A deep desire runs through the four central characters of Lust Stories. Sex sparks it, but it’s neither the focus nor a means for erotic imagery.
The theme here is not so much lust, but the impact it has on the lives of four very different women from different walks of life. Their varying disposition and emotional texture, elevated by four stunning performances, is what engrosses and turn a blind eye on the limitations of an anthology film.
Made for Netflix, Lust Stories is a unique effort to bring lust out it in the open and treat it like any other regular human need while acknowledging the moral complexities it may provoke in a conventional society.
The series reunites the same quartet of film-makers — Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar — who made Bombay Talkies (a multi-faceted ode to Mumbai’s cinema soaked inhabitants). They employ humour, grace and quirk to understand the course of passion.
Lust Stories begins with Kashyap’s short film and the sight of a sloshed Radhika Apte enjoying the wafts of a cool midnight breeze against the melodious nostalgia of Awaara.
Her companion (Akash Thosar) happens to be her student and a virgin, a taboo combo that Apte is only too eager to guzzle down in her drunken stupor. But the hangover is unending as she tosses between guilt and rebound. Her nervous wrath, volatile outbursts, relentless stalking and rambling logic reveal a woman unhinged.
Ever the champion of unbridled discomposure, Apte makes a brazenly annoying character a study in chaos and her character’s neurotic need to have the upper hand inexplicably liberating. Her dark energy is perfectly complemented by a quietly effective Thosar.
Zoya Akhtar’s story opens around a torrid sex scene between a man (Neil Bhoopalam) and his domestic help (Bhumi Pednekar). It is the only explicit moment of an exceptionally understated narration.
Often reproached for telling stories from the privileged point of view, Akhtar displays a genuine understanding of the disadvantaged class as well as the female mind. The manner in which she has filmed her segment is testimony to her versatility and willingness to go beyond the comfort zone.
I loved how the stillness of the frames capturing an empty house resonate the silence of Pednekar’s housemaid, as she prepares tea for guests expecting to fix a match with the guy she enjoys a sexual license with. Not a word is exchanged, no accusing glances and yet you sense her quietly brewing distress and half-hearted acceptance of an inevitable reality.
A lot of credit goes to its leading lady. In under 20 minutes, Pednekar delivers more artistry than some actors do in their entire career.
Up next, Dibakar Banerjee sets the scene for adultery in the most brilliantly introduced manifestation of ‘more than meets the eye.’ Avoiding the melodramatic clichés common to the theme of unhappy marriages and extra-marital affairs, Banerjee simply concentrates on the disclosure of infidelity.
Despite its curious approach and fascinating insights on lust as opportunism and hypocrisy of wimpy, self-centered men where one tells another, ‘Reena se better package nahi milega‘, there’s something dull about the chemistry of its man, wife and best friend set-up.
While Sanjay Kapoor is surprisingly swell in his portrayal of a man who cannot help himself, Jaideep Ahlawat is a bit of a dry choice for a character whose reluctance would flourish persuasively under someone like Irrfan Khan.
The takeaway, of course is, Manisha Koirala. Her ambitions have come a long way since Akele Hum Akele Tum. One can now read a whole life’s worth of emotion in that radiant face.
Karan Johar’s witty persona reflects in his depiction of lust. It is as obvious and excitable as the sentimentality in his film-making. Turns out it is not a bad thing when he lampoons it savagely to stage the funniest scene in Lust Stories.
The Lucknow in his movie may not seem like the one you know, but its crowd of floating cleavages, bumbling men and moral policing mothers and mothers-in-laws challenging all things sanskari under KJo’s facetious touch give much to muse and amuse about.
Neha Dhupa’s sexy divorcee stereotype seems unnecessary, but Kiara Advani is a revelation in how she lends levity and guts without compromising on her composure. Vicky Kaushal’s ease around comedy adds to the fun of this simplistic slice of sex life.
Lust Stories doesn’t dwell on consequences. It bears the quality of life and moves on from one chapter to another. Given the talent involved, its feeble male presence and failure to look beyond heterosexual framework is disappointing. But it is also definitely worth a watch for exactly the same reason.