“I Hope This Strange, Toxic Phase Does Not Deter Women Joining the Film Industry” – Alankrita Shrivastava

Alankrita Shrivastava speaks up about Rhea Chakraborty's media trial, filmmaking in the time of clampdown on dissent, and her new film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare.

By Neha Kirpal

All eyes will be on Netflix tomorrow as screenwriter and director Alankrita Shrivastava’s new film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is released on streaming television for the first time. The film, which stars stellar actors Konkona Sensharma and Bhumi Pednekar, follows the lives of two feisty middle-class cousins trying to find themselves in a big city.

Directed by Alankrita and produced by Balaji Telefilms, the film also features actors Vikrant Massey and Amol Parashar opposite the leading ladies, and promises to follow in the tradition of Alankrita’s deeply humanistic films and nuanced storylines such as Lipstick Under My Burkha and the web series Made in Heaven.

In this exclusive interview, Alankrita talks among other things about the inspiration behind the film’s story, her thoughts on the Rhea Chakraborty media trial, fearless filmmaking, and the highs and lows of her cinematic journey.

Your latest film Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare is a story about two cousins and about a secret shared by them. Tell us more about the idea / inspiration behind the story.

I love the characters of Dolly and Kitty. Two feisty and unique women trying to find themselves in the perpetually-under-construction Greater Noida. Dolly played by Konkona Sensharma is the older cousin, who is chirpy and excitable and thinks she has what it takes to be happy.

The younger cousin, Kitty, played by Bhumi Pednekar, has recently arrived in the city, and is trying to make a life for herself. They have a love-hate relationship, which is real and endearing. And they egg each other on, on their own journeys of self-discovery.

The poster for the film

For me the film is about women discovering the beauty and joy and delight of freedom, even if it is hard won and comes at a harsh price. And it’s about enjoying the moral ambiguity of women, who find they are at odds with what society expects them to be.

The idea of the film probably emerged through accompanying my mother on various trips to Greater Noida where she had invested in some property. I kept thinking of women who must arrive there with dreams in their eyes, but life is not that simple. And they must find some thrills in the city that they hadn’t imagined, even as they faced dilemmas that they hadn’t envisaged. And I thought this kind of an in-development city is an interesting metaphor, to explore women who are works-in-progress. Women who are finding themselves and have choices to make.

I loved creating Dolly and Kitty, and I can’t wait for the world to meet these delightful women.

I finished the film last year, and it had its World Premiere at the Busan International Film Festival, 2019. It was screened also at the Glasgow International Film Festival 2020. So, we have already been getting a lot of love for the film, and that’s been very fulfilling.

Do you think that Bollywood and the media have been unfair to Rhea Chakraborty? The incessant, misogynistic and demonic media coverage has portrayed the entire film industry in a poor light, of drug peddling and of nepotism. Do you believe that this media trial and unabated trolling will instil fear in independent women trying to make a mark in Bollywood, as actors, directors or in other roles?

All I want to say about the issue is that it is a witch hunt. Instead of focusing on the failing economy, the Covid crisis or border tensions, the media and the people of the country are finding fulfilment and validation through channelling all their hatred, anger and venom on a young female actor. It is telling of a deep patriarchy embedded in the people of our country, that they are so taken in by the idea of a sorceress, an evil temptress.

The whole incident shows a complete loss of conscience, and total disregard for the human and fundamental rights of a citizen. It is telling of the times, it is telling of a people that are so easily swayed by false pulpy TRP-driven media stories.

I hope that this wave of blind negativity towards the film industry passes. There is definitely need for systemic change in terms of how the industry can enable newer, more independent cinematic voices.

We are here because we want to tell stories. And I hope that women will join the film industry in large numbers across various roles. And this strange, toxic phase does not deter them.

Konkona Sensharma and Alankrita Shrivastava

For those in the entertainment industry who have very large numbers of followers, there’s a line between freedom of speech versus being responsible citizens when it comes to expressing opinions on current affairs. What’s your take on this?

I think, to each her own. I believe I am a human being first of all. I’m a woman. I’m an Indian citizen. I enjoy a certain privilege because of my education. I am a writer. I’m a filmmaker. I live in Mumbai. We carry a multitude of identities with us. And at different times, different identities take precedence. They are not in conflict. I am all of these things.

As citizens of a free and democratic country, we have the right to express our opinions. And if we feel like expressing them, we should. If we don’t feel like expressing our views, we don’t have to. There is no one way. It’s each one’s choice.

What are your thoughts on the relationship of the film industry to the party in power? Does being critical of the government lead to stalling of opportunities in the film industry? Do you think that Bollywood personalities have not been forthright in their criticism of the government when it comes to its handling of the anti-CAA/NRC protests and the migrant labour issue?

Bollywood is not one monolithic organisation. It is a name used loosely to refer to people and organisations engaged in making films, largely in Hindi, with Bombay being the hub.

Everyone working in the film industry is a free person. A free citizen. People who have opinions and want to express them do. Others who don’t want to, don’t.

The film industry is a reflection of Indian society. People have different ideologies, different political affiliations. That is what democracy is about.

Are we in an era in Indian polity when dissent is encouraged? Clearly not. So the same holds true across different industries. Not just the film industry.

Alankrita Shrivastava

With the rise in social media, political propaganda and the increasing politicization of all aspects of civil society including films, how does it affect a director’s creative process? Is there inhibition and fear, or alternatively, a stronger sense of fearlessness or desire to speak the truth?

The most beautiful films came out of Iran despite severe censorship. Filmmakers who want to tell stories they believe in will find subversive ways of doing it.

But of course, by and large, it’s a time when it’s easier to mount films that feed the polarisation of Indian society.

Which is why when Anubhav Sinha makes Mulk, questioning our biases, it’s so brave. Or when Zoya Akhtar makes Gully Boy, giving us a poor Muslim protagonist to root for, it challenges the status quo.

It all depends on the politics and conviction of the filmmaker. There are some filmmakers who challenge the prevailing bigotry more openly through their work, some filmmakers who do so more subtly. Some who try and play neutral. And some who promote ideas that further the majoritarian agenda. Even that is done sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly.

Is there more fear now than there was before? Perhaps. But are there many more diverse, vibrant voices in cinema today? Yes.

So there is more fear, and there is more courage.

How would you see the changing nature of the filmmaking economy today: will big production houses give way to multinational companies or bootstrapped startups? Will multi-screen cinemas give way to OTT and would it result in better films and wider audiences? Will this lead to more regional language content and diversified storylines?

I’m not sure of the shape the business of cinema and series will take in the future. But I do hope that there will be more and more space for more diverse voices in cinema and series. I think there are so many unexplored themes and stories. I hope that we as artistes are ourselves able to break away from conventions that bind us and limit us.

I hope we all find the courage to tell stories that matter to us, where we can experiment with form and style, I hope for a business model that enables that growth and freedom.

I hope that there are more women behind the camera, I hope that there are more Dalit filmmakers who can tell stories, I hope our films and series have more space for female characters, and characters across religion and caste.

The kind of screen is only a medium; ultimately it is the joy of telling stories, and communicating a feeling.

One hopes that the big screen and streaming space can co-exist happily to the advantage of all filmmakers and audiences.  

Alankrita at the wrap of the film

What is the relationship of a filmmaker with their audiences? Is the relationship one-way – of the filmmaker supplying a source of entertainment – or do you think there is a possibility of recipients transitioning from audiences to citizen audiences, who are critical, forthright in their criticisms, and demand better storylines?

I think there is always an audience whose love and validation you seek as a filmmaker. Even if it’s a very small audience. The cycle of the film is complete only when it reaches an audience. It could be friends watching your short film, it could be festival audiences in another part of the world, it could be people in theatres, people watching from the comfort of their homes.

First and foremost as a filmmaker, I feel I am myself the audience. I must like and connect with what I am creating. Because I can’t think from another person’s point of view. I can only watch as myself.

I also feel films find their audiences. I believe in trusting that process. Also by consistently making films that you believe in, you can slowly create an audience that connects with your work.

To have respect for the audience that is watching your work is important. When audiences find joy and meaning and humanity and hope through watching your films, there is no greater fulfilment than that. When people find pieces of themselves, when watching your films allows them to access something deep within themselves… that is what one aspires for as a filmmaker.

And yes, if you live in a society where your stories and characters are challenging the status quo simply by existing, then so be it. But the aim of making films, for me, is not to change society. But perhaps to provide a mirror.

I personally want to make films that enable people to feel and think and laugh a little, get a little moist-eyed, and smile a little. I don’t believe in enabling escape from one’s life. I’d rather people discover things about themselves through my films. And that the journey with my characters means something to them.

Bhumi Pednekar and Alankrita Shrivastava

From being an assistant to Prakash Jha to a director of critically acclaimed films yourself, what have been the highs and lows of your filmmaking journey, and how do you push your creative boundaries each time?

I think the biggest high is to be on a set. There is no feeling like shooting. It’s just very fulfilling. And once I experienced that feeling of being on a film set, on my first film as an assistant director – Gangaajal – I knew there was no looking back. I just wanted to experience it again and again.

I love letting characters and stories form in my head. Some of those one ends up writing. And some of those become full-fledged scripts. And some of those see the light of day. In that sense I feel films have their own destiny. The ideas that go through all these wringers become the ones we share with the world.

It’s been such a long journey, but I think the highs make one forget every kind of low. The biggest lows for me have been the times when I have struggled to get my films released.

The lows are also often internal, about doubting oneself. The uncertainty of – is this the story I should be telling?

But the love one gets when the film comes out, the joy one feels when people identify with the characters you created in your head, there is something so special about that. That one person who gets that little something you were trying to say in that one scene, and it makes everything worth it.

I think it’s a privilege to be a filmmaker. And I am so grateful that I have the most wonderful job in the world.

I think life itself is the best inspiration for all creativity. I think to be engaged with people around us, life around us, there can be no better fodder for one’s growth. In a pre-Covid world, I loved people watching. I love to write in cafes, wherever in the world I am, because in a strange and sweet way it kind of makes one feel connected to a larger humanity. You are by yourself, but not alone.

I love reading. And I think all my life I have been shaped by the books I read. I particularly enjoy reading literary fiction by female authors. Reading is my solace, and my replenishment.

And I think to just be alive to the world around you works wonders. I think inspiration is everywhere, it depends on if we can recognise it.

Lead image (L-R): Bhumi Pednekar, Alankrita Shrivastava and Konkona Sensharma

Syndicated to Money Control and Azhimukham (Malayalam)

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