Lust Stories 2, a Netflix anthology of four films, follows the formula we have gotten comfortable with — one film that will push past the rest, in an embarrassing, effortless thrust. The rest will leave us wondering what went wrong, or given how the negatives are stacked against them, what went right.
With R. Balki, Konkona Sen Sharma, Sujoy Ghosh, and Amit Ravindernath Sharma at the helm of their respective stories of lust — many are actually stories on lust, not of lust, preferring to discourse about it than show it — Sen Sharma breezes past the rest, with her vision of lust as unstable, indignified, indispensable, but above all else, pleasurable. She gets desire — or its SEO friendly equivalent, lust.
Like the first Lust Stories, here, too, we have a story of the relationship between a house help and her employer. But here, the eros is not located in what they feel for each other — but what they feel for what the other person is doing. Seema (Amruta Subhash), a househelp has sex with her husband on the bed of her employer, Isheeta (Tillotama Shome), in Isheeta’s posh apartment (by Bandra standards). Isheeta catches her, but Seema doesn’t know. Initially horrified, Isheeta’s shock gives way to yearning — she enjoys watching Seema have sex.
With comedy, tension, and moral complexity, Isheeta continues to watch them over days. Soon, Seema finds out she is being watched. Horrified, her horror, too, slowly gives way to pleasure. She enjoys being watched. Voyeurism has suddenly entered, shattering the respectable discussions around class and consent. The film bulldozes it with desire. She wants it. She did not know she wanted it till she saw it. It is grisly. It is complicated. It colonizes your attention, ruins your time, striates your ambitions. Isheeta leaves work early to come watch Seema get railed. It has both sweetness and horror — a sweetness and horror that the musical landscape brings, that Anand Bansal’s languid movements and lighting suffuses with longing. An apartment has never looked more lonely than when seeing Isheeta trying to masturbate; when she weeps upon failing, the curtains drawn, sealing her in isolation.
There are two knockout moments that indicate you’re in the hands of a filmmaker who has a frighteningly confident grasp of her craft. When Seema finds out she is being watched — that stride of Amruta Subhash, that smirk, that slowness of motion, that rousing score, it is like a victory lap. And later, when Seema and Isheeta get caught in their mutual watching, the scene flares. Suddenly, they have to negotiate what they felt in that moment of desire outside of it, in a world of respectability and circumscribed limits. Slurs are flung, voices are raised. Tillotama’s screech, her anger, trembles the scene; its misplaced rage lingers. This is a film that doesn’t see the point of moralizing about lust. The moment you moralize, you lose. They lost. The film, then, tracks them, lovingly, finding their way around this loss.
Amit Ravindernath Sharma’s film, on the other hand, is predicated on this moralizing, collapsing the distinction between lust and rapacity. Centered around Kajol, who plays a troubled woman and former sex worker, she is the wife of a wastrel king, the abusive Devyani Singh (Kumud Mishra). She wants her son to get out of this provincial decadence, go study in London — funded by the wastrel — and yank her out of this gilded wasteland. Wayward in its writing, the script moves in too many directions and it isn’t until the last moment that the whole film comes into perspective.
A problem even Sujoy Ghosh’s film suffers from. Ghosh’s film is, ostensibly, desperate in its need to stand out, its surface brimming for your attention — the most erotic sex between Vijay Varma and Tamannaah Bhatia; the loudest, most mysterious score; the most Truman Show-like world, whose construction, whose artifice is apparent. It is easy to think that this is the worst film of the lot, because it isn’t interested in being coherent (or at least easily coherent). This is the kind of film that thrives by not being film-like. A film that winks so much, you think it has a medical condition. Like Kahaani (2012) and Ghosh’s short film Ahalya (2015), too much pressure is put on the climax for this meandering film to make sense.
Varma is driving a car in a landscape that looks odd, unreal, with clouds puffed and padded like pillows in a South Delhi couch. I wondered if budget crunching made them revert to the green screen. The people to my right were more charitable — Maybe he is in a video game? Maybe he is in the afterlife?
This surrealism, if that is indeed what it is, seems intentional. He video calls his squeeze, whom he is on his way to meet. She is stripping for him. Voluptuous breasts leak out of her bra. (Like in Sharma’s film, tight blouses wrapped around full, jiggling breasts play an important, narrative role in Ghosh’s film.) His father-in-law interrupts with his video call — something serious and urgent about business. Vijay then calls his wife. Back to his squeeze, distracted, he gets into a car accident, and to repair it he goes to the nearest “village” — it has a cafe. Surrealism, you know? — where he suddenly crosses paths with his ex-wife who left him ten years ago. Why? The answer comes in fits and spurts between sex and sighing. The conversation moves in directions that feel odd, sound funny, look uncomfortable. There is kidnapping, a pregnancy test from London, jealousy. It is so meaty, you cannot take your eyes and ears off the screen, but none of it adds up, leaving you with a heap of questions, few answers, and little joy.
R. Balki’s film, the weakest of the lot, is stained heavily by his filmography that is so loud, uppity, and brash about its progressive proclivities, it ends up looking conservative and perhaps even regressive. The sex positive daadi (Neena Gupta), who insists that her granddaughter (Mrunal Thakur) and her prospective groom (Angad Bedi) have sex before marriage — “a test drive” to know if they are truly compatible — ends up with this thick, patronizing texture. It is grating, repetitive, and in many places misplaced. To talk openly of sex is being sex-positive. To only talk openly about sex is perversion.
This film wants a pat on its back for being willing to have this conversation. You can feel it shimmying its shoulders towards you for that thump — and not just because PC Sreeram’s dated cinematography is, literally, quaking. However, the real conversation — the difficult conversation, the one that knocks over one’s sense of self — is the one Mrunal’s character is supposed to have with Angad’s, explaining how she hasn’t orgasmed with him, yet. That conversation is entirely off screen, and towards the end, the couple come to give daadi the good news that they are in love. Or that they have finally orgasmed. This film chooses not to make that distinction clear. Because of what use is lust, if not aiding love? Of what use is the distinction between lust and love?