The Indian film industry has been struck by a stunning epiphany in recent times. It has finally woken up to the fact that, just like the male of the species, female Homo sapiens are also born with (gasp!) sexuality.
And, corresponding to that epiphany, the powers that be, in Bollywood, have pulled out all the stops to make the most of said epiphany. That explains the cataclysmic shift in the premise of Hindi flicks being churned out of its movie factory these days. From the slice-of-life movies of a couple of years ago, Bollywood is now seeing a deluge of films celebrating female sexuality (double gasp!).
Or, more specifically, Bollywood’s version of what constitutes female sexuality.
The fact is that most depictions of sexuality in films are presented from the male perspective, with a glaring lack of honest representation of female sexuality.
The conversation on female sexuality in Hindi cinema is predominantly monopolised by male directors, who have no idea what the hullabaloo is all about. Net result- Female sexuality is depicted a la male sexuality, with nary an iota of the intense mélange of complexities, emotions and sensibilities involved.
To put it succinctly, female sexuality is far more complicated and desire-driven than male sexuality. And it thus requires sensitive handling and exquisite maturity to be shown in all its full glory.
Fortunately, Bollywood has been churning out more female-centric stories than ever before, which portray women as real people rather than supporting props for heroes. And more power to them! The latest to join the legion is Netflix release, Lust Stories.
Lust Stories is an ensemble of four short films, with sexuality as its central theme. It is obvious that the focus here is on female sexuality. Male sexuality, being such a cut and dried thing, hardly lends itself to cinematic flamboyance and ingenuity. Enter, female sexuality- unexplored, indecipherable, beckoning earnest minds with its countless, multi-hued facets.
The four shorts are helmed by the crème de la crème of Bollywood– Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar. The mavens of the movies had gotten together earlier for Bombay Talkies, which was a collection of shorts celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. Taking the experimental genre further, they’ve now come up with this latest blockbuster. Here’s our take on the four-
The first story features Radhika Apte, as Kalindi, and Akash Tosar (Sairat fame), as Tejas. It is written and directed by Anurag Kashyap; writing credits are shared by Radhika Apte. Kalindi is a young and pretty professor at college, in a long-distance marriage to a man 12 years her senior. With the tacit approval of her absent husband, who encourages her to explore her sexuality, Kalindi has a one-night stand with Tejas, her student at college. Along with seducing Tejas, she also warns him against equating sex with love. She delivers a hilarious monologue to the audience about how guys can’t differentiate between sex and love and start stalking women after a one-night stand.
After her one-off fling with Tejas, Kalindi begins an affair with the chemistry professor at her college, a comical interlude in the main story.
But, ironically, when Tejas starts dating his college-mate Natasha, it is Kalindi who turns into an obsessive stalker, the very thing she warned him against. She follows Tejas everywhere, calls him up constantly to demand his whereabouts and even barges in on his date with Natasha. As she slowly sinks into the depths of stormy psychological waters, she maintains a parallel and constant monologue with an imaginary audience. Radhika Apte is terrific in these scenes– saying something, stopping midsentence and veering off in another direction, all the while justifying her actions to herself and her make-believe audience. She comes across as intelligent, idiosyncratic and suitably unhinged, determined to convince us, and herself, who she is and to get on with being that person. It’s a crisp, bracing performance.
The story is not all that new. What makes it intriguing is the subtle power-play at work. Kalindi derides Tejas for his girlish choice in books, pushes him around and treats him like putty in her hands. Yet, she seeks carnal pleasure with him and takes him of his virginity, proving that it is only sexual, and not intellectual, stimulation that she’s after.
What niggles is the reinforcing of stereotypes associated with women– that they have a capacity for turning hysterical, or jealous, or both, at the drop of a hat. Nevertheless, a bravura performance by Apte makes us forgive this teeny weeny indiscretion in the story.
The second short is by Zoya Akhtar, and by far the best of the lot. Neil Bhoopalam is Ajit, a bachelor living in Mumbai, and Bhumi Pednekar is Sudha, the maid that works for him. Sudha, along with managing all the household duties, is also sleeping with her employer, which suits both their needs perfectly. One fine day, Ajit’s parents come visiting, bringing in their wake, a marriage proposal for the suitable bachelor, along with the prospective bride and her parents. The girl and boy say yes, and the both families celebrate with sweets. Ajit’s mother, played by Loveleen Mishra, offers some sweets to Sudha too.
On the face of it, the story ostensibly demonstrates the hierarchy prevalent in society. Sudha’s place, as the maid, is undisputedly on the last rung of that hierarchy. Yet, scratch beneath the surface, and there are multiple, immensely fascinating, facets to this seemingly simple tale.
The movie opens with Ajit and Sudha indulging in passionate sex in Ajit’s bed. And when it’s over, Ajit starts getting ready for work, while Sudha nonchalantly resumes mopping the floor, a chore which she seems to have abandoned halfway, maybe because she had been called away midway by her employer, for other, pressing duties. Once the sex session is over, Ajit doesn’t spare Sudha a second glance, as she goes about completing her work, not even a perfunctory thank you when she places his breakfast before him; or a simple goodbye when he leaves for work. It’s as if she is a faceless entity for him beyond the confines of the bedroom.
Within the bedroom, however, Sudha displays the power of her sexuality in all its glory. Here, she is in control, literally and figuratively, as she rolls him over to assume the classic woman-on-top position. Several times, she slaps his bare back in the throes of passion. And in the only sentence that she utters in the entire 25 minutes of run time, she calls him ‘nanga saala’, in insolent response to his ‘gandi saali’. Yes, in the bedroom, it is her sexuality that gives her power over Ajit. And such sweet power it is, even if bound to be ephemeral by its very nature.
Bhumi Pednekar dazzles in the role of Sudha. Her poker-faced expressions manage to mask the turmoil within. But her eyes convey everything that words do not– anxiety, at the prospect of Ajit getting married; longing, when she looks at the door after Ajit has left for work; betrayal, censure, and maybe contempt, when she looks at Ajit while serving the girl and him tea.
The last scene in the movie takes the cake in cinematic excellence. Sudha and the neighbour’s maid are standing by the lift, when the other maid shows her the beautiful dress given to her by her employer- pure silk with full embroidery, the maid says with glee. For her, it is perfect, despite the tear in it. It’s a hand-me-down, after all. That is when Sudha smiles, ever so gently, and bites into the sweets given to her by Ajit’s mother. It is a smile of supreme satisfaction– satisfaction that she’s had Ajit first, that he’s nothing but her hand-me-down for his to-be-bride. What is brilliant, if not this!
The third short is by Dibakar Banerjee. It is a multi-layered, multi-nuanced treatise on the whys and wherefores of infidelity. Manisha Koirala is Reena, trying to escape the confines of an emotionally-abusive marriage and an insensitive husband, Salman, played by Sanjay Kapoor. She does so, by embarking on a sexual relationship with Sudhir, her husband’s best friend, portrayed by Jaideep Ahlawat. The trio goes back a long way– the three were in college together.
The entire sequence of events takes place in the span of one night, at Sudhir’s beach house, where Reena and Sudhir have met to spend some time with each other. As Salman raves and rants to her over the phone, she invites him over to the beach house for a talk that is long due.
Sudhir panics at the prospect of Salman finding out about their clandestine relationship, but Reena is calm, composed and totally in control of her emotions. Despite Sudhir advising her against revealing their affair, Reena owns up to its truth before Salman. The moment reveals a very striking fact of a man’s line of thinking. Salman takes her admission at face value, but when she reveals her lover’s name to be Sudhir, Salman simply cannot accept it to be his best friend. In a moment of denial, he wants to confirm whether it is his business associate, Sudhir Malhotra. For him, women may lie and deceive, but your best buddy is like Caesar’s wife– above suspicion. That is when Reena makes a surprising discovery– that a woman’s emotions always play second fiddle to men’s basal needs, whether it is her husband or her lover. Salman reconciles with her infidelity, is willing to let bygones be bygones, but Sudhir must never know that he knows. The two friends are more concerned about keeping their friendship intact. The infidelity is a mere blip on the radar.
In the end, Reena makes sure both men know the truth of each other. And as she leaves with Salman in his car, she smiles smugly, like the cat that got the cream.
Sanjay Kapoor is a revelation as Salman. He brings the perfect combination of petulance, self-righteousness and childishness to his role of an immature, business-minded husband. The naiveté he conveys is breath-taking. This is very easily his best performance till date. Jaideep Ahlawat is suitably impassive, and essays his role to perfection. But it is Manisha Koirala who steals the show here. She’s aloof and enigmatic, like the proverbial ice queen. She’s so in control of herself that it’s hard to believe that the woman before us has just been called out on her affair. She gives a performance devoid of affectation, the camera rarely leaving her, as she attempts to let the emergence of Reena’s sexuality run parallel to her sense of self. Hers is an absolutely incandescent performance, and definitely the highlight of this short.
The fourth short of the collection is Karan Johar’s, and the most realistic of the lot. It is about a woman’s longing to derive the same physical pleasure out of sex, that her husband gets– in other words, an orgasm.
Megha, played by Kiara Advani, is a teacher in a girls’ school. She gets married to Paras, portrayed by Vicky Kaushal, who is a simpleton when it comes to matters of sex. When he wants to bring up the subject of sex with his wife, it is through a hilarious alligator allegory. He thinks him having a good time during sex is equivalent to his wife having a good time as well. He doesn’t realize that sex involves two people, with both deserving equal pleasure. He frequently comes to a count of four, sometimes, also to a count of three, leaving Megha unfulfilled and unsatisfied.
Meanwhile, sex, for Megha’s mother-in-law, is just a means to an end- she calls it ‘kasrat’ and ‘mehnat’ for a woman’s real ‘hasrat’ i.e. to have children. Then there’s Neha Dhupia as Rekha Ma’am, Megha’s co-teacher in school. Rekha is divorced, and cares two hoots about it. She knows her body, and the way to its pleasures too. She is sultry, seductive and wears low-cut blouses that expose ample cleavage. She teaches Megha to follow the same, in keeping with the adage- if you’ve got it, flaunt it!
But that’s not the only leaf Megha takes out of Rekha’s book of sexual experience. Having watched Rekha get lascivious in the library, Megha knows what she has to do. In a hilarious, blush-inducing and howl-worthy ‘climax’, Megha finally achieves ‘Charam Sukh’ (pardon the take, but couldn’t resist that. Veere Di Wedding has added a new phrase to the average Joe’s lexicon). How? That’s for you to find out! Oh, and yes, K3G plays a significant role in her ‘coming’ of age!
Karan Johar’s discourse conveys an undiluted, intensely personal female perspective on sex. It is scaldingly honest about the state of affairs in most Indian couples’ bedrooms. It gives us a ringside view of how women deal with issues of female sexuality, whether it’s orgasms or body image. It touches upon countless out-dated, middle-class mores regarding sex and sexuality– whether it is in Megha’s m-i-l’s scandalised reaction on discovering Megha’s pursuit of carnal pleasures; or in the raving and ranting of a student’s mother in school, concerning the inclusion of Lolita in the girls’ curriculum. The very same mother constantly puts Rekha down, owing to the latter’s divorcee status. She even has a thing to say about the length of her daughter’s uniform– when the girl leaves home, her skirt is in Lucknow, and by the time she returns home, it’s reached Kanpur.
This one has the best lines and lots of exquisite humour, eliciting laughs in every second scene. But what is really commendable is the humongous number of issues and concerns Johar manages to cram into a measly half an hour!
Vicky Kaushal is outstanding as Paras- he’s naïve, he’s funny, he’s earnest. He has a mean comic streak in him. Neha Dhupia is superb as Rekha, bringing the right amount of oomph and glamor to the proceedings. But it’s Kiara Advani who’s truly mind-blowing! Her performance is the stuff of awards. Mark our words- this girl is gonna go places.
To sum it up, Lust Stories is nothing but an urban and more sophisticated version of Gandi Baat, Alt Balaji’s web series on rural sexuality. Alt Balaji had the last laugh, with its recent release of a meme that said- “tum karo toh Lust stories, hum karien toh Gandi Baat.” Savage!
While this Netflix release is another step in the right direction, we’ve had a surfeit of movies celebrating female sexuality. From Ishqiya and Dirty Picture of some years ago, to Simran, Tanu Weds Manu, Margherita, With a Straw, Lipstick Under My Burqa, Anarkali of Aarah, BA Pass, and many more of today, there are quite a few films doing it right. What we’d really love to see is female-centric movies celebrating the intelligence of a woman. Dear Bollywood filmmakers, how about making a movie with a strong, intelligent female character, a la Clarice, of Silence of the Lambs, or Lara Croft, of Tomb Raider, or Amy Dunne, of Gone Girl, or Katniss, of The Hunger Games, or even Eleven, from Netflix’s own, Stranger Things? There are many many more in popular culture, if inspiration is what you need.
It’s about time. We’ve had enough of sexuality for now. We would rate Lust Stories 3.5 out of 5 stars, primarily for the laudable performances.
(Written by Rashmi Paharia)