Surprisingly, ‘Lust Stories’ Actually Delivers Nuance Not Sleaze

It’s been five years since Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar, made Bombay Talkies, an anthology which was a tribute to the magic of the movies. This year the four directors have come together again to bring us Lust Stories. A lot has changed in the last five years, in the country, and in the movie-making business – the most significant has been the arrival of the digital medium, as is evident with Lust Stories coming out on Netflix, unlike Bombay Talkies which got a theatrical release.

In the last year, we have seen two films – Lipstick Under My Burkha and Veere Di Wedding – that have focused on female desire, and either by coincidence or design, we see that the protagonists in all the four shorts in Lust Stories are women. The first, and also the weakest film is Kashyap’s. We meet Kalindi (Radhika Apte) and Tejas (Akash Thosar of Sairat fame) who are in an older woman-younger man equation, where she is also his college professor. What begins as a non-emotional affair for Kalindi, soon turns her into an obsessive-possessive stalker, slowly getting consumed by the affair. Apte is fantastic as the woman losing control, but the film is let down by its length and repetitiveness.

The next film, by Akhtar, is probably the best of the lot, focusing on the relationship between a single man, and the maid who works in his house. They sleep together, they enjoy it, and then, as he hops in the shower, she gets dressed and goes about her cleaning with extreme efficiency. The boy’s parents come to visit, the boy’s marriage is fixed, the maid takes it all in. This film is a strong departure from Akhtar’s previous ventures, yet as nuanced, or maybe more, as we have come to expect from her. Bhumi Pednekar is wonderful as the maid who is struggling to accept that her feelings will not lead to anything and also ensuring that the dishes are done, the chai made and served. The only grouse is that the runtime is too short to explore themes like caste and class, which are sure to crop up in a relationship like this.

Bhumi Pednekar in ‘Lust Stories’. Credit: The Wire

Then there is Banerjee’s film which on the face of it looks like it’s about an extra marital affair – Reena (Manisha Koirala) is sleeping with her husband Salman’s (Sanjay Kapoor) best friend Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). Been there, seen that. But that’s where we are wrong. One evening, Reena and Sudhir are joined by Salman at the beach house, where Reena tells him of her affair with his best friend, and then both men proceed to ignore the fact that the other knows. The men in this film are scared and confused, while the woman is nonchalant and confident – what a departure from the women that we are used to seeing on screen. Ahlawat, on a high post Raazi, is excellent here as well. Both Koirala and Kapoor are cast perfectly, and take the film a notch higher.

The surprise entry in the anthology is Johar, whose film explores women’s right to pleasure, with Kiara Advani playing a young bride and Vicky Kaushal, her arranged match. But it’s the smaller details that make you laugh out loud, there is a mother who is wondering why she sent her daughter to an all girls school if her daughter would, surprise, speak to boys anyway; how Lolita is a story about a father and a daughter and a little bit of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham for a good ol’ and hilarious throwback.

Kiara Advani in ‘Lust Stories’. Credit: Youtube screenshot

What is most wonderful though is that none of the directors translate lust into sleaze, but in fact showcase desire very maturely, and realistically. Would we have been lucky enough to see this version of the film if it went through the censor board instead of taking the Netflix route? We can only speculate. But now we can be excited about the risks that filmmakers might be encouraged to in this digital space – and they couldn’t have asked for a better opening than Lust Stories.

Jayanti Jha, 23, is a former TV producer, who is currently trying to navigate life in the capital with her cat, all the while reminiscing about Bandra. She tweets @JayantiJha7.