Four Arresting and Subversive Tales of Morality and Power in 'Lust Stories'

The diverse filmmakers are ready to take risks in these stories just like their characters do.

Note: This review was first published on June 16, 2018 and is being republished on September 20, 2019 in light of Lust Stories being nominated for the Emmy Awards.

Mumbai becomes younger, and a little carefree on most late nights. For a city that squashes your space, shrinks your time and disregards your silence during the day, Mumbai becomes generous in the darkness; it rolls out its roads soaked in sodium-vapour lights, dials down the volume, spreads out cabs and cigarette hawkers, as if exclusively for you and allows you to gain your freedom and the luxury of mistakes. On such nights, dreamily gazing outside a cab, which plays a song from Awaara, doesn’t sound ‘filmy’ or anachronistic, for it seems like permission from the cosmos itself.

So it is fitting that such a scene opens Lust Stories – a new Netflix anthology directed by filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar – which explores, examines and collides with the notions of sexual freedom, morality, control and power, all intricately related to “permission”, a password that keeps you in the system, affording you freedom by snuffing out its breath.

The one gazing in the first story, Kalindi (Radhika Apte), a college teacher, has recently stepped into the slippery bylanes of casual relationships – an oxymoronic term fast gaining currency due to restlessness and fear. Kalindi soon discovers that in this world, rules are flexible and conditions are minimal, allowing you to wander and get lost, use and be used. Kashyap enters this well-documented story with sure-footed steps, decoding its linguistic codes – the nervous laughter, the awkward silence, the vacant space between a conversation and a kiss – with finesse, while exploring the cultural landscape hosting this intriguing, delightful mess.

But perhaps more intriguing here are the people themselves, panting sprinters who are always a step behind their own stories. The centerpiece of this short is Kalindi, a married woman who, inspired by her husband’s pre-marital flings, is experimenting with the idea of open marriage. She hooks up with one of her students, Tejas (Akash Thosar), and tells him that it was a one-off thing. Tejas drops his shoulder and gets himself a girlfriend. Kalindi, currently dating another man yet strangely drawn to Tejas, is swept away by feelings she can neither fathom nor express.

Besides telling a relevant, compelling story, which stands tall on its own, Kashyap wants to nail something elemental here: the nature of storytelling. Kalindi briefly breaks the fourth wall early in the movie and later, more frequently. What first looks like a jarring intervention – even an example of lazy writing – gathers philosophical potency as the story goes on. Addressing the camera directly in a subsequent scene, as if she’s a talking head in a documentary, Kalindi talks about her husband’s chance encounters – a life replete with stories, a life that she wants for herself, where, for better or for worse, from agony or from joy, she would at least have a story to tell. Here the story isn’t just about lust but also the lust for story itself. This segment, masterfully aware, also questions its own story, both seeing – and seeing through – the protagonist, slyly hinting at her predisposition to self-deception.

The darker shades in this story are often offset by humour – including a longish funny scene involving the word “consensual”. Kashyap immensely benefits from the talents of Apte who brings to her role everyday anxiety, narcissism and insecurity, reflecting many urban truths and desires – more importantly, confusion – that keeps her character suspended between transient highs and lasting lows, a no man’s land between committing and quitting. The only downside is the stereotyping of a peripheral character who solely seems written for laughs. Otherwise this segment sees Kashyap return to his prime form, last seen in Gangs of Wasseypur 2, in a story that simply says that one of the ways – perhaps the only way – we can make sense of this world and our place in it is by telling stories about it. It only sounds simple – for telling a story means owning a story. Owning a story, even your own story, in a world rapidly frowning on accountability feels like a heady, rebellious idea.

Akhtar interrogates the various levels of power – and the interactions between them – affecting our desires and our inability to do anything about them, in her short. Unlike other filmmakers, she rightfully imagines love, especially in a country like India, as a privileged position, something that can only be fancied by the majority. More importantly, she also examines the unit holding much of that power – the liberal, upper-caste affluent families – that see love less like a bond, and more like a business transaction, materialised over snacks and meetings, culminating in marriage.

Akhtar’s story centres on Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), a domestic help in Mumbai, involved in a sexual relationship with her employer’s son, Ajay (Neil Bhoopalam), a software professional. What can be a potentially life-changing event for Sudha is distraction for Ajay. He hardly notices her otherwise – she’s one of the many luxuries for him. Sudha, on the other hand, fights it hard, stealing a glance at Ajay, hoping he’d notice, slyly watching his fiancé-to-be, gauging their chemistry, figuring out if she can ever match up. Akhtar directs this portion with a lot of warmth, showing a genuine curiosity for Sudha, the small things that define her: opening her slippers beside the family shoe stand, the constant entering and leaving a space (filmed via smooth ingenious transitions), remaining content with any morsel left for her – whether it’s sweets or snacks or, if she’s lucky, clothes.

Bhumi Pednekar in Lust Stories

But this poignant look at desire from bottom-up is also constrained by the very society it’s attempting to critique. Because if the story has to remain credible, it can end on only one note, which stifles it for room, making it slightly predictable. Life collides with cinema and makes it inadequate.

The third segment of Lust Stories, directed by Dibakar Banerjee, is a portrait of a crumbling marriage, exacerbated by infidelity. Reena (Manisha Koirala) and Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) have been married for a long time – long enough for the two of them to only communicate in lies, long enough for them to get bored and tired and fed-up of each other. They met in college, but more than a decade later, he seems like a stuffy, old box. He is controlling, constantly checking his wife’s whereabouts; patriarchal, reminding her about his most precious permission (“I’m allowing you to live your life”); conceited and shallow, too comfortable in his own bubble (“a film should either have patriotism or love”). Banerjee is less interested in their present or the past – why the two couldn’t work out – but their future, what now when they are not working out. But this portion isn’t just about the imperfections of marriage but also about the nebulousness of affairs: Reena and her lover, Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat), who is also Salman’s best friend, haven’t figured out their relationship, either.

Even though Banerjee brings new nuances and conflicts to an old story, it is largely intriguing only because of its unusual cast – Koirala, Kapoor and Ahlawat make a curious mix, rendering the mundane notable – and for its sharp climax, which allows a woman – a disinterested wife, a negligent mother – to choose her own freedom, understanding her infidelity like a fierce, empathetic friend.

Karan Johar’s short revolves around Sandhya (Kiara Advani), a schoolteacher who desperately wants to teach her husband, Paras (Vicky Kaushal), a thing or two (or three) about lovemaking. The alumnus of an all-boys school, Paras doesn’t understand girls. He has trouble making eye contact or conversations with them. On his wedding night, he asks Sandhya, “If you were an animal, what would you like to be?” It’s a joke; she doesn’t laugh.

Paras’ social awkwardness is only matched by his sexual incompetence – he cannot last beyond a few seconds. Johar’s segment is a pertinent indictment of masculinity, more so because it comes through Paras, someone who’s polite and apparently accommodating, far removed from the ubiquitous domineering, toxic male figures, yet who is, in many ways, not different from them, believing the needs of men and women are mutually exclusive; the desire of former is the taboo of latter.

Vicky Kaushal and Kiara Advani in Lust Stories.

There’s another story running in parallel here – centered on Sandhya’s school, her students’ parents, and her in-laws — that comments on the morality of Indian middle class, its eagerness for censorship (a mother wants the novel Lolita to be banned even though she hasn’t read it), and the many independence that a woman must sacrifice to be accepted in the family. This is by far the funniest short of the lot, and it could have been the most effective too, had Johar not stretched some of its characters and plot points thin – especially Rekha (Neha Dhupia), Sandhya’s colleague; and the unfettered climax, which, even though highly enjoyable for dismantling the ultimate Indian taboo, struggles to be a convincing whole. But in light of Johar’s larger triumphs, these sidesteps look minor.

The achievement of Lust Stories, however, is significant. Like their characters, the four filmmakers allow themselves the freedom to explore and take risks, imbuing their stories with the liberating powers of subversion, tapping the stifled desires of a country restless to find a voice.