More than a four-letter word

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on June 22, 2018

Marriage hows: Actors Kiara Advani and Vicky Kaushal in a still from Lust Stories

Through four provocative film shorts, Netflix Original Lust Stories delves into the complex web of sex and desire in contemporary India

“Do you hate me?” Salman asks his wife, Reena, in Lust Stories, as they deal with a crumbling marriage. “No” comes the reply. “Then you love me?” Reena (played by Manisha Koirala) says, “Itna asaan nahi hai, yaar. (It isn’t that simple).”

Lust is a four-letter word, but it isn’t that simple for the characters who populate this recent Netflix Original feature. In a sequel to Bombay Talkies, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar have come together again for this anthology film. The roughly two-hour-long film is made up of four diverse segments and, as the title makes clear, the stories revolve around the concept of lust.

Interestingly, there isn’t much lust to be found on-screen — the sex is vanilla and obligatory, and none of the films linger on the action as much as the build-up to it, or the aftermath. The first story begins with Kashyap’s segment, with Radhika Apte playing a professor having an affair with her student Tejas, played by Akash Thosar of Sairat fame. The second film, by Akhtar, portrays an affair between Neil Bhoopalam, a generic professional in Mumbai, and his house-help Sudha, played by Bhumi Pednekar. The third, by Banerjee, is a very big-city story, of infidelity and big money, with Sanjay Kapoor, Koirala, and Jaideep Ahlawat playing the central characters. The fourth, by Johar, is the story of a schoolteacher who gets married into a conventional family, and what happens when she rejects her disappointing sex life.

Each of the segments is different from the others, and the narratives serve an almost parable-like purpose in their subtle feminist messages, especially the Johar and Banerjee segments. These stories are not original, and some are, in fact, conventional porn themes — house help and single man, professor and student, wife and best friend — but they come alive with moments of wit and brilliance. In India, it is difficult to talk about sex without censorship, often from one’s own family. “Ladkiyon ki aur hasraten ho sakti hai, bachhon ke alawa (Women have other desires apart from having children),” says Kiara Advani in Johar’s segment, the last and only story featuring a married couple as the protagonists.

While the film short opens with all the stereotypes in place, from the bride being a schoolteacher, to the torturous mother-in-law who demands to have grandchildren soon after the wedding, and the husband impervious to his wife’s desires. The latter is depicted through the repetitive missionary sex, where Advani’s character counts the seconds before her husband (Vicky Kaushal) rolls off her into a happy heap. This is in sharp contrast to the orgasm she enjoys with ‘a little help’.

Pednekar’s measured silences go a long way in taking the story forward in Akhtar’s short. The affair between Ajit (Bhoopalam) and his house-help (Pednekar) comes to an abrupt end when his parents arrive in Mumbai from Meerut. In the house where the two main characters had enjoyed a brief respite from class schisms, the arrival of the parents firmly puts them back in place. Ajit doesn’t even care to look her in the eye, since his parents would find it odd if he were to be seen being friendly with the help. She is handed unwanted food and clothes, repurposed as thoughtful gifts for her. Ajit looks the other way as Sudha accepts this as her new fate. The gender balance that Ajit’s prospective partner in the film expects as his equal will be at the cost of Sudha’s labour, who cleans and cooks so that they may live in peace.

In Kashyap’s short, filmed in documentary format, Radhika Apte speaks directly to the camera of her husband’s premarital affairs. She intellectualises delving into other relationships as a selfish but justified move, and argues that it is not unfair to any of them as she gives each affair her complete attention. Yet, as the film progresses, it is clear that she is falling for her student, who is exploring another relationship. Enraged and distraught, Apte eventually becomes unhinged in her attempt to get to the bottom of the love triangle, even going to the extent of abusing her authority as a professor.

The disadvantage with shorts is that they have too little time to let a story develop.

Akhtar’s segment seems abrupt, and both Kashyap and Akhtar take too much for granted when it comes to establishing the back story. In Kashyap’s case, I would have liked to know how a professor and student break the establishment-created wall between them to become lovers in the first place. In Akhtar’s case, it isn’t clear if Sudha and her employer Ajit are in a relationship, or if that was a one-off liaison at the beginning of the film, or what their feelings are for one another. From Sudha’s deep glances and hesitant footsteps, it is obvious that she fears him being taken away from her.

But her wariness could very well be because of the place she occupies in this household — crucial yet invisible.

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Published on June 22, 2018
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