Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava and starring the likes of Konkona, Bhoomi and Massey, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is a film one really wants to like but doesn’t quite know how to.
It’s a confused film that one knows is supposed to be progressive — and it’s obviously trying — with its hodge podge of attempted conversations around gender identity, female desire and agency, state-control and policing, the role of religion, to name a few, but that’s primarily what it comes across as — a jumbled mess.
One could argue that these are merely elements of the film, mentioned in passing, and therefore reflecting the truly progressive character of the film: the presence, casually, of elements that ought to be casual/normalised/passing. Perhaps. However, the film then fails to be about anything.
The film begins several interesting strands of thought/critique without ever fully exploring them or seeing them through. It’s well intentioned but unclear, packing in too much without adequately exploring or explaining anything.
It’s partly why this is a little difficult to write: I’m nothing at the film, I have no response to it except, perhaps, boredom and a vague and passing sense of a missed opportunity.
The promise of the film lies in the negotiation of female desire and sexuality in the midst of explicit and implicit forms of violence, and the centralising of this negotiation. There are some moments which brim with potential, such as the conversation between Dolly and Kitty after Kitty’s been bailed out of prison, or the brief meeting between Dolly and her estranged mother, or the multiple instances where Dolly’s child is seen displaying desires and behaviours traditionally not deemed masculine, all of which seem building to something — a commentary or critique or something somewhere — but they fizzle out in the absence of a serious and focused treatment.
The characters, too, are hard to follow. One can’t quite understand Kajal’s insistence to stay at the job that discomfits her to the point of having to physically hurl, while the scene right before, without any meaningful change in her personal circumstances, shows her leave a job because of — rightful — discomfiture and disagreement with the management. One understands why she’s here: so the filmmaker can show us the eventual transformation where she’s able to come to grips with her desires, but the film doesn’t give us enough reason to buy it.
There are several complexities even within the context of the new job — the inherent violence of the commodification of “female companionship”, what seems to be the lack of any training, rules of conduct or redressal procedures to oversee the comfort and safety of the employees (why is Kitty throwing-up on her first day of the job and why does everybody there seem unconcerned with her visible discomfort?), the obvious lack of empathy and understanding amongst the upper-management, among other things — that go unaddressed.
The resolutions in the film seem lazy and purposeless and sometimes downright ignorant of social facts/structures: one isn’t quite sure what the filmmaker is trying to say, if anything.
For instance, the standing-in of the bullet-in-the-head of Osmann and Shazia by hindu right-wing goons by way of resolution of the complex dynamic between the hindu “modern” DJ, his muslim girlfriend, the dispproving hindu right-wing goon older-brother and the muslim college-mate of the cool-DJ leaves much to be desired.
The same goes for the narrative of the son whose gender dysphoria — and the accompanying horror of the parents, particularly the mother — is shown via several scenes peppered throughout the film. One waits for the film to address this and is horrified that what the film offers is Dolly’s unexplained change of heart/dawning of understanding (although what she understands isn’t clear, so perhaps acceptance is a more appropriate term here, not that that is clarified either) post a scene in the doll-museum shown to us via the symbolic gesture of her offering a headband to her child on their bus journey into the sun/freedom.
The end of Dolly’s story, too, is a little confusing. One doesn’t quite understand why one of Dolly’s children stays back/is left behind with the father, and why the child that’s beaten up by the mother would be the one choosing to leave (if choice was a factor in the other child not being uprooted). It’s not entirely clear why Dolly would be better equipped to raise the child than her husband, since we’ve seen no proof of the latter being violent or otherwise problematic with the (either) child and the only person whose violence we do see is Dolly.
The fact that Kitty can claim her sexuality is all well and good, but it’s hard to believe that the happy — or likely — end of the company that gets torn down for indecency for providing telephonic “female companionship” services for men is for it to announce that it would now perform similar services for women. While arguably utopic, it shows a gross lack of understanding of social morality, what is deemed inappropriate and what gets vehemently policed in society. The opposition for the app wasn’t rooted in the idea that such services ought not to be made available to men, since male sexuality and desire is normalised and naturalised, but that these services were being openly provided by women. It is, of course, more complex than this, bringing into the mix conversations about the contradictory nature of commodification versus deification of the woman, the complex rules governing this commodification, the nature of furor around any attempt to claim the body by the autonomous woman etc, but this is precisely what the film glosses over.
Perhaps we put too much pressure on directors with a progressive viewpoint — one wouldn’t hold a Rohit Shetty, or even an Imtiaz Ali for that matter, to the same standards or metrics of analysis, for instance — and perhaps that’s unfair. But then again, if we are to deal with the Rohit Shettys of the world, one needs films such as these to live up to their promise. There’s already enough (garbage) content out there by people who either don’t care enough, or don’t know how to do better.
For now, it’s nice that we’re at a point where we can have one try to do too much and fail, and hopefully try again. It’s a nice change to have the space for this kind of bad content, although it would be dangerous for it to continue un-critiqued. One can’t risk this already narrow and limited space getting filled up solely by well-intentioned-unresearched-inadequate-content.