Ms. Representation: Desire of a woman
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare
The quote, ‘Desire in men is a hunger, while for women, it is an appetite’, is true of how our women characters are shown onscreen. Our songs always highlight certain traits of women. A man is mostly shown to desire a woman’s beauty, but the vice-versa can rarely be said to be true in our cinema. The female lead falls in love with the male lead simply because he is the protagonist. What else would she need?
This is why I consider Alankrita Shrivastava's work seminal in the reclamation of female desire. Her last two releases, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, place female desire in the centre. This need isn’t just sexual; it is a need to be seen, wanted, respected, and more important of all, to be free. This is a revolutionary depiction, considering how female desire has always been held as a secret. It has been thought of a lipstick that needs to be covered, an appetite that cannot be yearned for.
While Dolly Kitty… may not be as cohesive as Lipstick Under The Burkha, it is still cut from the same cloth. Dolly works at the government office for fun and looks to be the ‘ideal housewife-mother’, Kitty, her cousin, handles her own demons after moving to Noida for work. The relationship between the sisters is volatile, with Dolly shaming Kitty for the same things she secretly desires. In a way, the film is about women who, in some way, ‘sell romance’. There’s Shazia, an escort. There is Dolly who forces herself to have sex with her husband. And there’s Kitty who works at a shady call centre that offers ‘companionship’ to seedy men and sells them gifts with it.
This representation doesn’t end with characterisation, with the film furthering the female gaze. The male characters are only seen through the eyes of the female protagonists; the vice-versa is the case with the mainstream. And yet, they aren’t treated as caricatures, devoid of depth or complication. How Alankrita stages sex scenes is an exemplary example of how the depiction goes beyond having a female protagonist. Sometimes, even well-meaning films end up reducing women to sexual objects in intimate scenes. But here, the camera stays at a respectable distance, capturing the mundanity of it all: the disappointment and pain of the first time, for instance. Alankrita’s staging rips sexual intercourse off its glamourous facade.
Both Dolly and Kitty have confusions about their desires. They go back and forth, flirting with their fences, opting to be secret about their desires even to each other. Contrast this with Dolly’s child, Pappu, who is steadfast about not conforming to gender norms. He likes make-up, not cricket. He wants to go to the doll museum, not the rail museum. He is extremely upfront about it until he gets a thrashing from Dolly. Even when he goes to the doll museum on his own, and Dolly finds him, he simply says, “You can beat me when we go home, let me have fun for now please.” My heart hung heavy.
These moments made me wish Dolly Kitty had not crammed so much into its narrative, choosing instead to explore with depth the good threads it already has. The film loses steam towards the end, with an unexpected climax even Scorcese may not get on board with. However, that doesn’t rescind all the good work the film does in terms of representation. To end this piece with another quote, one by writer Maggie Nelson, “We have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it.” These are just beginnings.