Five years after they brought to theatres their tribute to the centenary of Indian cinema, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar return with yet another anthology film: Lust Stories. The title betrays the theme of the film but at least no one will take their grandmother for a movie that talks about the sexual needs of a woman. Oh wait, that was all organised trolling. Moving on. Lust isn’t something that is often talked about, not surprising for a country where a large number of people shudder at the mention of sex (and yet we have close to a one-and-a-half billion people). Marriage is often considered an institution that exists simply to produce more people. Sex is the process of initiating said production or to satisfy the man. High time then that someone talk about the sexual needs of women. Lust, which can be described as a really strong urge for sex (or other things, depending on context), is thus a greater taboo. Sex for enjoyment, for pleasure, that too of women?! Tauba tauba. Whether we like it or not, that is an opinion shared by a phenomenally large number of people in India, which is what makes Lust Stories an important film. While I don’t see cinema as an agent of societal change, it is good that such films are being produced because the balance has changed for the better. Women are equal to men and nobody can negate that. So why not make a film on lust revolving around women?
After having redeemed himself (though he didn’t need to) with the fine sports-social commentary drama Mukkabaaz, Kashyap’s short comes up short (bad pun, I know). His protagonist is a college professor named Kalindi, played by Radhika Apte, who is in a long-distance open marriage with a man twelve years older than her. Him having been her first boyfriend and her his umpteenth girlfriend has led to the “open” status of their relationship, she explains. It leaves her free to explore her sexuality like he has with the partners he had before her. She embarks upon what is supposed to be a fling with her student Tejas. She is clearly not in it for the long run. This is just another of her explorations. Till she is party to a conversation with her colleagues as to whether it is ethical for a teacher to be sexually involved with a student. She then has Tejas state on audio that sex between them was consensual and checks whether he is an adult. Then she starts getting jealous of his closeness to a female classmate. And then she starts stalking him, demanding answers obsessively, almost like a clingy girlfriend.
Kashyap plays about with Kalindi’s contradictory nature. By turning her into a half-deranged stalker, he makes a point about how stalking on celluloid has always been glorified when done by a man in pursuit of a woman. Here he focuses on it as the mania it actually is through Kalindi. He also has her break the fourth wall – in a way – and explain her actions, justify them even, and then wander off on a rather distantly related tangent. While a character like Kalindi is engaging and quite interesting initially, she gets boring pretty fast as well. The issue is not with the kind of behaviour she exhibits, rather not only with the kind of behaviour she exhibits but also with the fact that there is little more to her than an obsessive woman. There needn’t be any redeeming qualities and I personally love a good antagonist but she really seems to lack any purpose apart from pursuing a relationship which should be casual but one wherein the other side is also answerable to her. By the end of it, you’re just bewildered by her and the rigid requirements she has of a casual relationship and a partner.
The loose writing (Apte & Kashyap) apart, the editing is also quite shoddy, thus proving that Kashyap’s films are best edited by Aarti Bajaj; without her they become messy. Radhika Apte is, for the most part, her dependable self but she goes really overboard in some scenes, which hurt both her performance and the film. Akash Thosar of Sairat fame plays Tejas as a perpetually confused lad and one can relate to his expressions as the viewer shares his bewilderment with Kalindi’s behaviour.
All in all, a big letdown and not the nicest of starts to the film.
Zoya’s segment is not story-driven. In fact, it doesn’t even have a story. But what she puts on screen is proof that a good film can be made even without a story, something like what Juhi Chaturvedi did in October – follow a character and an arc about that person rather than create an actual plot, a method that has its own charm.
Zoya’s short is her first film on which she does not have writing credit; Ruchika Oberoi has written it. One could blissfully forget this fact as she skillfully navigates through the narrow corridors of the 1BHK in which the majority of her film takes place.
The segment revolves around Sudha, a maid who works for a bachelor named Ajit. Apart from cleaning his house and cooking his meals, she is also involved with him sexually. In fact, the film opens with one such romp. One can almost sense the lack of intimacy between the pair – they both have their own reasons for such an arrangement. Soon after, they return to their “appropriate” places: he, the saab being served breakfast by her, the bai, while reading a newspaper and not even glancing at her when the tray is set down before him.
Bhumi Pednekar is excellent as Sudha. She has precious little dialogue – a couple of words actually – but is able to convey all that her character is going through via her facial expressions and body language: the slight tremble of the hands while serving tea to Ajit’s prospective in-laws or the smile she gives his mother when given a packet of eatables to take home. She has no illusions of the place she occupies in the household. She doesn’t harbour fantastical dreams of marrying the guy. Yes, for a brief moment she seems irked by his touching another woman but that is only natural. She knew that it would come to this, sooner or later. Bhumi makes you feel for her and even feel somewhat proud of her for holding her own: bai or not, she has her own dignity, she makes her own choices. A truly remarkable performance.
Zoya’s strength in the film is the subtlety she employs while dealing with things, a possible takeaway from the spoon-feeding Dil Dhadakne Do adopted. She shines a light on class distinction, something even the most educated of people practice, maybe even unknowingly.
It’s a piece not only about a woman fulfilling her sexual desires but also about our society. A lovely watch. PS: Rasika Dugal drops in at the end for a verbose, quirky yet thoughtful cameo.
Dibakar’s film is one that deals with one of the most common things lust is associated with: infidelity. It’s funny though how the infidelity in it is not borne only out of lust.
The short opens with Reena frolicking around in the sea while Sudhir looks on fondly from his spot a safe distance away from the waves: an indication of his dislike of the status quo being disturbed. One could easily mistake them for a married couple in their late thirties/early forties. Partly true. They are a couple but they aren’t married. He is the best friend of her husband Salman. A truly messed-up situation. Kind of like when a guy steals the affections of his “bro’s” girlfriend or vice versa but with the gravity of it dialled up by more than a few digits. They enjoy the evening together until Salman calls Sudhir and says that he suspects Reena of cheating on him, adding that he is on his way. Another filmmaker might have opted to jump straight to a car pulling into the driveway, but Dibakar opts to focus on the subsequent conversation between Sudhir and Reena, one that informs the viewer a little more about who they are as people. When she suggests the possibility of leaving her husband for him, he reacts almost dumbfoundedly. Clearly that isn’t a line of thought he shares. And then Salman arrives, marking the first time I looked forward to the arrival of a Salman (Sorry, but I had to; too good an opportunity to pass up).
Manisha Koirala is superb as Reena. She looks the part of a woman who was a head turner back in the day and remains beautiful even after having endured a marriage like hers. She plays the part with all its flaws. Reena knows what she is doing might be considered morally questionable but she is also unwilling to sacrifice her own happiness just to fulfill her husband’s desire to maintain a certain public image. And when you think about it, her requirements from her marriage are perfectly justified. Manisha brings both grace and finesse to a part which wouldn’t have felt as sympathetic under another actress.
The two actors – Jaideep Ahlawat and Sanjay Kapoor – are also very good. Jaideep makes Sudhir feel like a great guy in the beginning but you start to wonder whether you’ve misread him halfway through. Sanjay channels some of Anil’s Kamal Mehra from Dil Dhadakne Do in his selfish yet wise Salman. There is a fragility to how Sanjay plays him. He makes the concoction of domineering, self-centred and understanding totally believable and though he enters the film a while after it has started, he makes a mark almost effortlessly.
Dibakar delivers a layered, complex short, one that is worth the duration. He creates a bond between all pairs: the camaraderie between Jaideep and Sanjay which makes one believe that they are as thick as thieves; the wish to keep up appearances in a marriage by Sanjay paired with Manisha’s indifference to the show being put on; and a relationship between Manisha and Jaideep that is one where the needs of both parties are met. Dibakar also doesn’t create a cop-out of an ending. There is no total resolution. It is the kind which is summed up earlier in the film by Jaideep’s character: it’s life.
An incredible ensemble and smart storytelling make Dibakar’s segment a rather engaging, thoughtful watch.
After three sombre stories, it falls to Karan Johar to lighten the mood and he does so with a vibrant, funny segment which really balances the film out. I know a lot of people raise their eyebrows at the mention of Karan Johar and his fancy films but I believe that those films are a part of his worldview and I’d much rather see him make a film about a family in a mansion than make a mockery of poverty.
Johar’s film is about the fulfilment, or lack thereof, of the sexual desires of a young woman, whose husband is a five-stroke fellow, the greenhorn over-eager to fire his rifle. The woman – Megha – attempts to talk to the husband, a well-meaning duffer who is unable to see that his wife is not receiving as much as she is giving. Maternal figures describe sex as a chore, one that is useful only for reproduction, adding that a woman’s desires will be fulfilled by raising those kids, leaving Megha bewildered and unsatisfied.
Kiara Advani had little opportunity to act in her three full features till date but she makes a meal of Megha in her fourth screen appearance. She plays Megha with a lightness and ease that is wonderful to watch, whether it is while discussing sex with her colleague Rekha, reasoning with a trying parent at the school where she teaches (both of those conversations are really funny) or in the bedroom with her husband Paras. She is at her best towards the end of the short in a scene one can only imagine being difficult to enact.
Vicky Kaushal as the good-natured and blissfully unaware husband Paras is quite good, cracking PJs with enthusiasm and drawing vague analogies. A word here for Neha Dhupia, who is full of spunk and sass as Megha’s guide and colleague Rekha.
Johar may not be a filmmaker of the same credibility or calibre as Kashyap, Zoya and Dibakar but he holds his own all the same, more so because of the tonal change between his and the others’ segments. The humour is neither nor crude but witty and tongue-in-cheek. The intercutting between Megha teaching her students a poem in which riding plays a major role with her and Paras having sex, accompanied by the song “Motorcycle” in the background is a credit to Johar, his writer Sumit Saxena and editor Nitin Baid. Johar even takes a dig at one of his own films – the much-loved Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham – towards both the film’s and Megha’s climaxes. He mimes laughter from Megha’s orgasm by adding the “Aa aa aa aa aa aa” of the K3G title track at the right moment. Despite the light-heartedness of it, Johar doesn’t lose sight of the core of his film: that pleasure is as much the prerogative of a woman as it is of a man. He does end up with a couple of extra scenes but perhaps he felt the need to close his segment on a less ambiguous note than he ideally should have.
The segment is an ideal end for the film and one that leaves one with a pleasant feeling the others might not.
The shorts in the order that I enjoyed them most: Dibakar Banerjee > Zoya Akhtar = Karan Johar > Anurag Kashyap. Bhumi Pednekar stole the show as far as acting is concerned, with Kiara Advani and Manisha Koirala a close second. A special mention for Sanjay Kapoor’s performance: unexpectedly good.
Lust Stories is available to stream on Netflix.