Desire sits like a sort of time-bomb, at the heart of Alankrita Shrivastava’s films. It ticks away, a cause of the underlying restlessness in the women of all ages that people her stories; it’s the catalyst that moves the plot along; the prism through which we see their struggles with their choices, or lack of choice. All of which makes her films unusual, in some ways unique, even if they are far from flawless.
There have been three so far — Turning 30 (2011), Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), and now Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, released on Netflix earlier this month.
…Chamakte Sitare has received mixed reviews and been criticised for its superficial takes on trans identity, child abandonment and sexual abuse within the family (among other issues tossed about). Yet, there is an allure to the film that comes largely from its female gaze; the conversations, affections and sudden viciousness of its women towards each other and towards the others in their lives.
The industry needs to be making more films about women, says Shrivastava, 41. “For me, it’s personal. Our stories have not been told.”
In this one, which she has written and directed, two cousins (Konkona Sen Sharma; Bhumi Pednekar) from Darbhanga, Bihar, now living in Greater Noida — one married and a mother, the other young, single and trying to find her way — play off each other as they start to reassess the choices they’ve made, and rethink what they want from their lives. The characters are messy and flawed; they can shock you with how casually they steal, cheat, lie. You can see early on that there will likely be no happy endings.
“It’s nice to play characters who are in some kind of transition… growth, who are not necessarily always making the correct and perfect choices,” Konkona Sen Sharma said, in a recent conversation with the film critic Rajeev Masand. “Dolly is a badass… living a very prescribed life. She has forgotten to ask – am I happy with it?”
‘Am I happy with it’ is a running theme in Shrivastava’s work — a revolutionary idea in itself, for an industry that tends to use women characters as barely-there accessories. In Turning 30, Gul Panag suffered a crisis and began to question who she was and what she wanted. Lipstick… (2016) was about four women of varied age groups in Bhopal, exploring their ambitions and desires at different stages in their lives.
These ideas can feel so revolutionary that, despite there being no nudity involved, India’s censor board refused to certify Lipstick… It said at the time that the story was “lady oriented, their fantasy above life. There are contagious sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography…”
Some of this possibly applied to the scenes in which a 55-year-old widow (Ratna Pathak Shah) fantasised, enjoyed an erotic novel and had phone sex with a young swim instructor. It took a social media uproar and an appeal to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal to have the film released, with a few cuts.
“Alankrita’s strength as a filmmaker is to pose a question that not too many filmmakers are posing, which is, what do women want?” says film critic Anupama Chopra. “I think she really gets into the core of that. Her characters are messy, problematic and flawed. She is saying, in her cinema, this is who women are. Women, like men, are complicated.”
Shrivastava grew up between Bihar, Noida and the Welham boarding school in Dehradun. It was in school that she decided she wanted to make movies. She studied journalism in at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram college, and got a Master’s in mass communication from Jamia Millia Islamia.
In 2003, while studying, she began working with director Prakash Jha. She assisted him on films such as Gangaajal (2003), Apaharan (2005) and Rajneeti (2010). There’d be 200 people on set, and only a handful of other women, she noted then. Jha would go on to produce Shrivastava’s first two films.
“As a country of 1.3 billion, making so much cinema for so long, it’s important for us to create a diverse culture of filmmaking,” Shrivastava says. “You see hardly any Dalit filmmakers. So few women filmmakers. So few stories that delve into the LGBTQI space. The cinema culture we have perpetuates the status quo. That is problematic to me.”
Hindi cinema has a long way to go, she adds, before we reach a point where half the movies released on a Friday are about women and by women. As for her characters, they usually have a long way to go too. They don’t often end up happy, but they end up questioning. And that’s a start.