'Lust doesn't mean people have to be naked on screen or are constantly having sex'
This is the opening sentence by Anurag Kashyap, in a recent video interview, when asked about his upcoming film Lust Stories, an anthology of short films made by Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar. The filmmakers have done this previously in Bombay Talkies, but with a different theme. The 2013 anthology was about cinema, to celebrate 100 years of Indian films.
The theme in Lust Stories, very obviously, is all things lust. It would have been the most obvious thing to round up a collection of short films around the yawn-inducing theme of love. However, predictability is not something you'll find in Lust Stories. Each short film is a study in how to entertain (not in a provocative, but in an engaging way) viewers with compelling stories. Stories about unrequited lust, neurotic lust, silent lust, clandestine lust, prohibited lust, liberating lust.
This is finally an emotion that's given its due, after years of being hidden behind mating flowers.
And yet, Lust Stories goes so far ahead of just exploring that. Lust is used as the key to open Pandora's box. What unravels over the next two hours, and four stories, is unadulterated happiness. The happiness of watching complex characters not bound by the usual moral axis; the happiness of seeing actors sink so deep into their characters, you forget their names for a few minutes; the happiness of watching four storytellers concisely wrap their narratives like a gift and place it on a platter. You find yourself being far more invested in each story, each character because everything is shorter and there's no room for a stretch.
There's no joy greater than watching excellent cinema — and Lust Stories is the cinema we deserve.
The anthology begins with Anurag Kashyap's short, which revolves around Kalindi (Radhika Apte), a married college professor who has a fling with one of her students Tejas (Akshay Thosar of Sairat fame). Just as we start to form opinions about Kalindi — she's in an open, long-distance marriage and seems free-spirited and averse to labels — she breaks away from each one of them. We go through her journey of trying to brush off her fling as just that, to turning into a neurotic mess over her situation. Kashyap wonderfully plays with the characters' dynamics, never once giving the viewers what they want. He, in fact, turns the tables around quite a bit. This was the most beautifully, and intelligently written film of the lot. Radhika Apte and Anurag Kashyap need to make more films together.
The next two films — by Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee — really attempt to peel the layers off lust.
Zoya Akhtar's film can be a study in how to make a whole film around the psyche of one character, without it coming off as boring. In her film, an upper middle class man (Neil Bhoopalam) living in Mumbai has an affair with his domestic help Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar). This is perhaps Bhumi's best performance to date, and the credit for this goes to Zoya, who aptly understands the point of view of someone from a lower socio-economic position. There are a lot of still shots in the film, and the focus is on what's being said, or what's happening in the background. This is a device we aren't used to in her films. Zoya shows us a brutal reality with silence, and understated observations.
Dibakar Banerjee plays with our ideas of fidelity and monogamy in the face of lust. However, there are no dramatic episodes condemning extra-marital affairs. Instead, his film attempts to understand what marriage and loyalty mean to people who have seen the world. Reena (Manisha Koirala) is quite fed up of mothering her emotionally-needy husband (Sanjay Kapoor) and has been having an affair with her husband's best friend Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). Dibakar champions his characters' age and outlook, giving us a perspective that can possibly come only with being seasoned. This is a (welcome) character-heavy short and has the best casting of the four. It's always a treat to watch Manisha Koirala on screen.
Karan Johar's short is possibly the most cinematic and meta of the lot. Johar uses his own film Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham to subvert the concepts of patriarchy, family and tradition. Sculpted around the idea of female pleasure and sexuality, Johar's short follows Megha (Kiara Advani), a newly married girl from Lucknow, whose husband (the charming Vicky Kaushal) has no idea that sex involves two people. With the help of her divorced but liberated friend (Neha Dhupia), Megha learns to, among other things, put herself first. Even though I feel the pressure to dissect/gush/get excited about the last scene in the film, giving away spoilers would be a crime — it's best experienced visually. Let's just say the whole film 'comes together' in the climax.
Unknowingly or knowingly, the four stories in Lust Stories revolve around women, and this is the true feminist statement in the film. Not because the chosen protagonist of each short is a woman, but because this is done so without much sho(w)sha. They don't just use women as protagonists to make a point, but they use it as a way to subvert their narratives, to tell stories from a uniquely different perspective.
In Anurag's film, we see the inner workings of a woman who is slowly but surely entering stalker territory. In Dibakar's film, we understand Reena's frustration being stuck between her man-child of a husband and an overcautious lover. How does a married woman find the time and mental space to be selfish, in a world that is telling her to be happy just being a mother to two children? Are we more relaxed about Kalindi relentlessly pursuing Tejas because she's a woman? Do we find ourselves justifying the sadness that Sudha faces — on learning that the man she's sleeping with is getting married — because she's a maid? These are questions that we are faced with.
Bollywood's sexual awakening (not to be confused with sexualisation and/or male gaze) has been a long time coming. In that regard, Lust Stories is a step in the right direction. This is the main reason I'm going to refrain from stating my favourite short, because I feel it'll be a premature opinion. One must watch Lust Stories, dreamily, a couple of more times to fully soak it in. The stories may not have worked as longer features, because that would reveal the risk of over-analysing and forcing a story to fit within the three-act structure. Lust Stories is stitched together beautifully, like starkly different pieces of the same fabric. It is evocative, beautiful, visceral and alluring.