By Prashila Naik
When I first read about Lust stories (2018), a Part 2 of sorts to the 2013 anthology film, Bombay Talkies, with the same four directors, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this anthology. Even the trailer with its generally ‘cheerful’ tone and more emphasis on some quarters than the others gave nothing much away. But the actors were promising, and so were the three men and one woman helming these films. It was time to renew that Netflix membership and I did, watching it as the FDFS version of Netflix-land.
Lust Stories breaks no new ground around lust, much to my disappointment, except for one story, as much as its anthology predecessor did around lives in Bombay. But it has its focus set starkly on the women. Then the men are there too; the women’s stories after all would be incomplete without these men. Take Tejas, played by Aakash Thosar in Anurag Kashyap’s film, also the first in the list. He reads pretty much everything Chetan Bhagat has written, struggles with Sophie Kinsella, but has both read and watched the Perks of being a wallflower. His explanation for this unusual bookshelf completes his unintended seduction of his college teacher, Kalindi, played by Radhika Apte. Kashyap seems to take the easy way out here, giving an element of neuroses to Kalindi and probably thus her motivations. I wasn’t able to make any inroads into her psyche even with Apte’s fantastic performance. It might have to do with the monologue explicitly trying to justify Kalindi’s actions as we witness them (or at least we seem to witness them).Tejas has the more easier ‘arc’ here, baffled (and charmed) by the attention his stunning teacher bestows on him. At the same time, he is repelled enough by it and wants to live the carefree and sheltered life of a 21-year-old. The scene where Kalindi makes him record a ‘confession’ and his struggle to utter the word ‘ consensual’ is probably some of the blackest comedy Kashyap has ever made.
Kiara Advani as Megha in Karan Johar’s short film comes off better because her desires are born out of the experiences around her, even as she seems eager to explore. Vicky Kaushal is there too, as Paras, her part-creepy, part-simpleton husband. His superb comic timing is one of the discoveries of this film. There are multiple grunts and awkward ‘sex scenes’, even as Megha holds to her own, keeping herself open for new experiences that might give her the elusive something that she has been longing for since her school-girl days. When the last to penultimate scene with a vibrator occurs, there is some more humour, some more shock. It seems ridiculous, but also real. Megha seems to walk with a bigger strut in the last scene and more eager to talk on the point, the ‘mudda’. The scene deploys the imagery of her husband stopping her from having ice cream, only to feed it to her himself. That might just be a happy ending.
Dibakar Bannerjee’s short is classy, with its impeccable cast, led by Manisha Koirala’s Reena. It is great to watch her on the screen after so many years, and that too in an A-grade movie, where she prances around in a one piece, looking every bit the ‘moti’ mother of two she plays in the film. Her face emotes constantly – happy, frowning, calculating, faking, forgiving, humiliated. And the two men around her, Salman, her husband played by Sanjay Kapoor and Sudhir, his best friend played by Jaideep Ahlawat, seem like mere pawns in her scheme of living. But are they pawns? Things aren’t as simple as they seem. This story seems to deliberately ruminate than the rest. I had to watch it twice to make sure I understood it right the way I did. The lust here is as much physical as it is for power. You wonder what life will hold in store for this trio.
But the film that worked the most for me was Sudha’s story, helmed by Zoya Akhtar. Apparently, there is no new ground explored here: a maid in an obviously consensual sexual relationship with a single man in whose house she works. This man Ajit, played by Neil Bhoopalam like he could be invisible when he wants to, seems something like a loner. The dynamics of how this duo got into a relationship so intimate is never really explored. Though it could be from the fact that Sudha cooks him his breakfast and his tea, makes his bed for him, passes him his towel in the shower and then also gently teases him like one would tease a lover. In the limited dynamics of their existence, Sudha has made peace with the security of this existence. She may not ‘live’ in that house, but she spends enough time there to mark her presence. With minimal dialogues and subsequent shots seamlessly seguing into each other, Sudha and Ajit’s unusual domesticity seems endless till there is a knock on the door.
Zoya Akhtar doesn’t make Ajit’s parents monsters. They are genuinely nice to Sudha, call her beta, and speak to her like they would speak to an acquaintance they very much like. And yet, the class difference is stark. When a prospective matrimonial match comes visiting with her parents, Ajit’s mother asks Sudha to make tea, and she thoughtlessly does not count her in the number of cups. Despite Sudha’s dedication to ensure the house is well ‘maintained’, the mother moans how her bachelor son’s house is a mess due to the lack of a ‘wife. Akhtar lets the irony linger on the screen with subtlety. In most likelihood, even after the marriage, it will still be the ‘maid’ who will look after that house, clean it, and scrub it but the ‘woman’ of the house would get the credit. Bhumi Pednekar, a generally fine actress, does wonders with this role. The scene where she serves tea to the two sets of parents and then walks towards the bedroom to serve the younger ‘couple’, is a stunning indictment of how deep-rooted class-divides will continue to remain, even if physical and sexual boundaries are crossed. Pednekar shows us Sudha’s disappointment, but she also shows us the practicality of her situation. When Ajit’s mother congratulates her after Ajit’s wedding is fixed and asks her to take some sweets for herself, she does pick them up. The last scene outside an elevator is like a dash of neem on an already bitter karela juice. Rasika Duggal shines in a cameo as another maid. However, it is Pednekar’s expression as she puts a burfi into her mouth, as if finally making peace with the conflict inside her head, that stays with you. I would have loved to see a full-length feature on her. Sometimes, sexuality isn’t repressed; other emotions are.
Prashila Naik is a writer with a special interest in all forms of character-driven short fiction. Her short stories have been published in various online literary magazines in India and elsewhere. She additionally contributes features to popular women’s portals and is fascinated with cinema and music as extremely potent and often therapeutic forms of art. She is based out of Bangalore.
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