Lust Stories (2018)

The word lust invokes a particular kind of image of sexual desire – one that is strong and often comes with negative associations attached to it because of this very strength it represents. When compared to the holy representation that Indian mainstream films give to love, especially, this word feels and sounds emptier, and dirtier. The four short films in Netflix’s anthology film “Lust Stories,” a spiritual sequel to the theatrically released anthology movie “Bombay Talkies” (2013), work towards cleansing the meaning of this word a little bit, emphasizing the complexities of the desires the word lust alludes to, especially for women in the modern Indian landscape. The four directors – Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar – take distinctive perspectives to show how women from different socioeconomic backgrounds and different ages approach the meaning of lust. For some of them, it’s about passion for commitment, adventure, and space. For one of them, it’s about a sincere desire for respect and stability. And, for some of them, it’s merely about lust for the commonly perceived meaning of lust.

Unsurprisingly, Karan Johar’s short film opts to explore the most apparent meaning of lust for its protagonist, Megha (a very likable Kiara Advani, capturing the innocent curiosity of her character well). The (oddly placed) ending short of the anthology focuses on Megha’s unexplored desires because of her education in an all-girls school. Johar, popularly known for making family-oriented melodramas, steers completely clear from suggesting that Megha’s satisfaction comes from getting a husband. In fact, in a quite ingenious dig to his own “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (2001), he demonstrates how different Megha’s coming-of-age is compared to that of his previous films.

But, his filmmaking contradicts this subversion, operating on a level similar to his more melodramatic fare. The characters feel too broad and simplistic to be wholly believable. Neha Dhupia’s Rekha, in particular, barely gets anything to work with as the mentor for Megha, who helps her come over her initial apprehensions towards receiving pleasure. The comedy too, at times, feels similarly manufactured. The references to Lolita and inaccurate readings by a Principal of the words “loins” and “lions” belong more in a (lazy) sex comedy than in a film that I could feel wanted to get slightly deeper into Megha’s problems. Johar further makes these scenes stick out because of a somewhat too obvious use of a comedic background score that makes it seem as if the director is straining too much to make the audience laugh.

This overly-simplistic approach is disappointing because the director creates interesting enough central characters and provides some genuinely cracking dialogue to make his short both enjoyable and introspective. The interactions between Megha and Paras, her husband (played by a gloriously goofy Vicky Kaushal) have an honesty that matches some of his character work in “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” (2016). A scene in which both the characters confuse their viewing experiences of adult films is sublime, and along with the self-referential dig at his filmography demonstrate how terrific Johar can be at mining comedy and drama to make entertaining films that also critique aspects of society like the narrow-minded views of men and middle-class families in India. But, this effort from Johar lacks the consistency in delivering a blend of both drama and comedy, opting more for broad laughs than an in-depth character study of Meghna’s character, which makes it feel frothy and lightweight in its exploration of the complexity of the lust for lust for its protagonist.

A still from Karan Johar's short film
A still from Karan Johar’s short film

Anurag Kashyap’s short, on the other hand, swings way too much towards the other side of the fence, especially narratively, to demonstrate the complex nature of lust for his protagonist, Kalindi (Radhika Apte). Kashyap introduces the central narrative thread of his short through a wonderfully enacted scene between Kalindi, and Tejas (a likable Akash Thosar), in which the extroverted protagonist flirts and seduces the introverted guy. It’s a scene that really gets the idiosyncrasies of its characters right. She is slightly nervous, very talkative (asks him if he is a “perk” or a “wallflower” after seeing that he has the book on his shelf) and openly excited about the possibilities of sex. He is a rooted Maharashtrian, slightly dodgy with his English, equally (if not more) nervous, and passionate about his first encounter with a woman. The film dwells on these conversations, developing this relationship with a soft grace that I have rarely seen in a Kashyap film. But, then the director decides to overcomplicate his film’s narrative. Kashyap, known very much to delve into the dark minds of his protagonist, attempts to deconstruct Kalindi’s neurotic personality by showing how she reacts to three different men, all intercut rather abruptly with her speaking directly to the audience. Adapting this non-linear way of storytelling, fourth wall breaking, and use of hand-held camera do support the neuroticism of Kalindi. But, the fourth wall breaking, proves to also be highly distracting because of how aggressively Kashyap shoe-horns it in with the other narratives in the film, preventing the audience from fully immersing into a particular aspect of Kalindi’s life.

Luckily, Apte’s performance and the dialogue written by both her and Kashyap manage to carry the film through even when it indulges in these more showy, overcomplicated narrative techniques. Kalindi, in the hands of Apte, seems as unpredictable and messy (if not more) than the narrative. The way the actress manages to juggle the various emotions the character goes through – from jealousy to scrutinizing to contemplative to pure desperation – is quite stunning and makes the nature of her character’s lust always hard to pin down. Does Kalindi desire commitment or does she lust for freedom? The film, I believe, takes this neurotic position of its protagonist and does not make it clear what exactly she wants, and that is its greatest strength.

A still from Anurag Kashyap's short film
A still from Anurag Kashyap’s short film

Sandwiched between this craziness of Kalindi, and the sweet, over-simplified desires of Megha are the two shorts that I most enjoyed. These two films borrow significantly more from the Western indie style of filmmaking than from commercial Bollywood cinema – the lack of music, in particular, for both movies, is most notable. However, this lack of Indian-ness in their filmmaking styles never detracts Zoya Akhtar or Dibakar Banerjee from conveying the deep-rooted desires of their Indian protagonists. If anything, this slightly more muted style of filmmaking used by both directors allows them to delve deeper into their characters’ desires, allowing them to express their thoughts without the aid of histrionics.

In Dibakar Banerjee’s beautifully constructed lust triangle, the interaction between the three characters – Reena (Manisha Koirala), her husband, Salman (an achingly vulnerable Sanjay Kapoor), and his best friend, Sudhir (a quietly effective Jaideep Ahlawat) – about wanting (personal) “space” dictates the film’s tempo. Banerjee uses this simple plot and an isolated, and detached beach house as the setting to weather the impending storm between the characters. This plot, and the setting, typically set expectations for a film in which there is one character who is the “bitch” (you might make the instant judgment of blaming Reena as she does herself), and the other characters do a lot of shouting at that character to get their anger out. But, Banerjee expertly turns a cliched concept into a fascinating exploration of the desires of a frustrated, and tired middle-upper class woman (and to some extent the men).

Through his unobtrusive camera work, and lack of background score, Banerjee centers the drama directly towards the characters, all of whom feel fully realized because of the terrific writing and performances from the cast. There is a casualness, but also an awkwardness to the rapport between Reena and Sudhir that consistently suggests that even in the extramarital affair, not all is well between the two characters. Reena’s relationship with Salman, too, is similarly strained, with both characters sometimes maintaining a dignity towards each other, but also realizing how much they have become distanced from each other. Most of all, the interactions between all of them feel brutally honest, with each revelation about how one character always expects something or the other from another character demonstrating the claustrophobia that all three of them feel in the house. Koirala, in particular, beautifully communicates this very sense of tiredness (“thak gayi hun yar” comes up a couple of times) that Reena feels in her marriage and also in her affair. The veteran actress consistently brings up an expression through her weary and agitated body language that captures all the senses of frustration, confusion, and disgust that her character feels, aptly conveying the lust for her freedom she craves.

A still from Dibakar Banerjee's short film
A still from Dibakar Banerjee’s short film

Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), the protagonist of Zoya Akhtar’s short, however clearly lusts for the opposite – respectable stability through marriage (or through just having a stable relationship). This desire for security through a relationship as opposed to breaking free from it almost seems subversive because of how much importance the other three shorts put on the notion of individuality as something that becomes distorted when one gets married. But, Akhtar, who has gained an (unfair) reputation for making films only about the upper-middle class, deftly conveys how lust can have such a different definition for someone who does not have the power or privilege that Reena, Kalindi, or Megha have in society. Rather than rambling, or even discussing her problems with someone, Sudha merely observes.

And, through the use of diegetic sounds, and original compositional framing, Akhtar makes the audience do that too. The film even begins by just observing the maid having sex with the owner of the apartment, Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam). Akhtar highlights the moans and the minimal dialogue between the two in this scene because this is one of the only times Sudha actually has a voice in the film. The film then proceeds to show Sudha working in the 1BHK apartment, with little to no interaction with Ajit. Furthermore, when his parents come to visit him and fix his marriage, Sudha’s voice becomes an even more periphery figure to the film. This muteness of the protagonist amplifies the depth of her desires as Akhtar heavily focuses on close-ups of Sudha’s changing reactions to the various situations in the film to convey her lust, instead of dialogue. Similarly, the director composes shots in the movie when Sudha is at the center of the house, happy doing her daily chores, by placing her in the middle of a symmetrical frame. But, when she is anxious about Ajit’s impending marriage decision, the director puts her on the fringes of the picture to convey her unstable inner state. This attention to detail in filmmaking is present in almost every frame of the film, which helps capture Sudha’s mind state authentically.

Pednekar’s understated performance, too, lends excellent support in creating Sudha by conveying a wealth of emotions merely through her subtle expressions, without the aid of any dialogue. Her tremulous body language when nervously hearing the conversation between Ajit and his to-be-bride or her resigned acceptance (and disdain) of having to eat from an already eaten sweet beautifully convey the silent lust of Sudha for a decent, more respectable relationship between her and her employers. This quiet, almost tragic acceptance of Sudha’s unfulfilled desires is what stuck with me the most from the whole anthology series because of how differently it approaches the concept of lust for a person.

A still from Zoya Akhtar's short film
A still from Zoya Akhtar’s short film

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