Lust Stories review: Netflix’s new film undresses repressed Indian sexuality

Lust Stories
– Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar
Cast – Radhika Apte, Bhumi Pednekar, Manisha Koirala, Kiara Advani, Neha Dhupia, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat, Sanjay Kapoor
Rating – 3.5/5
Lust Stories, the new original film from Netflix, due out on June 15 – one of the first Indian originals on the streaming service — is a unique tapestry of Indian cinema. Through four short films, directed by four of the country’s most prominent Hindi filmmakers, it presents the sort of unusual stories that feel fresh, yet familiar. It’s almost like a sampling platter that you might find at a fancy restaurant, an unexpected marriage of contrasting styles and sensibilities, tones and textures that highlights the best (and worse) of what we have to offer.
We’re an unfathomably diverse country. There are enough reasons for us to be at odds with each other – certainly these days, when antagonistic behaviour is almost encouraged – but there’s room for everyone, Lust Stories seems to say; for all kinds of people, all kinds of cultures and above all, all kinds of movies.
Lust Stories models itself on anthology films such as New York Stories – a rather hit-or-miss experiment that is remembered more for the filmmakers it attracted (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen) rather than any particular story it told – and the Paris, je t’aime series.
I was most impressed by how each of the four stories happen to have female protagonists without being obnoxious about it – it leaves you to realise this fact on your own, instead of having some overzealous producer pound you over the head with their progressiveness. These women are brought together by a shared theme of lust – yes – but also guilt, and shame, and, oddly enough, WhatsApp.
The opener, directed by Anurag Kashyap, is almost like a screwball comedy, but laced with an indescribable darkness that is so unique to his films. It stars Radhika Apte as Kalindi, a fiery college professor who initiates a rather iffy sexual relationship with one of her students.
She regrets it immediately, and having heard stories of overemotional stalkers, warns him that they will not be meeting up again. This plays almost like an adolescent’s fantasy, but Kashyap has significantly increased the student’s age – perhaps keeping in mind the immaturity and inexperience of the Indian male – almost to the extent that the ‘relationship’ seems less scandalous than it really is.
But as the plot progresses – each short is roughly 30 minutes long, give or take a few – so does the characters’ status quo. I might be mistaken, but there is a psychological thriller aspect to the way Kashyap tells this largely comedic story, but I suppose that depends on your world view. Apte, meanwhile, is phenomenal as Kalinidi. She has the tendency to erupt into rambling monologues, armed with nothing but a complete and utter misreading of Ayn Rand, and Apte gives the impression that a lot of it was improvised.
It’s an electric opening segment, which is very satisfyingly tempered by Zoya Akhtar’s more serene follow-up. Bhumi Pednekar’s Sudha is the antithesis of Kalindi – cool, in control of her emotions, and near-silent. Sudha is a maid who has entered into a sexual relationship with the bachelor at whose house she works.
Like Lust Stories’ treatment of its women – unfussy, hence empowering – there is a subtlety to how Akhtar tackles the very tricky theme of class in her film. And a lot of it is thanks to her ability to tell a story visually, with expert exposition and an unshakable perspective. We spend a day in Sudha’s life, rarely leaving her side, as we watch her go about her daily duties – which on this particular day involve preparing tea for her lover and his possible future wife and her nervous parents.
Pednekar has basically two words to say in the entire short, but conveys so much with just her face and her body language – she’s angry at herself for having let this continue for so long, for letting her guard down after years of steely determination, and for having deluded herself into believing that it was real. It wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. Because that isn’t the India we live in.
But unlike Sudha, Reena – the protagonist of the third short, directed by Dibakar Banerjee and easily the best of the lot – feels no shame in what she does. She might not have much feeling left in her at all, after the years of psychological abuse she’s faced at the hands of her husband, a rich businessman who talks about black money and Rs 200 crore deals in the flippant manner with which one might discuss what’s for dinner.
She’s a classic femme fatale, sure to be controversial in the way she plays around with the two men in her life – manipulative, seductive, supremely confident yet so vulnerable. And Manisha Koirala is perfectly cast. We emerge from the claustrophobic confines of the cramped Mumbai apartment of Akhtar’s short to a sprawling beach house that doubles as a meeting place for Reena and Sudhir, her husband’s best friend and her lover, played by Jaideep Ahlawat. They’ve been at it for three years, but with tempers running high and resolves reaching their breaking point, they invite Reena’s husband for a meeting at the scene of the crime: the beach house. What happens next is staged with the expertly choreographed emotional beats of a play – at once tense and so, so sad.
It’s unfortunate then that Lust Stories ends with Karan Johar’s short, which sticks out like he did in Bombay Velvet. It’s the only film that seems to be drawing attention to itself, which is especially noticeable after the rather low-key vibe of the previous three segments. It features the least complex protagonist of the quartet – Kiara Advani’s small-town wife discovers the wonders of a vibrator in a scene that seems to have been inspired by, of all things, a joke Tanmay Bhat made at Johar’s expense at the infamous AIB roast.
It is also the only film of the lot that isn’t set in Mumbai, which I thought was sort of the point of this exercise. And it’s the only film of the four whose protagonist doesn’t have to wrestle with their own unethical behaviour – like the repercussions of infidelity and harassment that Kalindi and Reena must bear – unless, of course, Johar thinks using vibrators is wrong.
Perhaps if it was the first film instead of being the last, it would’ve played better – certainly, on its own, it’s a perfectly fine broad comedy. But as I said before, Lust Stories is a fairly accurate representation of where we’re at as a country – both in terms of progress and cinema. There’s room for Karan Johar, even if he wants to behave like the uncle in the metro who wants to squeeze into a packed compartment.

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