When a movie is called Lust Stories, one is forced to wonder if this is a cheap marketing ploy to reel in a people whose love for sex is rivalled only by its obsessive pretensions of hatred for it. All those piles of money, and Netflix couldn’t be bothered to come up with a more creative name?
But now that I’ve watched Lust Stories, I’m happy to confirm that it’s time to shovel a generous helping of humble pie down my gullet. As far as stories about four women go, Lust Stories is everything that Veere Di Wedding was not. And it’s more. Criticism for all those who found themselves mildly annoyed and mostly bored with the vacuousness of the Veere Di Wedding ladies has been almost inevitably prefaced with how feminists can’t stomach any art that doesn’t preach or parrot their own views. Lust Stories doesn’t. If anything, its characters make feminists ask questions that make us decidedly uncomfortable, those that we try to wish away in the cold reality of the day, but can’t escape in the dead of the night. And they do it all by just being — by living their lives the way you and I would. Or the way you and I wouldn’t have the courage to. You’ll have to watch it to decide.
The anthology starts with the story of Anurag Kashyap’s Kalindi. But unlike her namesake from Veere Di Wedding, her issues with commitment and marriage are allowed to be neurotic, misguided and, frankly, often full of horseshit. Kashyap’s Kalindi is in a long-distance open marriage. And in the 30-odd minutes we spend with her, she sleeps with her student, tries valiantly to convince herself that the obsession she develops for him is born out of lofty, other-worldly ideas of love and monogamy, not the need to control the shifting balance of power in their equation. She stalks her lover with impunity, perfectly at ease with her increasingly alarming behaviour and fixation with a man many years her junior, roughhousing his attempts to draw boundaries.
ALSO READ: Lust Stories Dives Into The Bleak World Of Infidelity & Lust, And Resurfaces Victorious
Deliciously, we even often see her talking straight into the camera, as if addressing the audience itself, blind to the sexual harassment she is perpetrating. It is never explicitly said, but one is uncomfortably aware of the unspoken gender dynamics unfolding on the screen, and how much Kalindi’s sex protects her. Does sexual consent extend beyond the walls of the bedroom? And is it harassment if the person being harassed is not equipped with the vocabulary to call it out?
The second story in the quartet belongs to Zoya Akhtar’s Sudha. A house maid who, for a brief moment in time, allows herself to escape the confinement of her station in life by starting a sexual relationship with Ajit, her single employer. But reality and class consciousness will not be denied, and she is swiftly shoved back into her place as Ajit proceeds to get engaged to another woman, as Sudha wordlessly looks on. Ajit’s nonchalance is not deliberate, it is thoughtless in the way that we’ve all been guilty of. No one in the little house sees it, but the audience is achingly aware of Sudha’s unspoken and unspeakable desire. Her continued silence only underlines her invisibility in the house, society, and even the life of the man who was happy to flirt and have sex with her, until an ‘equal’ comes along.
ALSO READ: Netflix’s ‘Ladies First’ Beautifully Captures A Miracle Called Deepika Kumari
The most poignant moments in the short occur when Ajit’s mother repeatedly refers to her son as bhaiya while talking to Sudha — again, not out of malice or design — but because what other relationship can a maid and her young employer can be allowed to have, really?
The third woman whose life we witness is Dibakar Bannerjee’s Reena, a middle-management bank employee unhappily married to the rich and successful Salman, while unrepentantly having an affair with his best friend Sudhir. The story unfolds through its conversations — between the husband and wife, the two best friends, the cheating lovers. Mercifully, Banerjee’s characters steer clear of the cliches and tropes that inevitably accompany the theme of adultery and subsequent breakdown of marriages.
ALSO READ: ‘Love Per Square Foot’ review: The real (e)state of a metropolitan romance
Banerjee’s film revolves around an affair, but it is actually simply about denial, and the chain of events that are set in motion when even one person in a carefully constructed facade refuses to play their part to maintain the status quo. It is about how far we’re willing to avoid the possibility of having to face a terrifying unknown.
And finally there is Karan Johar’s Megha from Lucknow, a young and beautiful school teacher, on the brink of waking up to her sexual needs, but knows not what to do with the lust coursing through her veins. And so she gets married to a man who seems decent enough, hoping to get laid regularly and respectably. Unfortunately, her simple-minded husband is blissfully unaware of how unfulfilled his bride is with his performance in the bedroom, until an unfortunate series of events results in an acutely embarrassing, uncomfortable, but also unfiltered showdown.
Johar’s Megha is the only character in the anthology whose motivations are purely fuelled by lust, but instead of caricaturing it, or treating her sexual appetite like a guilty pleasure that must be kept a secret, we see her grow into it and own it in a way few of us can. The fact that it happens in small-town India make Johar’s point that much more piercing.
This particular original by Netflix might be called Lust Stories, but it is actually just about life and the exhaustingly unimaginative nature of relationships. Sex is most certainly a character in each of the four films, but like in real life, it isn’t the only one that matters. Like in real life, it is in turns messy, transactional, unemotional, forgettable, routine and a hundred other things before it is allowed to be romantic.
Lust Stories is the movie about women that India needs, not the glib, airbrushed, glittery artless fashion parade that was Veere Di Wedding.