Netflix’s 'Lust Stories' and what it tells us about desire in real life

'Lust Stories' isn’t brilliant, but it announces the beginning of a much-needed exploration of how men and women understand desire and deal with it.

June 29, 2018 03:19 pm | Updated December 01, 2021 06:02 am IST

Films like Lust Stories and Veere di Wedding are marketed as feminist works, but are they really? Illustration: Sreejith R Kumar

Films like Lust Stories and Veere di Wedding are marketed as feminist works, but are they really? Illustration: Sreejith R Kumar

Let me tell you a story. A professor in his 30s, married but exploring, propositions a student in her 20s. They get drunk one evening and end up in bed. Come morning, he warns her against developing any ideas of love. Soon, the professor hooks up with a colleague, but when the student finds a boyfriend, the professor is furious, scolds her in class, stalks her, even makes her record a disclaimer saying their sex was consensual…. Horrified yet?

Well, it’s the script of a recent film, but nobody is writing declamatory reviews and angry petitions or taking out protest marches yet. Because in the film, the professor is female, the student male. So the story is hailed as a “feminist” magnum opus with the sort of jaw-dropping hypocrisy that spells doom for all isms.

This short is the first in the rather clumsy Netflix anthology called Lust Stories that has taken the online universe by storm. The four stories include Kashyap’s film; followed by a rather indeterminate piece by Zoya Akhtar about a man sleeping with the maid but marrying someone else; a third by Dibakar Banerjee about a wife finding solace from a boring husband in another man’s arms; and finally, a charming surprise from Karan Johar, who proves that films always need good wrapping paper. After the faint TV studio air of the others, Johar’s assured cinematic idiom is a relief, his script and comic timing sure. Most important, despite not ticking any “arty” boxes, it’s here that the woman actually gets what she wants.


But let’s dig a little deeper into what we began with: the first film and its supposedly feminist narrative where Kashyap consistently undermines the character of his female lead, the professor Kalindi played by Radhika Apte. Her sexual escapade not only targets Tejas, a young student, it is accompanied by hysterics, jealousy, and manic-obsessive behaviour. It’s interesting how the film makes her liberated externally, but stuffs her chockfull of insecurities. This sly stereotyping is offensive, but it gave me pause. Is Kalindi not so far off the mark perhaps?

Take Tejas instead. It is intriguing how impervious he seems to any sense of being exploited. He appears bemused, flattered that the attractive professor lusts for him. But he just as easily moves on to a classmate. When Kalindi’s affair ends, he happily offers to return to her bed. He isn’t concerned with consent or its nebulousness, but with gratification. He is at peace with himself and the world. The disquiet is all the woman’s, even though she is the aggressor. Tejas goes to sleep, Kalindi goes to a therapist.

What would happen if, as I did initially, the film interchanged roles? If the professor was male and the student female? I wrote an ending in my head: The fling ends, the young woman forgets the idiot professor, goes on to have other affairs, finds or does not find the love of her life, and they all live happily ever after.

Are we capable of writing this ending for the female half of a casual fling? Or will she, whether aggressor or recipient, always feel ill-used? If yes, the question to ask is about how the female mind has internalised sexual freedom.

Tejas’ reactions are along expected lines. Men are naturalised to treat sexual encounters as adventure — there is no tedious virginity or honour to protect. It’s a freedom that women have fought hard for. It’s a freedom that Kashyap’s film seeks to celebrate, so why is it that the professor unravels while the student copes?

Possibly because even as women seek sexual emancipation, they are conditioned to believe that female physicality is somehow still sacrosanct. They define their core selves by their bodies in a way men never do. An unexpected touch is allowed to fester into a flesh wound. An unwelcome solicitation is given the power to become a monstrous invasion challenging a woman’s very sense of self.

But desire, as the film seems to say, doesn’t care. It pops up unexpected in all sorts of ways. And it’s up to us to get a handle on it and not go under. Lust Stories isn’t brilliant, but it announces the beginning of a much-needed exploration of how men and women understand desire and deal with it.


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