Lust Stories (Various, 2018) – Global Acquisition
Oscar Wilde is often (but apparently incorrectly) quoted as having said that “Everything in the world is about sex, except for sex itself. Sex is about power”. Even if this is an apocryphal quote, it is very true and it also handily sums up the themes of Lust Stories, a portmanteau film made up of four short films by four different Indian writer-directors, all of whom work in the Hindi language and industry: Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. (For those readers who are new to Indian cinema, the Indian industry is broken up by language, with Hindi being the wealthiest of the regional cinemas and home to the form of cinema widely known as “Bollywood”.)
Despite its intentionally titillating title, Lust Stories offers very little in the way of sexual spectacle or eroticism. Instead the films in the collection are interested in exploring the place of sex in modern, mainly middle and upper-class, Indian life. These explorations take us through different permutations of heterosexual couplings (a conspicuous lack here is queer sex, but on its own terms the film is still pretty challenging of social norms and conventions) that are underwritten by power struggles of different sorts.
As the film is structured as four short films, I will first review the individual parts before passing judgement on the collection as a whole. This makes for a long-ish review, my apologies.
The first film by genre auteur Anurag Kashyap is concerned with Kalindi (Radhika Apte), an ostensibly “liberated” modern woman who tells the camera in faux documentary intereviews she is interested in sleeping with whomever she pleases despite the fact that she seems to be married. She is also a college instructor and goes on to start an affair with one of her male students, Tejas (Akash Thosar). As framed by Kashyap, this affair is told as something of a madcap comedy in which it becomes apparent that Kalindi is deluded and actually becomes obsessed with Tejas, virtually stalking him and attempting to sabotage his relationship with another female student. Besides her unhinged pursuit of Tejas, Kalindi is also seen frequently calling her would-be husband and berating him for leaving her alone. We never see the husband and don’t know that he actually exists.
This film for me was the weakest of the bunch as Kalindi is a parody on Kashyap’s part of the modern, “liberated” woman. With this film Kashyap suggests that, more or less, “bitches be crazy” or whatever the Hindi equivalent of that phrase would be. This is disappointing at best and outright insultingly patriarchal at worst. It doesn’t help matters in this case that Kashyap himself is currently involved in a “#MeToo” scandal in India, a case in which his production partner is accused of assaulting a subordinate. Kashyap has been accused of helping sweep the matter under the rug and has apologized for his role in the scandal. This situation makes little touches in the film, such as someone reading aloud from a newspaper about a film producer who harasses his staff, really stick out in a bad way.
While the film is ideologically problematic, to put it mildly, it does have some bright spots. Apte is a captivating star and fills the screen with a manic charisma that contrasts very effectively with Thosar’s Tejas who is (purposefully) as bland and impressionable as an overboiled potato.
Zoya Akhtar’s film is for me the best of the four, and coincidentally the only one directed by a woman. This film takes on the issues of class and privilege as a domestic servant, Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), who is embroiled in a clandestine affair with a middle-class bachelor (Neil Bhoopalam) stands by and watches as her lover is engaged to another woman of his own class. This short is remarkable for its subtlety and minimalist aesthetic. Sudha says very little yet Pednekar conveys a great deal with her performance. The themes are understated yet very effective, not to mention realistic, as Sudha resigns herself to enjoying what she can while she can. The impact that Akhtar derives from the smallest gestures are in the vein of great auteurs such as Yasujiro Ozu or, closer to home in this case, Satyajit Ray.
Dibakar Banerjee’s film is concerned with a love triangle between three middle-aged people: a married couple – Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) and Reena (Manisha Koirala) – and Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). The three have been friends since college but for the last three years Sudhir and Reena have been having an affair.
This is the most emotionally complex of the four films and it is interesting to see various critics try to make sense of it. Salman discovers the affair during the course of the film but then immediately suppresses his knowledge in a way that is sad, desperate and very human, despite the fact that his character has seemed to be a boorish idiot up to this point. Instead of confronting the couple, he only asks that they end the affair and that they both pretend he doesn’t know so that he saves face, saves his marriage, and seemingly most importantly to him, saves his friendship with Sudhir. How Sudhir and Reena react is the true crux of the film, so I won’t spoil it here.
The final film comes from Hindi film legend Karan Johar, the director of megahits such as Khabi Kushie Khabie Gham and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai among many others. His film is definitely “authored” in that many of his trademark touches are apparent, including a crudely melodramatic but effective theme, a zany sense of slapstick humor and a tongue-in-cheek irreverence that translates at times to annoying acting styles and play with music.
The film is essentially a homily on the importance of female orgasms and is unique among the four for showing sex taking place within a (relatively) happy marriage. In this film the recently married Megha (Kiara Advani) is disappointed with the sexual performance of, and implicit attitude towards women shown by her new husband Paras (Vicky Kaushal). A montage of their sexual encounters shows him to be in a hurry to reach his own climax while not realizing that she may also want to have an orgasm. After a quite ludicrous scene in which she catches her “liberated” divorcee friend (Rekha, played by Neha Dhupia) masturbating in the library of all places, she decides to try for her own orgasms. Somewhat non-hygenically she does this using Rekha’s vibrator and this leads to an extremely contrived scene that was going for farcical comedy. This in turns creates problems in her marriage, but in true Johar fashion…well, you’ll see.
The film as a whole thus ranges over several tones and styles and suffers as a result of these disparities. The Ozu-esque minimalism of Akhtar’s film and the Bergman-esque theatricality of Banerjee’s film simply do not mesh with the unhinged comedy of the two films that bookend the collection. Neither do the different worldviews found in the films, particularly with Kashyap’s reactionary view of liberated women which really clashes with the more sympathetic representations found throughout the rest of the films. Lust Stories is thus pretty uneven, a problem that can arise in portmanteau films but doesn’t in the best ones.
A quick note on the industrial contexts of the film: the film was acquired by Netflix early in 2018 and released in June of that year. Ted Sarandos has claimed that the film was extremely popular in the Indian market, and the company has since gone on to greenlight a sequel of sorts, Ghost Stories, which will reunite the directors from this project. Relatively speaking, India is still a very small market for the company. Netflix is looking to grow in India and to compete with the market leaders there, Hotstar and Amazon, and is counting on original content to do this.
Anurag Kashyap has a long relationship with Netflix, having licensed his films Gangs of Wasseypur (as a series) and Raman Rhagav 2.0 to the service, the latter being a virtual Netflix original as it is on the service pretty much everywhere. He is also the main producer and creative behind Sacred Games, Netflix’s high profile Indian original series. (This series was suggested to me when I finished watching Lust Stories). The accusations against Kashyap and his business partner Vikas Bahl have been a bit of a headache for Netflix as they threatened to derail Sacred Games, but the companies are going ahead with the second season of the series.
In addition to making a segment of Ghost Stories, mega-producer and popular director Karan Johar subseqently signed an output deal with Netflix for his production company Dharmatic. The first film released under the pact was Drive, a film that Netflix acquired after Dharmatic had originally planned to release it in theaters. The company also produced the movie Guilty for Netflix. Besides these films the company has a number of television projects in various stages of development for Netflix including an as yet untitled series to star Madhuri Dixit and a reality show entitled What the Love with Karan Johar.
Producer Ronnie Screwvala has sold this film to Netflix as well as Love Per Square Foot, a more conventional “Bollywood” musical romcom.
Star Radhika Apte also appears in Sacred Games as well as Ghoul, another Indian Netflix original series.
Vicky Kaushal also appears in Love Per Square Foot.
Exploring sex in a frank manner, even if there is no explicit depiction of the act or of genitals, is a tough sell in India, at least in the traditional commercial cinema market. It is a country with notoriously conservative attitudes about film content.