The unusual and the uncommon find a place in Netflix’s Lust Stories. A companion piece to Bombay Talkies, the anthology boasts of an eclectic mix of directors and thinkers trying to decipher lust. Among the four, Radhika Apte’s neurotic professor Kalindi is a fine exploration. In the Anurag Kashyap directorial, Apte plays a thirty-something woman who has been prodded by her much-older husband to have her own sexual experiences. According to her, Mihir – her husband – proclaimed, “You’ll hate me if you don’t have experiences of your own.”
And so she embarks upon a love affair with a student – Tejas Bhave, played by the wide-eyed Akash Thosar of Sairat fame. Bhave has a girlfriend of his own and the much-married Kalindi, who initially talks a good game about lovers, ends up becoming a stalker as she slowly succumbs to jealousy. She is confused. She is agitated. And in this social media fuelled world, it is that much easier to find traces of other affairs. So, she becomes the stalker. She calls Bhave late at night, desperate to know if he is dating one of her other student. He says, “Go to sleep. Good Night!” instead.
Perhaps the best scene is the one in which Apte, freaked out by her colleague’s discussion on consent, takes it upon herself to browbeat Bhave into recording a confession. “Tell me that the sex was consensual,” she demands. Thosar nails the bewildered Bhave in this scene. The sexual dynamics in this relationship is very new to him (he still calls her ma’m) and most of the time, he is swept along in Kalindi’s dramatics.
Kalindi herself is an unusual woman. She claims she was pushed into this by her husband. She does not want to explore other options, but is thrilled enough by the concept of an open relationship that she goes ahead with it anyway.
In Lust Stories, sexual pleasure is not just a momentary high. It is a weapon wielded with careful thought. It threatens to destroy a marriage just as it saves another. There is a loss of innocence, yes, but it also comes with powerful knowledge. In Zoya Akhtar’s portion, sex becomes the great leveller for house-help Sudha and her employer, Ajit. She dreams of a life as his wife. He has no such ideas. There’s no fairytale ending to this and the class divide always seems too great to vault over.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Reena (played by a brilliant Manisha Koirela), on the other hand, is bitter because of her failing marriage with Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) and uses it like a weapon.
It seeps into every conversation she has with Salman. “She’s the queen of ‘I could have been'” Salman tells us. And this resentment over the career she left behind and the husband who is not quite the man she thought he was, pushes her to hit her husband where it hurts the most.
The most entertaining exploration of lust comes from Karan Johar. This is the truth according to Bollywood. And so there are mirror-work blouses, saree pallus draped in such a way, just to tease you with a glimpse of voluptuous bosoms. Vicky Kaushal is entertaining as the hopeless yet predictable Paras. “I always come too early,” he confesses in one scene.
And that is precisely the problem. Megha has had a sheltered life. Her very Indian husband (Paras) can only do one thing at a time and has no idea that women need sexual pleasure. Middle class India is oppressive in its need to cloak sex as something that one must suffer through so that one can procreate. Orgasms are very chi chi, and a woman’s only real role is as a nurturer. Megha, though, has other ideas. She takes control of her pleasure, and finds it in her mother-in-law’s living room in front of her very shocked family. Johar’s portion hits all the right notes. It is entertaining – the movie equivalent of a night of fireworks.
Once the sparks die down though, it is Banerjee’s treatment of the theme that comes to mind. It has seasoned performances that are a delight to watch. It shows us a woman who is struggling to find the space to be herself. Not as wife, a daughter-in-law or a mother – Reena just wants enough space to breathe and just be Reena. She lusts after the life she had before motherhood came calling.
Sudha lusts after a marriage with her handsome employer. Kalindi lusts after the kind of ‘movie-worthy’ sexual adventures her husband has had. They don’t all get what they want.
Lust Stories is not ground breaking cinema. It toes the company line at all times. It can be prudish when it really needs to be adventurous. There’s no real lust onscreen and after a point, the film’s title feels click-baity. However, there’s no discounting the fact that it is a step in the right direction.