Lust Stories, a new Netflix original, brings four noted Indian directors together to tell their stories of women and sex. The results are well worth spending your two hours on.
Watching the introductory credits of Lust Stories roll by, one frame shows a woman reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; and you know at once that this is shorthand for, “These stories are not going to be simple. Perhaps you may even find some of them unpalatable.”
Having promised that, does this collection of four short movies, each created by one of ‘India’s Biggest Directors’ as the film bills itself, deliver? Yes. For the most part.
Directed (in that order) by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar, all four ‘lust stories’ are at a broad level, about women and sex; women having sex (with boyfriends, with employers, with husbands, with themselves), women wanting sex, women wanting better sex, women giving up sex with someone (or being forced to), and women talking about sex in some pretty weird ways, including one mother-in-law who tells her daughter-in-law to pop out her babies soon so that she can stop having to do all that ‘mehnat’ (hard work).
There were two things that I found particularly interesting about the series.
In what is perhaps a sign that Indian cinema and audiences (or at least sections of it) are ready to have more interesting conversations about sex, these lust stories are neither moral lessons for anyone, nor are they social commentaries on the generalities of women’s lives. The women are not archetypes; they are not ‘woman sacrificed at the altar of male desire’ or ‘good girl gone bad’ or ‘woman breaking free’ – they are neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’ as a rule; they are just themselves, as women are.
Two of the stories do this particularly well. In Anurag Kashyap’s story, ‘Kalindi’ (a college professor played by Radhika Apte) begins a relationship with a student that seems to begin on a note of older, experienced woman initiating a young man into sex; in other words, the ‘bhabhi fantasy’ that is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent. Very soon though, the story goes on a different track and until the very end, I could not decide whether I found Kalindi annoying, or sad, or even believable. Do Indian college professors behave this way? I asked myself. Maybe not, but this one does, says the story, and Radhika Apte is fantastic as the constantly mood-shifting Kalindi who doesn’t really know what she needs, or even wants. Bonus points for introducing polyamory into the conversation so easily.
In Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Sudha’, the dynamics of class and power enter the story. The film begins with a couple at it vigorously, but it’s only after the action ends that you realise one of them is a young domestic worker, Sudha, (played by Bhumi Pednekar) while the other is her employer. In the delicious aftermath of the moment, when he goes for his shower and asks her if she won’t take one too, the viewer is jolted into a realisation of the inherent inequality of this relationship. I mean, would Sudha be allowed to use her employer’s bathroom? So even when she calls him ‘nanga saala’ (‘naked dog’ as the translation tells us), you know that mood won’t last.
Yet, the story is not about Sudha as victim; while there is evidence of her sadness at him getting engaged, there is no indication that she believed it would be otherwise, or that she even considers sex as something that was ‘taken’ from her. Within the dynamics of a situation where she will always be ‘a good time, but not the girl you take home to your mother’, there is an inherent dignity to her – she is a woman who makes her own choices.
The second interesting aspect of Lust Stories is how, many of the male characters (although playing second fiddle to the women), move beyond the traditional roles assigned to men in Indian cinema.
The story that embodies this particularly well, is Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Reena’ – the story of a middle-aged mother of two, played by Manisha Koirala. Reena is having an affair with her husband’s best friend, but it is clear that the relationship that is really at stake is the one between the two men, not that of husband-wife. Reena’s husband Salman enters the story as the typical ‘bad Indian husband’, domineering, status-obsessed and dismissive of his wife, but as the story moves on, vulnerabilities emerge on all sides, leading to an unusual conclusion.
Similarly, in the final story, Karan Johar’s ‘Megha’ (played by Kiara Advani), the thoughtless husband who becomes aware of his wife’s desires in a dramatic manner perceived as ‘shameful’ by his family, finally shows some signs of thinking beyond himself. This one is perhaps the weakest of the four stories, with a storyline that somehow seemed less real than the others. It felt more ‘filmi’ with each character playing a designated role – ‘good girl heroine who also wants good sex’ ‘thoughtless but good-hearted hero’ ‘bad girl divorcee friend who knows more about sex than anyone else here’ and so on. Nonetheless, it has a hugely enjoyable (although unbelievable scene), and is worth watching just for that one, although I am not giving it away here as a spoiler.
Lust Stories is a much-needed addition to the stories of women being told on cinema. It is also proof that as we tell more stories, we are in less danger of succumbing to the ‘single story’ about women and sex – one that treats them as goddesses or whores.
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