Well into Lust Stories, Netflix’s latest Indian original, you realise that the film is not really about lust - or let’s say almost not about lust. The anthology, made up of four stories helmed by as many directors, is rather about women, and their quest to assert their identity. Lust is - as in real life - simply incidental, a means to an end if you please.
Releasing on Netflix on 15 June, Lust Stories, produced by Ronnie Screwvala, has been directed by the Bombay Talkies foursome - Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. Featured in this order, the films come with the directors’ individual style to unveil to us a world of sometimes not likeable, but definitely relatable women who usually elude our screens.
Lust Stories begins with the Anurag Kashyap short, starring a brilliant Radhika Apte and Akash Thosar (of Sairat fame). Radhika plays Kalindi, a married professor in an open relationship who hooks up with a student (a very able Akash). Kalindi is by no means an easy woman to read. She is, as she herself reveals, on a journey to explore herself as well as romance/ lust. And how she goes about it is interspersed with her explaining her psyche behind her actions, as if in an interview to an invisible interlocutor.
Anurag handles the narrative format brilliantly, setting the tone for the first three stories - leaving things to be inferred rather than resorting to simplistic explanations. The screenplay and characterisation too leave no scope for the black and white moral realm we are so used to. Kalindi fascinates, as much as she puzzles and exasperates.
How does a lust story between a privileged IT hotshot (Neil Bhoopalam) and his house help (Bhoomi Pednekar) pan out in an 1BHK in Mumbai?
Zoya’s deft storytelling makes the house with its claustrophobic walls a party to the drama, its overwhelming physicality mingling with the human players as they come too close or try to negotiate corners and doorways without slamming into each other.
Bhumi steals the show here as the near-silent house help - she barely has two lines in the film - who succumbs to temptations and dreams but learns to negotiate life’s offerings without rancour. The tight-knit screenplay exposes middle class hypocrisies and casual cruelties sans even a hint of drama.
This one is a little tricky. But before we get into that, let me gush about Manisha Koirala being back on screen playing a real, complex character with verve and vim. She plays an unhappily married woman who is cheating on her husband (Sanjay Kapoor) with his best friend (Jaideep Ahlawat). She’s smart, successful and knows what she wants. And what she wants - which eludes her men - is the ownership of her own life.
Like the leading women of the previous two films, Manisha’s role here defies easy judgement or classification. In a beautiful scene in the film, we see her listening to the boys’ club camaraderie among the two differently selfish men in her life, both of whom steadfastly want to avoid the issue at hand - her demand for her right to happiness. And in that one moment, we identify with her character.
But it is the ending which left me wanting a little more. Her revenge on the men is super subtle, but is that enough for her? I wonder.
True to style, Karan Johar’s film is the most flamboyant of the lot. It’s also the most simplistic, but KJo guns for the ridiculous to tell the only single-mindedly lustful story in this anthology. Kiara Advani marries the rather guileless Vicky Kaushal who fails to satisfy her in bed as well as conversations. Inspired by a school colleague (an adept but increasingly typecast Neha Dhupia), she tries her hand at a sex toy to hilarious consequences.
While Kiara and Vicky are a pleasure to watch, Karan deserves a thumbs up for the humour, innuendos and his ability to laugh at himself.
So is Lust Stories worth a watch? Definitely! But don’t hit play if you are looking for a steamy ride. Lust Stories delightfully pushes boundaries to tell real stories about real women, who are unapologetic in their imperfections and desires, and go about mending their heart strings the best they can. Lust after all, is never too far from the other L-word.
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