No matter what we may say about Indian society maturing, cinema telling real stories and women stating their desires, it’s not very likely that a film like Lust Stories would have got a theatrical release, at least not without a number of cuts and an ‘A’ certificate. Screened on a streaming platform, it has been widely watched and got more media attention than most films.
Lust equals sex and there are still taboos about it, which is why just one of the four shorts films that make up this whole, does not treat sex in a jokey way; which is fine, but maybe because the disapproval of female sexuality is so built into our psyche that the woman who goes after sexual pleasure is either nutty or has to be punished one way or another. Just like in the much-discussed Lipstick Under My Burkha, fulfilling a sexual need does not exactly empower the women.
In 2013, Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar each had contributed a film to the anthology Bombay Talkies, which was to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema, so, safe topic. Lust Stories, dealing with women and sex, needed a maturity that only Dibakar Banerjee’s film has.
In Anurag Kashyap story, a professor, Kalindi (Radhika Apte), who is in an open marriage with a much older and absent man, seduces a student, Tejas (Akash Thosar). She is immediately beset by doubts and wants to be assured that “it” was good for him. Had the situation been reversed and an older professor had slept with a female student, exposure would mean an end to his career, and in disgrace.
Kalindi, who talks to the camera as if the viewer were a shrink, seems quite unhinged. She starts stalking Tejas, spying on him and his girlfriend, breaking into his house and behaving in way that would, in the real world, have unnerved any young man, and perhaps driven him to report her to the college authorities. Tejas takes her crazy behavior with remarkable equanimity, perhaps even flattered by her obsession.
In Zoya Akhtar's film, a maid, Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), has consensual sex with her single employer Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam). She had a black thread around her neck, but it is not quite clear if she is married. The relationship between them has a casual, playful tone and she does seem to work with extra care. Then his parents arrive with a marriage proposal, and Sudha is back to being just the domestic help. She goes about her duties with silent sullenness, so it is difficult to read her mind. The class issue is obvious, but is it acceptable to Sudha to be treated like a use-and-throw object? The film does not say. It would be interesting to see the sexual tension in the typical Mumbai 1BHK when Sudha would be in the same space as the wife, but the director does not even go there.
Dibakar Banerjee’s film has a story that is relatable because it so common it is a cliché — the triangle tangle, in which a woman, Reena (Manisha Koirala) is having an affair with her husband’s best friend, Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). She is unhappy in her marriage to Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) who is absorbed with his business and loftily “allows” her some freedom. Salman suspects something is up, but trusts his friend more than his wife. He does not find it strange that when he calls she is at Sudhir’s beach house. When in a moment of pique she tells him of the affair, he thinks it is some other Sudhir. This is the one story of the four, in which the woman feels no guilt or remorse at cheating on her husband, but her escape clause is Salman’s smugness. Why is it that a man can have an affair without excuses, but a woman can stray only if the husband is a jerk?
The last film, by Karan Johar, has a pretty school teacher, Megha (Kiara Advani) married to a sweet but silly Paras (Vicky Kaushal), who is so clueless in bed, that her boredom is evident. When she tries to broach the topic with him, by mentioning adult films, he is nonplussed (who can be so innocent in this day and age?) So she steals a colleague Rekha’s (Neha Dhupia) vibrator and, in a funny but implausible scene, the gadget is accidentally activated when she is in the family room, so the husband and in-laws witness, in shock, her having what looks like a seizure. She is promptly thrown out by the mother-in-law who believes that “such a womb cannot bear children.” Earlier, in a line that succinctly sums up the Indian couple’s sexual dead-end, the saas says that Megha must quickly produce two children so that the “kasrat” in bed can cease. A woman’s desires is not about having kids, Megha concludes, and acquires the kind of confidence she sees in the uninhibited Rekha with her low cut blouses that have the principal and the peon drooling. (The principal also has to deal with an irate mother who sees a boy’s picture in her daughter’s phone and Lolita in her school bag.)
Lust Stories, with its fine ensemble cast, lacks true daring, but continues the dialogue films like Lipstick Under My Burkha and Veere Di Wedding started; still, there’s a long way to go before an Indian woman can be truly liberated.
(Deepa Gahlot is a critic, columnist, editor, author and curator)