When four Indian film big weights come together to create an anthology called ‘Lust Stories’, the effort is not so much to titillate as to shock – but is it revolutionary enough? Well, read on
Netflix is catching up with India – and it knows that the best bet to beat the stiff competition is to be what it has largely been – bold and provocative.
That is why in one of its first embrace of mainstream Bollywood, Netflix picked up Lust Stories, an anthology of shorts by four eminent directors – all big weights.
So, we have the messiah of new generation cinema Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar, the Prince of Pulp, along with Zoya Akhtar, the poster-child for ‘women in Indian cinema’ and Dibakar Banerjee (well, can’t think of any epithets, other than let us say, one who has been pushing the boundaries of mainstream Bollywood), coming together to do what Indian censors don’t normally allow them to do.
The result is what is now described as a film that “shatters the Indian silence on sex”, as “Indian filmmaking at its finest” and “a between-the-sheets reading of conflicts that arise outside the bedroom”.
All are far-fetched yet partially true. ‘Lust Stories’, for one, pans the camera in the bedroom, and when it is outside, it focuses on the friction points created within the four walls of one’s private moments.
With four filmmakers – whose style and sensibility – especially those of Anurag and Karan – are poles apart independently driving ‘Lust Stories’, it obviously must be perceived and appreciated as disparate films – half-hour shorts by Hindi filmdom’s (note the point that it is in no way a representation of Indian cinema) accomplished directors.
‘Lust Stories’, perhaps then, should have been the best – that one calling card to Indian (nay Hindi) cinema, which invites viewers from around the world to see what we can offer. This should have been what we call the ‘Indian movie’ that could very well be touring film festivals and winning all the laurels. That high bar remains unachieved in ‘Lust Stories’ because, as the makers were probably briefed, they went after ‘shock value’.
For them, ‘Lust Stories’ is a befitting slap on the face of India’s morality preachers – and that arguably is the only relevance of the anthology. It is an extremely contemporary take on – not sex in India – but on the majority’s perception on how it must be represented in culture.
In an era when censorship must summarily be made redundant, Indian cinema continues to be shackled to the whims of a few – more so, the so-called custodians of morality, personified in the likes of former Censor Board chief Pahlaj Nihalani. Much of mainstream Bollywood is made of opportunists, who have turned oh-so-holy, shuddering at anything that hints at kama (alias lust).
It is all a regressive slide for the land of the Kama Sutra, which is why ‘Lust Stories’ must be seen as the ‘Kama Sutra’, at best, or ‘Chicken Soup’, at worst, for the neo-Indian soul. It is bold to the extent that nothing is beeped out and bedroom sex, right up to women in masturbatory orgasm, not being shied away from.
Unlike the old-age cuts of a man and woman in a deep embrace in bed cutting to the lotus flower blooming (and if it is rape or non-consensual, to the stock shot of a tiger chasing a deer), here you see the humps, the pelvic thrusts, a vibrator playing havoc, and the feminine legs sprawled out (no, it doesn’t show the penis or vagina, so save your time for WhatsApp clips).
But that is not all. ‘Lust Stories’ also talks sex. Without being apologetic. That is why the most aesthetic and the most compelling of the four shorts is the one by Anurag Kashyap. He knocks it out of the park with fantastic support by Radhika Apte – as, let us put in very elementary terms, a teacher having sex with her student and then stalking him. (In Modi’s Hindu, we can hear collective gasps of disbelief; what all sins are these new generation filmmakers propagating, they will ask; a teacher, student, sex, stalking, and wait for it, she is married too!).
But this is filmmaking without restraint. And Anurag, who has never shied away from being bold, doesn’t have to show you flesh to be bold. He does it with cinematic finesse, in the obsessive monologue of Radhika, talking to camera, challenging you, and messing with you.
Zoya Akhtar’s opens boldly – as physically as it can get – with Bhumi Pednekar climaxing in bed. (Btw, Bhumi could have been the next Smriti Irani, had she opted to be the sati-nari-savithri – after all, she started with the any-woman-would-love Sandhya in Dum Laga Ke Haisha – to taking a complete u-turn to star in a film on erectile dysfunction (Hey, Ram, Hey, Ram) in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan).
The film, however, scores when it pans to the inner anguish of the woman, a maid, who is – not atypically – used by the eligible bachelor boy. Zoya focuses on exposing the hypocrisy – and that is a thin thread, so obvious too – until it scales several notches high in a fantastic climax (no, yo, not every climax happens in the bed; this is the cinematic climax).
Dibakar Banerjee’s is about ‘adultery’ – well, since that word too comes with morality hangover, let us say it is about a married woman having sex with another man, who is also her husband’s friend. It doesn’t walk any extra mile – but it shines in exposing the casualness of men (how effortlessly they move from one heart-breaking truth to reminiscing about good old college days) and the steely inner strength of women.
No, no, this is not a man vs woman film, neither are heroes or victims. There is an admirable intensity in the performance of Manisha Koirala and Sanjay Kapoor, and admirable restraint by Jaideep Ahlawat. Dibakar doesn’t try to shock – that perhaps is its beauty and weakness.
It is easy to say that Karan Johar’s is the weakest of the four – and no, not because he is Karan Johar of Bollywood. His short just proves that you can take Karan out of Bollywood to Netflix but you cannot take Bollywood out of him. His can be perceived as needlessly provocative but he arguably tells the boldest of all – of a woman’s right to orgasm. The tale doesn’t appear forced, thankfully, and Karan weaves in some quirky humour (sample this: Kiara Advani, mounted on top by Vicky Kaushal, counts up to four before he finishes). The film packages a lot of male prejudices (Vicky is utterly ignorant of the lady’s needs and smiles merrily after his act of sex) and swipes them with two provocative scenes (that would have your granny running for cover).
For all the boldness, the problem with ‘Lust Stories’ is that it is still very ‘conservative’ to the next generation of viewers. The film might appeal to the 30-onwards for ‘pushing the boundaries’ of Indian cinema, but will it mean anything at all for the digital native? Will it mean anything at all for the international viewer who is not handicapped by moral ambiguities and the diktats of Pahlaj et al. Well, that is the real test for Lust Stories.
Lust Stories screens on Netflix.
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