Lust Stories Movie Review: Evocative Stories, Outstanding Performances

This film reiterates that in a country like ours, sexual desire is to women what sexual orientation is to the law – complicated, controversial, prohibited and unnatural
Lust Stories Movie Review: Evocative Stories, Outstanding Performances

Directors: Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar

Cast: Radhika Apte, Bhumi Pednekar, Manisha Koirala, Kiara Advani

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this short-film anthology is that four Indian directors – Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar – have accurately interpreted lust as the forbidden emotion. It rarely ever exists independently here; it is the black to love's white, the disease to marriage's medicine. If you think of the context we tend to speak about it in, lust is not an everyday term. It is invariably the cause of something else. It is treated as a flimsy attachment to life's more serious files. Which is why lust is often given an "identity" to exoticize it – of a teacher, a housemaid, an extramarital affair, an unsatisfied wife. Of a woman. Of an infidel. These four short films reiterate that in a country like ours, sexual desire is to women what sexual orientation is to the law – complicated, controversial, prohibited and unnatural.

The four female protagonists are therefore, by default, flawed victims of their instincts. They have to be thieves that steal a feeling. Each of them reacts diversely. The hypocrisy has turned Anurag Kashap's Kalindi (a mercurial Radhika Apte), a college teacher, into somewhat of a monster. She is the tragic product of a culture that forces a section of women to nurture an insecure, manipulative streak in order to service the illusion of equality. Hers is a character so desperate to fetishize the notion of lust that she ends up emulating its toxic masculinity instead of defying it. After seducing her student (Sairat's Akash Thosar), she is torn between wanting to be the orchestrator and needing to be an experience.

Like her, Zoya Akhtar's Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) struggles to distinguish the shit from the sheets. But she can't afford to be as destructive. As a bachelor's housemaid, she allows herself to daydream beyond the confines of Mumbai's classist overtones. Every day, she spends a few moments in the afterglow of their morning romp; she revels in the power of momentarily being on top, of using sex as a disruptor of social hierarchy. She is made to know her place only when she cleans his place.

Reality hits Dibakar Banerjee's Reena (Manisha Koirala), too, when her illicit weekend with a heart surgeon (Jaideep Ahlawat) is interrupted by phone calls from the man's best friend, her husband. In her mind, she has been driven to this affair because her husband (Sanjay Kapoor, doing an uncanny Anil Kapoor from Dil Dhadakne Do) is a self-centered control freak who treats her as little more than a trophy wife. When the heart surgeon is on top of her at night, she seems to find solace in his beads of sweat that drip onto her face; she finds the idea of love in his lust to make her happy.

This is something Karan Johar's Megha (a gamely Kiara Advani), a young schoolteacher, is aching to discover as a new bride. Her blissfully ignorant husband (Vicky Kaushal) is a "five-thrust" man; he takes more than he gives. This makes her sexually frustrated – unlike the other three, her desire bears the burden of not quite qualifying as 'lust' because it exists within the boundaries of a faithful marriage. Of legal companionship.

Not surprisingly, marriage is an overarching theme of Lust Stories (this sentence is a figurative goldmine). Sex is the trigger that fires a shot at an arranged marriage in Johar's short, a post-children slump in Banerjee's short and an open marriage in Kashyap's short. Zoya's film is most evocative in this context – it cleverly equates the "look" of an Indian marriage to that of domestic servitude. At many points it's impossible to tell the maid's 'role' apart from that of a shy middleclass housewife easing into a life of muted co-dependence. Sudha's post-sex routine is a blur of household chores; she hands him a towel, serves him his breakfast, irons his clothes and watches him leave for work. Her silence is grateful; his is coldly pragmatic. She cares for him by dutifully caring for his house.

The shot-taking is indicative of the typical relationship between a male tenant and his hired help. Even when the camera shows her leaving, the scene doesn't cut to the next day; it merely pans to reveal her walk in from another corner, almost as if to showcase the ubiquitous continuity of a housemaid in an urban setting. She is the center of his life, the mistress of his space, half-wife and half-mother, till someone 'real' comes along. Only then do we see her outside the flat. The film sticks to her perspective – it remains reticent, quiet, unflinching and ensconced within the voices and conversations happening in the background. When she watches her friend happily accept her tenant's dress with broken embroidery, without a word it is conveyed that she recognizes the similarity of her situation – she had to make do with broken pieces of lust, but her leftovers will now be someone else's gift. Pednekar is perfectly passive, and she thrives in a film that looks at the world through forgotten eyes.

Apte's performance is outstanding, too, but Kashyap's short remains at the mercy of her on-the-fly neuroticism. As a result, the film feels long and manic because it rests on the shifty shoulders of a very uncomfortable character. It even manages to pack in two songs and end with sort of a punch line. But owing to its fourth-wall device, it remains captivating in a voyeuristic way – like watching a documentary filmmaker wryly deconstruct a younger version of Wild Wild Country's Ma Anand Sheela. And who would have thought that Kashyap's would be the only segment that doesn't narratively pivot on the visual depiction of lust?

Dibakar's short is not as calculating, but stays restrained and mature despite committing to a generic motif (the dysfunctional love triangle) in an unremarkable environment (a beach house). Johar's short, as expected, is the only one that insists on truly being a movie. It has people speaking and reacting like movie characters (a slapstick principal making a mockery of Lolita, a sultry librarian, a simpleton husband), dialogues, montages, a background score and a predesigned sense of direction. It's like Johar is trying hard to belong to this anthology, but just can't betray his show-stopping genes. Ironically, this one works as more of an intrinsic homage to the movies (there's also an irreverent hat-tip to the K3G theme) than his very personal segment in Bombay Talkies (2013).

While the other three stay true to the practicality of life – all buildup and no definitive payoffs – Johar's crowd pleaser succumbs to the pressure of climaxing hard. It would much rather we hear the statement than read between its lines. I'm not sure his sensibilities entirely suit the short-form medium; most of his films in fact hinge on the passage of time and transformative journeys. Genres have the luxury of easing into one another in feature-length films; here, comedy suddenly morphs into drama, which then suddenly morphs into an unorthodox love story. There is no breathing space, and Johar's universes are the equivalent of rapid-breathing yoga exercises. Which is why his might come across as an easily likeable short, but it is far too hyperactive to be a great one.

Watching an anthology film can be a tricky experience. It's like spending a greedy day at your favourite film festival – immersive in a broad sense, but there's always the danger of being uprooted from each world too abruptly to fully absorb it. That's where the decision of streaming Lust Stories directly on Netflix might be a smart one – it allows viewers the freedom to eject themselves out of a space instead of overwriting their memories to create new space. God knows lust is something that inherently relies on the flick of a button.

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