An intense longing. Unbridled sexual desire. Netflix’s Lust Stories explores both. Each director has carefully shown us their perspective on female roles in modern India. It is not just about sex. But rather about freedom. Freedom from conformity to archaic cultural norms. Freedom from societal definitions of spousal roles. Freedom to be as you are and not have society judge you. But it is also about sex. These four stories, each showing real women facing real obstacles, will make you laugh, cry, and wonder in shock at the experience that most women face in modern day India.
In the first story, Anurag Kashyap brings his usual confabulated storytelling technique to breathe life into an extremely multi-dimensional character. A fresh take on the age-old story of a boyhood crush on the teacher, Kashyap intertwines messages of freedom to love who you want with the importance of honesty in a relationship. Radhika Apte’s Kalindi is not your traditional protagonist. She is selfish, possessive and at some points downright unnerving. But still, her humble justifications of her wild actions harvest some good will for her. This is amplified by Kashyap’s choice to break the fourth wall and have Kalindi speak to the audience as it makes her story much more compelling. You tend to forgive her craziness even though it does not agree with you. Whether it is her incessant need to stalk her latest paramour, or her trashing of his apartment, the destructive nature of her personality is complimented by her minute moments of clear realization. Presenting such a layered character is hard to achieve in such a short time, but Kashyap and Apte accomplish it splendidly. Though mostly a drama, there are nuggets of humor sprinkled throughout usually caused by Kalindi’s sincere explanations of her rash actions to the audience.
Radhika Apte again knocks it out of the park with this performance. In a world that puts stock in glamor and material beauty, it is refreshing to see actresses paving the pathway for characters based in reality rather than fantasy. It is important to note that this story has no explicit sexual scenes at all. Placing it as the beginning of the film only reaffirms the idea that lust is not just about sex.
Zoya Akhtar’s segment, the second story, is probably the most poignant of the bunch. Presenting multiple themes in such a short time is a challenge but Akhtar pulls it off without becoming preachy. Starting off with an intense, rugged, and fast-paced sex scene, the message is clear. This is just about sex, nothing more. The use and throwaway attitude of Ajit, who has a carnal relationship with his housemaid, Sudha, but then disposes of any affections he may have had towards her when he chooses to marry someone else, is what cements the idea further. It also serves as an important reminder that even in todays so called progressive Indian society there is still a clear line between servants and those they serve. A line that society demands should not be crossed. This idea is reasserted throughout the segment as Sudha goes unnoticed throughout her day doing her daily chores.
Bhumi Pednekar’s subdued performance of Sudha will leave you rethinking about the importance of words. As she speaks only two or three times during the segment, Pednekar’s ability to deliver a whole range of emotions with just her eyes is certainly applause-worthy. Neil Bhoopalam, though giving a succinct performance as Ajit, fails to impress as he is overshadowed by Pednekar. The only drawback to the story is the ending. We are left with wanting more.
Of the four, Dibakar Banerjee’s segment felt the weakest. Known for his unapologetic, bold and outspoken films, his endeavor here feels extremely restrained. The story tells the tale of a successful businessman’s wife who has been having an affair with his best friend. On the surface a story about infidelity, Banerjee attempts to analyze a woman’s psyche through this segment. Is a woman bound only by marital obligations, or can she be who she wants to be? Manisha Koirala graciously portrays a married woman who left her career ambitions to be a housewife in a thankless and loveless marriage. However, at some point the story takes a turn and becomes more about the friendship between Sanjay Kapoor and Jaideep Ahlawat. I do not believe that was the intention, but it becomes a more interesting story that the one presented. Banerjee should have kept Koirala more in focus instead, because half way through the segment I become more interested in finding out what is going to happen to Ahlawat and what Kapoor will do when he finds out about the affair. These questions are eventually answered, but leave you confused as to who the story was really about.
The fourth story, directed by Karan Johar, is the most memorable of the four. The story explores female sexuality through the eyes of a newly-married couple. A comedy at its core, the segment features hilarious situations that will leave you in knots with the amount of laughter they create. Johar even mocks himself a bit when he beautifully compliments the protagonist’s uncontrolled sexual climax in front of her husband and family, with the vocal operatic crescendo of the title song from his own Kabhi Khusi Kabhi Gham. Though the situation is amusing, its consequences are disastrous. Johar impressively makes a statement through his protagonist when she does not apologize for what happened but only for where it happened. It also makes it clear that though men might be easily and quickly pleased, it takes a lot more to please a woman. Other than female sexuality, Johar also takes jabs at the Indian education system. The school Principal correcting the first line of the Lolita, a literary classic by Vladimir Nabokov, from “loins” to “lions” because it must be a mistake is a humorous attempt to highlight the all too real inadequacies and inconsistencies of the Indian education system.
Kiara Advani gives us a delightful performance as a young woman who wants more out of her marriage and has more desires than child rearing. Vicky Kaushal also shines as a young man who even though he loves his wife, does not realize her importance. Neha Dhupia, who does her job beautifully as the librarian of an all-girls school, unfortunately felt underutilized only serving to move the plot forward.
As a whole, Lust Stories is a valiant attempt to explore the intricacies of female sexuality and the female psyche in a society that is becoming increasingly chauvinistic . Though it fails in some respects, it is a worthwhile watch for everyone regardless of gender, race, nationality, or age.