The “Bombay Talkies” directors have come back together after 2013 to deliver us a new anthology of four shorts, titled “Lust Stories” airing on Netflix now. The intent of the directors is as headlined – to provoke a (much-needed) dialogue about sex and sexuality in contemporary India, from the perspective of the woman. The four directors, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar have depicted feminine sexuality in their small canvasses, spanning over a total playtime of around two hours. I watched them at one go and was left with the feeling – two of those are not like the others. Here is my rant about Lust Stories – brickbats, bouquets and all.
Kashyap’s Hesitant Nymph
Let us talk about Kashyap’s Kalindi first, played by the very talented Radhika Apte. Kalindi is a college professor in a long-distance, open relationship with her husband Mihir (who we meet only through Kalindi’s side-bar conversations with the audience). The film opens with Kalindi’s drunken fling with her much-younger student Tejas (played by Akash Thosar of Sairat fame). Would we see in her a woman having complete agency over her adventurous sex life? Unfortunately, Kashyap chooses to demonstrate the exact opposite.
The more Kalindi speaks to the audience, the more it becomes clear that Kalindi is the child of entrenched patriarchy, looking for the same over-bearing male attention in Tejas that she seeks from her absent husband. She is borderline sociopathic as she stalks and intimidates the rather zen lover. While the two actors balance the quirky chemistry very well, Kashyap’s falters over unapologetic feminine sensuality. Kalindi’s clingy, jealous overture seems like an antithesis of the titular intent.
Akhtar’s Silent Siren
The only issue I have with Akhtar’s presentation is that she plays safe. Sudha, the domestic help in bed with her soon-to-be-engaged employer, toes the line of morality. Akhtar’s Sudha is Cinderella who finds out that her prince is broken. When the (clueless) parents usher in the perfect rishta, and ‘her’ man promptly embraces the union, it catches Sudha by surprise and breaks her heart, if only for a few minutes.
It is in the last few minutes of her segment that Akhtar has outdone herself. A subtle conversation about a small tear in a donated garment helps Sudha internalize her reality. The audience is left wondering – is Sudha used goods now, or would that be her jackass lover? The closing smile, when Sudha takes a bite out of her lover’s engagement sweets, seems like one of sexual dominance.
Bhumi Pednekar has literally a single dialogue in the segment. I can’t remember when was the last time I saw an actor communicate so much emotion with so little drama. Kudos to that. While I would have loved to see a little more risque behavior from Sudha, Akhtar has done justice to her Lust Story, all things considered.
Banerjee’s Aged Wine
This is hands-down my favorite Lust Story. Reena (Monisha Koirala) and Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who at first glance seem like a married couple, turn out to be having an affair. What’s more, Reena’s husband, Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) is Sudhir’s closest friend. Dibakar takes a situation that has been shown a million times in Indian cinema and handles it with a maturity rarely demonstrated by an Indian director.
To Sudhir, Reena has been forbidden fruit all his life. At college, he lacked Salman’s easy charm, to woo the mom ki gudiya, Reena. Now he has found her, furtively, in the cracks of her disintegrating marriage. (Or, did Reena lure him in?)
Salman knows he has lost Reena, but Banerjee makes him go through the harsher reality – that he has to make a decision about his friendship with Sudhir. And in all of this, in the shadows of an extra-marital affair, in the whirlpool of a potential breakdown of relationships, Reena plays a game of cards. She uses her sexuality as a weapon to mold two men, who believe they own her. She allows them a false sense of control, but really they are putty in her hands. And when all the cards are on the table, she walks out unscathed, even jubilant.
The ease with which Monisha faces the camera again is commendable. The years show on her face, but her screen presence dazzles the audience. Sanjay holds his own just fine. Jaideep continues to impress, and seems like he would be a force to reckon with in the years to come.
Say the directors of Lust Stories are Avengers during Infinity War, then Karan Johar is Star-Lord. The man single-handedly lowered the merit of the anthology. I think Johar grossly misjudged the target audience for the series. If you sit through the first three segments (despite their ups and downs), you develop a certain expectation about the final crescendo. Johar’s story was like a packet of Biri handed free with quality Champagne.
Rekha (Neha Dhupia) is not relatable at any level as a school librarian unless we are talking about low-grade pornography. The Principal reminded me of Rishi Kapoor’s portrayal of the sexual predator in Student of the Year. For some reason, Johar thinks sexual harassment is akin to endearing goofiness. Megha (Kiara Advani) and Paras (Vicky Kaushal) are the high-points of this segment, both playing the part of awkward newly-weds pretty well. It was distressing to see Vicky Kaushal’s wedding night performance here, especially in contrast to his hot-as-a-burning-stove chemistry with Alia in a similar situation in Raazi.
Johar wanted to make one point through his segment – men need to satisfy women. He made the point beautifully in the brevity of Megha’s first sexual encounter. Kiara nailed the expression and the message was across. But, Johar was so unsure of his audience’s intelligence that he made the point again and again and again – until his whole segment started looking like a Vicco Vajradanti ad. Way to oversell a point, maestro.
I love a liberated woman who wears her sexuality like a trophy. I love one that can rock a vibrator like a pro (thinking of you, Samantha Jones). But, I still can’t fathom in what universe I would idolize a woman who decides to own her sexuality in a school library, possibly in full view of minors. I mean, wouldn’t this be considered a serious sexual offense? Would I call a man masturbating in a school library an emancipated individual?
She then gets a light rap on her wrist and her sex toy is ‘confiscated’ by the principal. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether Johar wanted us to take him seriously, or was he just making a caricature of his own cinematic style? What happens next is so cringe-worthy, unnecessary and ‘extra’, that I would let you suffer it on your own.
Lust Stories is worth a watch. Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee have done a splendid job of illustrating female sexuality in elegant strokes. Anurag Kashyap has stuttered and struggled. Karan Johar needs to find different company (how about Farah Khan or Rohit Shetty?) for his future anthological ventures.
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