in these scenes is important, so she uses fewer shots and takes. “I don’t want to use the camera for titillation but for expression. The gaze is empathetic, not voyeuristic,” she adds.
A significant part of the narrative in Shrivastava’s new film is Pappu, Dolly’s younger son who loves to dress up as a girl and play with dolls. Gender non-conforming characters are rarely treated sensitively in Indian cinema, barring a few exceptions, such as Zoya Akhtar’s Sheila Ki Jawani, a part of the anthology film Bombay Talkies (2013). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Pappu were to get his own story? “In the world of Dolly Kitty… he is an aspect of Dolly’s life. In accepting Pappu, Dolly accepts herself,” says Shrivastava.
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