In June 2018, Netflix released Lust Stories, an anthology of four short films directed by four eminent Indian directors – Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar. Produced by Ronnie Screwala, the series deals with social binaries and explores shades of grey, and stands out in India as an uncoloured depiction of sexual desire and deprivation.
“Mihir loves me selflessly, and I have to be selfish, so that he can be selfless.”
Anurag Kashyap‘s sketch projects polyamory and possessiveness. Radhika Apte‘s mind chatter reflects her strong ego defence mechanism, endless insecurities, and double standards.
We see a girl who seeks adventure after marriage, because, unlike the man she marries, she has never had another affair and wants to find out what it is like to be sexually independent.
She, however, is probably not ready for the emotional ramifications that sexual independence can have and is seen scurrying around clumsily – flummoxed, flustered and injured.
Dibakar Banerjee discusses the flipsides of matrimony and long-term relationships in general.
We watch the fuel run dry, a restless man grappling with the reality of his marriage, a self-loving man who wants to play it safe on both ends and copes with anxiety by watching his own videos on YouTube, and a woman who is almost entirely discontent with her married life.
There’s a struggle to break free, make sense, and escape.
Zoya Akhtar takes the cake. Her lust story is a remarkable social commentary. She takes you to the absolute edge, breaks your heart and rubs poverty, discrimination and elitism right into your face.
The short deals with class binaries without attaching any explicit narrative of exploitation. The family the protagonist – a housemaid – works for is “kind” in an elite, self-conscious, “we got this packet of snack for you” and “beta, you too take some mithai (sweetmeat) home” way.
Household nuances like these make the class distinctions even more pronounced.
Karan Johar‘s is a delightful surprise. A woman’s sexual pleasure is quite literally dragged out of its shady, shoddy nooks into a seemingly sanskaari (traditional) family living room – under bright yellow lights, by a dining table, in full frontal view of everyone who may or may not be ready to accept it.
But, the short is not merely about the woman’s orgasm – even though it is largely and oh-so-thankfully about it.
It is also about how a woman’s role is misconstrued in her matrimonial home. It is also about how a girl is repressed and restricted all through her growing years, slut shamed for the smallest of things, kept from interacting too much with members of the opposite sex, and then thrown into the arms of a clueless husband. All in a bid to protect the abstract concept of sanskaars (traditions) and keep her future husband’s ego intact.
Lust is naturally a common theme in all four stories. But, so is insecurity.
In Kashyap’s sketch, Radhika Aapte is insecure enough to sabotage another relationship and malign another woman. In Banerjee’s we see an insecure husband anxious about his wife’s fidelity; a wife insecure about her hopes and wishes, position in the matrimonial home, and position in life; and a third man so insecure that he watches his own YouTube videos to cope with the fear of getting caught in a precarious position. Zoya Akhtar presents insecurity and helplessness brought about by classism and poverty. Karan Johar shows us a husband and his family feeling almost cuckolded on discovering that the wife used a vibrator to give herself sexual pleasure.
On juxtaposing the two themes of lust and insecurity, one may wonder if sex is after all directly proportionate to insecurity. Could sex then be a vent for, an escape from, a cause or an effect of insecurity?
Repression, restriction and regimentation of women is another subject that flows in at least two of the four stories.
Kashyap’s protagonist states unambiguously that she wants to explore more options sexually because the man she married was the first she had ever been with. Johar, in his episode, shows the protagonist crib to her mother that she doesn’t even know what she wants out of any man she marries because she studied in an all-girls school and never even “shared an ice cream with a boy.” Karan Johar also shows another mother constantly shaming her adolescent daughter for having male friends, posting pictures on Instagram, and reading erotic literature in the likes of Lolita.
Undeterred, unfettered, Lust Stories is a celebration of sex. But, it is also a fearless depiction of all that cannot be celebrated. Indian cinema, with its toxic masculine portrayals of hard cops, dry heroes, and knightly lovers in shining Jaguars needed a Vicky Kaushal, who is homespun, climaxes in exactly five seconds, and does not understand how people in porn films can talk and have sex at the same time.
Indian cinema, with its perfect families, needed to see marriages crumbling and middle aged men and women uncertain, vulnerable and imperfect.
Indian cinema, with its gorgeous heroines with their perfect hair and perfect happily ever afters, needed women seeking an emotional outlet, searching for a way out, and scrounging for an orgasm.
Bollywood, with its unrealistic sex scenes leading to unrealistic sexpectations, needed Lust Stories with its vibrators, heartbreaks, bad sex, social stigma, and slut shaming. The fact that Lust Stories was created by Bollywood’s biggest names itself fills one with tremendous hope.
This Netflix original series, however, lacks universality.
There is zero depiction of or even reference to sex or sexual desire beyond the heteronormative. By dedicating at least one sketch to a homosexual relationship, the creators of the anthology would have done a mighty favour to the Indian audience.
Indian cinema desperately needs firmly grounded and assertive narratives to normalise non-heteronormative intimacy. A film as honest and sensitively crafted as Lust Stories would have made a significant contribution to widening the discourse in that direction, just as it did for female sexual desire.
Lust Stories is food for thought, a careful portrayal of life in cosmopolitan setting, and poetry in a self reflective way.
Mekhala Saran is a student of law and consultant journalist at The Quint. She holds a Bachelors in English Literature from Ramjas College, University of Delhi, India. She is also a theatre artist and poet. Find her on Twitter at @mekhala_saran.