Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020)
By Devapriya Sanyal.
[Film directors] should have a vision for the film, and yet allow for others to add layers and texture and mould it further.
Alankrita Srivastava is the director of Lipstick Under my Burkha which created waves when released in 2016. It won acclaim and awards at several film festivals around the world. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare (2020) is her third Hindi feature film which was released on the popular platform Netflix and already it has won its fair share of admirers. Alankrita has also worked on a web series called Made in Heaven for Amazon Prime which is a complex take on several issues that plague Indian society. Her films, which can be called women-centric, have been eye openers for Indian audiences usually given to watching the usual masala Hindi films. They address questions of female desire, sexuality, emancipation, equality, ambition.
What in your opinion, is the most important quality in a film director?
I think it’s to have a vision for the film, and yet allow for others to add layers and texture and mould it further. But then to know how to steer everything towards enhancing the soul of the film. I think it’s also about being honest to the material, to yourself. And enabling everyone else – actors, and all other departments to aid that honesty.
And I think to be resilient. It’s tough to be a filmmaker, there are extreme highs and lows, so you need to be grounded. There’s a lot of rejection, a lot of self-doubt, a lot of waiting. So you need something that holds you together internally.
Do your scripts go through a lot of rewrites and changes?
Yes. Everything I write develops over the years in my head and then slowly on paper. From the idea stage to the actual making the script grows a lot.
It’s very rare that I have an idea and I immediately write it and then immediately shoot it. A couple of years is the bare minimum I have to have lived with an idea. Normally it’s many more years. It’s not like I’m all the time working on it. It’s just that it’s there inside of me incubating. Many ideas die long before I have written a page. The ones that survive and get written fully a few times over are the ones I end up making.
The first draft is always very nascent for me. But it’s important because from there everything grows.
How long did the shooting of Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare take?
I think about 48 days. We had one long intense schedule without breaks and then a slightly more spaced out schedule. We were shooting in Greater Noida when the pollution was terrible. It was a tough shoot. All on real locations.
Are you working on anything new right now? How far has the current pandemic conditions affected your work?
I’m just finishing post production on a series for Netflix. It’s called Bombay Begums. That should be out early next year.
I’m still not sure what feature I’ll work on next. But it’s been really intense for me since before the release of Lipstick Under My Burkha. I’ve had no breaks and everything has been overlapping, including Made in Heaven, Dolly Kitty and Bombay Begums. I love the intensity!
Fortunately for me the shoot of Bombay Begums was wrapped by the first week of March. Just before the pandemic struck India. I did the entire edit and post of the series during this period. It’s been interesting adjusting to doing everything from home. The edit, the sound design, the color grading, the music, the mix – I’ve been doing everything from home. I miss working in the studios. And everything takes much longer if you’re doing edit and post remotely, but it’s a new way of doing things. I think there’s been some growth in that.
Of course, I was affected by the pandemic professionally in that we had to cut short the festival journey of Dolly Kitty, and we could not release the film theatrically in the summer as planned. But fortunately the film released as a Netflix Original and has found it’s audience.
I was also supposed to be shooting episodes of another series, that is now postponed to next year.
Why did you decide to shoot in Noida and Greater Noida for Dolly kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare?
I didn’t decide to shoot Dolly Kitty in Greater Noida. The film was set there so I had to shoot it there. The film emerged from the space of Greater Noida itself. So the area was intrinsic to the film. For me Dolly Kitty could not exist anywhere else.
My mother lives in Noida, and she has invested in some property in Greater Noida. So I would drive to Greater Noida with her. And it felt so much like a work-in-progress city. A place that is trying so hard. But the malls are empty, buildings lie incomplete… And yet it represents the hope of a new urban India. There are call centres and hostel like spaces where young people are living.
And I thought of a young girl who has come to this place in search of opportunities and possibilities, having shaken off the shackles of her small town in Bihar. But is Greater Noida really going to deliver the promise of freedom and success and independence and romance? Or is she going to find that freedom and independence come at a price? So that was Kitty’s story. The genesis of the film.
And then I thought that if this young girl has made her way to Greater Noida from Darbhanga she must have somebody she is living with. And so emerged Dolly, the older cousin, who back home everyone thinks is living this amazing life in “Delhi.” But Dolly is trapped by the perfect neo middle class life, she has convinced herself she is very happy and her life is perfect as long as there is constant upward mobility. But in truth she is running away from herself.
And it is the arrival of her young cousin Kajal (Kitty) that sets Dolly off on a road to self-realisation.
What inspired the film?
I think I was very interested in exploring the idea of women’s relationships with the city, with new ideas of urbanization, and also exploring the jaggedness of romance in women’s lives. Romance as something to be traded, something to be found in odd unexpected places, romance as something that frees women, even as it is something that shackles women.
I think also the idea of the relationship that women have with their bodies and how that chronicles and reflects changing dynamics in a woman’s life. And the idea that freedom for a woman requires for her to stake claim first and foremost over her own body.
Also the idea that morality for a woman cannot exist in a vacuum. There are choices women make because of the financial implications, and because the world they inhabit is now full of more economic and material possibility.
It is hard to imagine the film without Konkona Sen Sharma and Bhumi Pednekar, what made you choose them as protagonists?
Bhumi Pednekar was cast first. The moment I was done with a draft of the script that was ready to get into production I knew I had to ask Bhumi to play Kaajal (Kitty).
I had met her a couple of times and loved her performance in Lust Stories and Dum Laga. She has this lovely quality of being innocent yet feisty. And her face is so expressive. She is a wonderful and hungry actor and a lovely person. For Kitty’s part I wanted that precise combination of innocence and strength that I feel Bhumi really has. And I was really hoping she would do the film. When I told Bhumi about the film, she understood Kitty immediately and instinctively. And I sent her the script. I was so thrilled that she agreed to be part of Dolly Kitty right away!
Konkona and I are friends. We’ve known each other since college, and became close during Lipstick. I love working with Konkona, she just adds so much meaning to every line of the script, and so many layers to every part she plays. And she is a delight to work with.
For Dolly I really need an actor who could bring out the graph of the character properly. It’s a very complex part. And Konkona was the best actor for it. Konkona and I were getting our hair washed at the salon when I just asked her to read my script. I didn’t tell her why. A couple of weeks later while I was on my first recce to Greater Noida, she called me to say she had read the script and loved it. That’s when I told her I wanted her to play Dolly. And she immediately said Yes!
So I found the perfect Dolly and the perfect Kitty. Two fine actresses who I absolutely adore as people and as performers.
In Dolly Kitty Pappu is always referred to as Pappu whereas the older son has a proper name: Bharat. Why is that?
It was intentional. Pappu has a proper name – Prithvi. But nobody calls him that. He is the younger one, and continues to be referred to by his nickname. It’s also a symbol of how he is not taken as seriously as Bharat – the elder son who is much more alpha. Continuing to call him “Pappu” is perhaps telling of how the family looks at him as the weak one, the more immature one. Also he does not insist on being called by his real name either. He hasn’t yet reached that stage of consciousness where he can identify this name usage issue. The family though wanting him to be more alpha male, continue to infantilize him and thus disempower him by always referring to him as “Pappu.” That was the idea behind it.
If you had to remake them now: would you like to make changes to either your earlier film Lipstick Under My Burkha or Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare?
Dolly Kitty released very recently so I have many thoughts about a few things I would do differently. But they’ll pass by the end of the year. The film is over and done, so there’s no point in thinking what could have been. With Lipstick too, I had these thoughts for a few months, but then it passes.
Once the film is release there’s no point thinking about how it could have been better. Because that’s an endless cycle.
Did the actors come up with any creative inputs?
Of course! I workshop a lot with the actors before we go on floor. And we have a lot of readings and discussions. I like giving actors space to bring more to the table. It’s exciting for me. This prep time is when we really crack the tone of the performance, and plan how the characters will be brought to life.
Because once we are shooting time is short, so it’s good to have already done the groundwork. And before shooting a scene I normally block the scene with the actors and we rehearse, so there’s space to explore different ways of doing the scene. And then I lock on what I think is working.
So it’s a very collaborative space and I’m very open to improv. But obviously one has to know the intent and purpose and tone of the scene, so everything has to work within that.
Would you like to be addressed as a feminist filmmaker?
I’m happy to be addressed as a feminist filmmaker, because I am a feminist before I am a filmmaker.
I think all filmmakers should be feminist filmmakers, if you ask me! Because the opposite of feminist would be patriarchal. And who wants to be a patriarchal filmmaker. Though of course patriarchy flows in the veins of Hindi cinema.
I’m a proud feminist, I don’t think there is any other way to be. And because my films deal with the inner lives of women, with a certain degree of honesty, I can understand why I am referred to as a “feminist filmmaker.” I think it’s a huge compliment. It means my films are digging into what it means to be a woman, and putting women’s stories in the forefront.
I think it’s also because my work has a clearly female gaze. And I’m proud of that. So yes I’m a happy feminist filmmaker.
Do you find it easier to tell women’s stories?
I don’t think it’s about easier or harder. I want to tell stories that move me, that I am passionate about, that I find interesting and layered. And instinctively I’m much more drawn to stories about women, from a female point of view. Maybe I see more of myself in these stories.
I enjoy stories about characters who are in some way on the fringes, who are vulnerable, who live in the shadows and crevices of a society whose morals are hard to live by. These characters can be men – for instance I love writing and directing for Made in Heaven where one protagonist is a gay man. But there is a deep inner conflict in his character, that in some way also reflects society’s lack of acceptance.
But definitely I’m not interested in telling stories about cisgender privileged men sitting on top of the power pyramid. I enjoy stories that challenge the status quo, that show a mirror to society. Otherwise it’s not interesting for me.
Which filmmakers have influenced you the most?
This is a tough question because honestly I’m much more of a reader than a film watcher. I think I’ve mostly been influenced and shaped by books.
But there are a few films that I truly love. Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair is perhaps my favourite film. And it’s my go to film. I watch it once before I shoot anything. It always warms my heart and inspires me. It’s so Indian, and yet so universal, I love it.
I also love Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi by Sudhir Mishra. I think the intermeshing of the personal and the political is beautiful, the tension between love and ambition and the battle of values… It just moved me so much.
The one film that really nudged me to believe that I can pursue filmmaking is Nagesh Kukunoor’s Hyderabad Blues. I hadn’t even watched the film, but I remember reading about it in the Sunday Magazine. I must have been in school. I couldn’t believe a film like that had been made. It made me believe that there was space for me to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
Nicole Holofcener and Andrea Arnold are filmmakers whose work I really like. And I love watching foreign independent cinema. I don’t care much for mainstream films, as an audience.
What kind of audiences do you make films for?
I don’t think about audiences when I’m making films. I feel I can only judge material from my point of view. So in a sense I am the audience I’m making the film for. I should connect with the film. And that forces me to be honest in my work. I can’t pretend that way. I can’t say this bit doesn’t work for me, but the audience will like it. I am the audience, there is no hiding. If I don’t like something means it’s not working.
How has your journey as a filmmaker been in male dominated Bollywood?
I think I can write a book about it!
It’s a difficult space to break into for a woman who does not have a father/brother/husband in the film industry. I was fortunate that I started my career assisting filmmaker Prakash Jha. And I continued working with him for well over a decade. He produced my first two features Turning 30 and Lipstick Under My Burkha.
My real battles have been against the systemic discrimination of films with a female point of view when it comes to distribution and exhibition and censorship. I think films that are made from the point of view of women have no place in the largely patriarchal system. So to get distribution and fight censorship has been the challenge.
I have to hold on very precariously to my own voice as a filmmaker while still trying to use the system to get money and release my films. Because I don’t want to make films that suit the system. I want the system to create space for films that I want to make.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’m working on a series I’ve created, called Bombay Begums. It’s a show about five women, set in Bombay. It’s going to be out on Netflix early next year. And I’m really excited about it!
How different was working on a web series like Made in Heaven from your feature films?
I think the biggest difference is that a series is much more collaborative. Because it’s long format there are many more people involved in writing and directing it. For me it was very exciting because I love Zoya and Reema’s work. And it was a huge learning experience for me to write the show with both of them. Zoya and Reema are really wonderful to work with. And they are amongst the best writers in the country so it was all plusses for me. And then there were four directors, so that was a lot of fun too! It was very interesting to see how each of the director’s was dealing with the material. Each of us has a different style, and yet we had to tell the same story. Made in Heaven is definitely one of my most cherished working experiences.
The other big difference is of course working on a much longer format. With a series you can really delve deeply into each character, and also happily get into the lives of secondary characters. I like the fact that a series enables you to dig deep into the world of the story.
What is your creative process like?
I don’t have a set process. But normally the scripts I write develop over the years. I can write anywhere. I love writing in cafes, and airports and other noisy crowded places. I don’t need to seclude myself while I’m writing. I don’t have any set routine for writing. But I like giving myself deadlines and working to meet them. Without those self-imposed deadlines I never finish anything.
Also I have never seen the film fully in my head before I go to shoot, unlike many other filmmakers. For me the script is very clear and doesn’t change while shooting, but it’s still just a seed.
As preparation starts the seed starts growing.
And the other thing is that I find that actor workshops are the most key in my preparation for a film. I really need to crack the tone of the performances before I start shooting. I’m very instinctive while shooting, often abandoning earlier plans of how I want to shoot the scene, and deciding on the day of the shoot. I’m very alive to that moment I think. But eventually the film I make is made in the edit. That is when the film actually takes place.
How did Lipstick Under My Burkha evolve?
It’ll be an essay if I start off about it. So I’m just going to skip this question.
Do you think cinema can change the way women think about themselves or the way men view women?
I don’t think cinema can change people or the world. But cinema and literature can open up your mind to new ideas, new thoughts, they can provide a sense of reflection, they can challenge the status quo, they can enable you to see things from another point of view, they can lead a person to question things…. And they can lead you to think more deeply about your own life, about society, about your choices… Most of all I think films and books can make you more human by enabling you to inhabit different lives and worlds. But they are not an injection that can change society. Though I do feel films can definitely also serve the purpose of re-inforcing the status quo and stereotypes.
Women have traditionally not been allowed a voice in the creation of cinema. So definitely it is empowering and liberating for women to find themselves represented authentically or with sensitivity in films with a female gaze. And it is exhilarating just to find more stories about women being told from a female perspective. And definitely men who watch films made from a female point of view may find their minds being opened to the inner lives of women.
What do awards mean to you?
It really depends on what Awards. Winning legitimate awards at international film festivals around the world is very exciting. I love the idea of my films being judged against films from other parts of the world. There is a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. And those awards really do encourage you.
What advice do you have for any young/aspiring directors who want to get started?
I would say, be resilient, focus on building a strong inner self – because there is a lot of rejection may come your way. And you need to have the emotional tools to get past that and do your work. I believe everyone has talent, the difference between those who make films and those who don’t are that some people give up, and others persevere. Be the person who perseveres. And hone your voice as a filmmaker. That’s also very important. Be yourself.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy(Harper Collins, 2017).