Netflix's 'Lust Stories': what’s love got to do with it?

The new Netflix omnibus, Lust Stories uses the primal instinct to cast a deeper look at society, class and gender

Updated - June 15, 2018 02:45 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2018 09:17 pm IST

Seen from the view of a doubly disadvantaged domestic help, who is at the receiving end of both the class and gender divides, Zoya Akhtar’s short in the new Netflix omnibus Lust Stories , treads on much the same ground as Rohena Gera’s debut feature film, Sir , that played in the Critics Week sidebar at Cannes this year. The underlying question in both is the same—can an individual rise above her position in society’s hierarchy? The element of down and dirty sex, however, makes Akhtar’s film more discomfiting and complicated to grapple with.

Akhtar uses sex as a tool of silent subversion, lust as a small blip of a disruptor in the largely righteous, neat arrangements of Mumbai’s middle class 1BHKs. On the face of it there is nothing to the film other than the rhythm of daily chores and the flow of incessant conversations of individuals and nothing quite changes radically despite the secret kerfuffles. However, in the continuities, co-options and compromises lies an emphatic takedown of the entitled middle class and its deeply entrenched hypocrisies. Between the nervous chatter and conscious large-heartedness of the lady of the house (welcome presence of Loveleen Mishra), the quiet power and contained rebelliouness of the house help (bravura turn by Bhumi Pednekar) and Rasika Dugal’s cheery, unquestioning acceptance of life, Akhtar manages to knock down a few of our sacred notions.

Shades of grey

Like Akhtar’s short, the interesting aspect about the other three films in the Lust Stories compendium is that the primal instinct is not just a way to titillate the voyeuristic audience but to cast an eye on the deeper issues of society, class and gender. Dibakar Banerjee’s take on infidelity and messy relationships is a unique three-actor orchestra playing out notes of anxiety, guilt, pretense, self assertion, distrust, betrayal, negation, acceptance, disruption. There is the bored wife (an unadorned and graceful, fragile yet cussed Manisha Koirala), the emptiness in her life stretched out in the stark, bare bungalow, in the folds of which she strays away. It is about an unrealised woman and yet it is also about the men in her life, how they choose to deal (or not) with the consequences of her decision. It’s about patriarchy shining through the closed universe of male friendships where women are hardly participants in conversations, get confined to the silent edges, where the bro code towers over and above a woman’s rightful demands. Jaideep Ahlawat makes for an expectedly solid presence but it’s the rough on the edges, Sanjay Kapoor who surprises with an abrasive yet acutely vulnerable interpretation of his character. He talks of how he doesn’t like open-ended stories and prefers clearly defined black and white scenarios. Banerjee’s cinema, however, is entirely the opposite of what his protagonist prefers. It is about the many shades of grey, uneasy continuities and ambiguous closures than tidy resolutions.

Dysfunctional takes

Anurag Kashyap also zooms in on one woman. His short is a study of a conflicted mind (Radhika Apte), constantly verbalising and attempting to reconcile with her anxieties in the many frenzied testimonials to the camera. It’s about personal issues tackled within the larger construct of a debate or discussion. It’s also not just about her but also about the confusion she breeds in turn in her men with her own unresolved desires, feelings, jealousies and anxiousness. She leaves the audience also just as perplexed. Kashyap caps it all with an ironic twist in the tale—a woman seemingly stating to be in control even when she is not quite. He also takes hilarious pot-shots at the piety of institutionalised love and monogamy and has fun with fornication, through one of her men—Neeraj—who is great throwback to the nice, bland, perfectly sincere and earnest and caliberated to a fault Subodh of Dil Chahta Hai .

Karan Johar keeps his tongue firmly in cheek as he creates a universe of oddball characters and eccentric families in his short film. It’s his way of trying to get out of his comfort zone of perfect, happy families; in fact he sends them up here and how. The family is as dysfunctional as it can get and much of it plays out in the unknowing, uncaring repression of the female desire, in this case of the new bahu Kiara Advani. There are some obvious jokes on lions and loins and innuendo on andar aana (to enter inside) and jaldi aana (come quickly). And it may seem that much like Veere Di Wedding this too swerves between the slapstick and the sensitive when it zooms in on something as basic as an orgasm. However, while underlining that a woman’s desire doesn’t just boil down to procreating for the spread of the vansh (generations), Johar ends up creating an interesting dysfunctional, flawed yet likeable man in Vicky Kaushal.

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