Bombay Talkies, Lust Stories, Ghost Stories: Ranking all 12 short films by Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap
The four filmmakers are a part of a franchise of anthologies with a common theme, that started with Bombay Talkies and has now reached Ghost Stories.
Netflix dropped its first Indian release of the year, Ghost Stories, on the platform on 1 January. While it may set the tone for a new year and a new decade, it is equally significant to look back at the previous decade and study the graphs of the four filmmakers across their previous collaborations, Bombay Talkies (2013) and Lust Stories (2018).
In an exclusive interview to Firstpost, Zoya Akhtar said she considers Ghost Stories to be 'her film'. "I love all of it so it feels weird to compare one short film with another to arrive at a conclusion on whose is better," she said. Anurag Kashyap also echoed the same opinion, "I don't like finding out who did better. But I just feed off the other three filmmakers' work every time. And I'm very secure. I know since Zoya and Karan Johar are there, there'll be commercial elements in the film. That allows me to push myself in a direction which I haven't gone in, and be even more esoteric."
Sure, it may be unfair to compare the filmmakers with each other. But it would not be entirely unfair on this writer's part to compare the short films across all three anthologies. Therefore, we rank all the three short films of all the four filmmaker below, from Bombay Talkies to Ghost Stories.
Dibakar Banerjee - Lust Stories
Dibakar has undoubtedly enjoyed the most consistent streak across all the three anthologies. However, his best would be the one in Lust Stories, starring Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Kapoor, and Jaideep Ahlawat. The short essentially spoke about a married woman's dilemma, and how she has to hide her relationship with 'the other man' (is that even a term?) from that of her husband. It is her indoctrinated guilt as a woman that she cannot enjoy her sex life because of the constant pressure to hide it from her husband. The fact that both the men in her life are best friends makes it even worse. Finally, she puts an end to their overtly friendly banter by confessing her infidelity to her husband. The last shot of the film sees her go about her life with abandon, as the men struggle to not make their relation more awkward.
Karan Johar - Bombay Talkies
It was the time when Johar had found his voice as a filmmaker. Between his last two directorials, Student of The Year and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, came his maiden short film in Bombay Talkies, titled Ajeeb Dastan Hai Ye. As filmy as the short might sound, his was the least conformist in terms of theme in an anthology dedicated to 100 years of cinema. While the short touched upon homosexual tension between an openly gay man (Saqib Saleem) and a closeted married man (Randeep Hooda), the story was really about the latter's wife (Rani Mukerji). Rani's character gained resolution from her conflict when she realised the lack of sexual interest in her husband is not because of her. At the end, the audience sees her give up on her skimpy clothes, remove her makeup and embrace her true self in the mirror.
Zoya Akhtar - Ghost Stories
While the first two shorts by Zoya in Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories shone a light on dreams and the limitations that come with them, the third one was, as she told me in an exclusive interview, about "waiting and longing." She said she signed Janhvi Kapoor as the lead because she had the duality of a "pernicious coquettish" appeal and a sense of "empathy and depth of emotions." The duality was immensely refreshing in her character of a nurse, who ends up using her asleep patient's residence to have a sexual encounter with her married boyfriend (Vijay Varma). Zoya got every beat of Janhvi's character right, from her dense bangs to the cherry print on her top, that suggested she is in the pink of her youth. But the true star of the short was Surekha Sikri, who played the elderly unwell woman. Zoya said she wanted to work with Surekha in her last directorial Gully Boy as well, but the veteran actress was busy shooting for her National Award-winning film Badhaai Ho. When another chance of working with Zoya came, Surekha jumped on it, despite the fact that she was recovering from a brain stroke. "I was concerned for her well-being but she's a trooper, a true champion. On the contrary, we had to apply make-up on her skin to make her look older," said Zoya. "I didn't have to do much. Just lie down on the bed," Surekha joked during the interview. Well, for those who have seen her work in the film, she is clearly as modest as she is talented.
Anurag Kashyap - Lust Stories
Kashyap pulled off a Pushpavalli-like female stalker character in Radhika Apte rather convincingly. More than lust, the obsession of that character stemmed from the difference in herself and her student (Akash Thosar), with whom she had a one-night-stand. Her headstrong personality was contrasted by his perennially confused approach, which further fueled her frustration. The scenes which have her break the fourth wall as a mechanism to justify her controversial actions were sheer magic, thanks to Radhika's spontaneity and Kashyap's ability to extract magic in the moment from his actors.
Dibakar Banerjee - Bombay Talkies
On the face of it, Dibakar presented the most cliched story there could have been about Hindi cinema — a chawl-residing man aspiring to be an actor. But he chose to not look at it through rose-tinted glasses like most of the Bollywood films do. Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character was introduced as a dreamer but the way the film progressed, while sliding in his back story, his last shot was that of a 'sleeper.' He did not waste his time in dreaming but instead conserved his energy so he could invest the most in his roles, even if it was that of a newspaper-reading passer-by in a Ranbir Kapoor film.
Dibakar Banerjee - Ghost Stories
In an interview, Kashyap told this writer what he appreciates the most about Dibakar is how inseparable he is from his politics, "Unlike me, he doesn't put out his politics on Twitter. He does it only through his work. I'm awed by how he has taken the politics of an entire nation, and put it in a short film, very smoothly." Dibakar's film in the latest anthology was on the lines of a post-apocalyptic zombie film but the context is borrowed from contemporary Indian politics. He managed to blend elements of the horror genre with sociopolitical commentary seamlessly, reiterating what Kashyap said in the interview, "The horror in these films is far less compared to that in the people outside them."
Karan Johar - Lust Stories
Johar's short film was once again narrated from a woman's perspective as she was blamed for her 'public display of orgasm' after days of her newly 'bedded' husband indulging only in getting a quick orgasm, rather selfishly. Kiara Advani nailed her part of the pleasure-seeking wife, particularly in the scene when a vibrator gets her to the point of an orgasm, against the backdrop of the title song of Johar's past directorial Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. That was a masterstroke on Johar's part, besides deconstructing a marriage through the lens of a woman's needs and a man's ambition.
Zoya Akhtar - Lust Stories
As can be deduced from the list so far, this writer's favourite anthology is clearly Lust Stories. Zoya's short featured Bhumi Pednekar as a house help who had an affair with her employer (Neil Bhoopalam). However, as time passed, she was reduced to her conventional role when his parents announced his engagement to another woman. The concluding scene of her interacting with a fellow house help (Rasika Dugal) broke the audience's heart since it made her come to terms with her unfortunately low standing in society.
Zoya Akhtar - Bombay Talkies
Like her short in Lust Stories, the one in Bombay Talkies also talked about dreams and the stipulations that come with them. However, since it was from a child's perspective and dedicated to the magic of Hindi cinema, it was a lot less harsher. Naman Jain played a boy who is organically gravitated towards dressing up, applying makeup and dancing, as compared to football. After getting beaten for wearing his unconventional dream on his sleeve, he watches his inspiration Katrina Kaif's interview on TV that tells him to hide his dream till he makes it big. It surely made for a sound advice in a world that clamps down on non-conformist dreams.
Anurag Kashyap - Ghost Stories
If there is any vice Kashyap suffers from the most, it is his indulgence. Unlike the break-the-fourth-wall scenes with Apte in Lust Stories, his short in Ghost Stories did not offer any explanation whatsoever. Having said that, it is easy to make out the narrative is an intersection of a married woman's (Sobhita Dhulipala) anxiety during pregnancy and her nephew's insecurity over the birth of his cousin. As Kashyap pointed out in the interview, Sobhita pops out of the screen owing to her strong presence. "The screen presence is really in the eyes. And Sobhita can display a range of moods with those eyes," he said. The embedded isolation in the story was also highlighted through muted colours in the visuals (on the lines of vintage Hindi horror films like Madhumati). But the atmospherics soon gave in to Kashyap's indulgence in his craft. And just like his protagonist, his imagination failed to take a much-needed flight.
Anurag Kashyap - Bombay Talkies
Before Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, Kashyap's short film in Bombay Talkies suffered from an even more damaging vice, of the need to explain the obvious. The sledgehammer-like subtlety only discounted the intelligence of his audience in a film where the Varanasi-residing protagonist (Viineet Singh) visited Mumbai to fulfill his ailing father's longstanding wish of feeding Amitabh Bachchan homemade murabba. Though the closing moments were similar to a sweet Premchand short story, the film failed to replicate the masterful storyteller's silent rebellion.
Karan Johar - Ghost Stories
Ahead of the release of Ghost Stories, Johar confessed though it was his idea that horror be the common theme in the four filmmakers' next anthology, he did not enjoy the process of filming his short. He blamed it on being outside his comfort zone, and added he really struggled to get through the process. Unfortunately, his lack of conviction could be unmistakably identified in Ghost Stories. From a wafer-thin plot to the cliched treatment to hammy performances by seasoned theatre actors like Hiba Shah and Avinash Tiwari, Johar's short in Ghost Stories did not have any major redeeming factor. In fact, he did not even have a significant larger point to make. All he proved was his shorts have to always revolve around a married couple, in which the wife just isn't able to attain sexual fulfillment.
Bombay Talkies, Lust Stories, and Ghost Stories can be streamed on Netflix.
All images from YouTube.
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