Ms Representation: Nothing edgy to write about
The author talks about the shorts in the Netflix exclusive, Lust Stories
Let me say this right away, Lust Stories is too timid. The Netflix special is an anthology featuring four big names from Bollywood – Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibankar Banerjee, and Karan Johar. But, they fail to take advantage of a medium that, even in a country like India that leads to ghettoisation of content, awards filmmakers some amount of freedom from the shackles of censors and moral police, and shields them from the demands of commerce and producers who want what they want. Three of the four films in the anthology, each with a significant female lead, fail to as much as mildly push the envelope. The exception comes from Karan Johar, whose short film is the last in the special and has a certain je ne sais quoi. There was something to smile about, it made me ‘feel’, at last. I kept saying, what a delightful guy he must be because that delight was oozing out of the frame. The playfulness was of course from self-assuredness, a certain honesty. And the ability to not take yourself too seriously. It’s a blessing not many artists have.
The first short, Kashyap’s features a Radhika Apte who seems to be trying earnestly, but her Kalindi just refuses to take off. There’s something too clinical about her, about what she says and does. You never ‘feel’ her. And there’s too little lust and too much obsession in there. Kalindi, a college professor, has a fling with a student and the day after wonders, talking straight to the camera, if he will become obsessed with her and stalk her, etc. The irony, of course, is that Kalindi is the one that ends up becoming obsessed.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the short was inspired by the Sex and the City episode, The Freak Show in which Carrie is convinced that all Manhattan men are freaks and is freaked out about not being able to find anything freaky about the man she’s dating. Only to come to the realisation that in that relationship, she’s, in fact, the freak. The smoking, the talking to the camera, the nervous energy, the overall theme…looked like someone trying to distill something of Carrie Bradshaw into the Indian milieu, except it just wasn’t good enough. With Carrie you felt the vulnerability, the humour and her friendship. Here you know nothing about Kalindi; it’s just too sudden and she just talks. A lot. And perhaps this might have been edgy for the big screen – this setting and premise, but on a streaming site, it draws comparison with far more edgy stuff that’s come out decades ago elsewhere.
In Zoya Akhtar’s gloomy short Bhoomi Pednekar’s stares refuse to evoke any sense of emotion. It is a doomed venture. She plays Sudha, a house help in a sexual relationship with the man she works for. As his wedding is fixed and the whole arranged marriage charade plays out in front of her, she just watches silently. Wordlessly. Zoya’s film is not about lust in any manner, apart from the opening few shots. It is a bore. It is, like the man Sudha has an affair with, Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam), too scared of boundaries, it does not dare to cross them – he does not meet her eye once the marriage talks begin, while she continues to look straight at him. The trailer for Lust Stories says, 'Welcome to a place where anything can happen'. Zoya’s film is certainly not that place. The politics of the film also leaves much to be desired. Ajit calls his maid a dirty b***** after sleeping with her, even as his mother talks about how clean the house is always, thanks to Sudha and the visuals repeatedly show how clean the house looks once Sudha leaves. He acts feudal. And there is no consequence for this. There is simply no redemption in this film. It’s unfair to Sudha and it showcases a certain upper class/caste idea of the working class that feels dated.
It was really nice to see Manisha Koirala as Reena in the Dibankar Bannerjee short. The film was crisp and there was a certain maturity to it, thanks to the cast which also featured Sanjay Kapoor as Reena’s husband Salman, and Jaideep Ahlawat as Sudhir, the couple’s friend, with whom Reena is having an affair. The film is about Reena, who’s unhappy in her marriage and satisfied with her affair. Sudhir is worried about Salman finding out and Salman is scared of ending up alone. Reena plays her cards well and for a change, as opposed to the usual screen women is selfish. And selfish in a way that’s different from Kalindi. She negotiates her way around a situation well enough to give herself the happy ending she deserves. It’s a good short, which could have been great if it didn’t exude a certain mellow vibe.
That’s where Karan Johar comes into the picture to finally liven up the screen. The colours, the issue at hand… his short breathes life into the anthology simply because Karan sticks to the brief and he executes it well, with his humour (even at his own expense), use of music, and all the Bollywood-y things at his disposal. Megha (Kiara Advani) is married to Paras (Vicky Kaushal) and has decided to take matters to her own hands. She too decides to give herself the happy ending she deserves (pun intended) and unlike Reena she isn’t looking for pleasure from another man, because she clearly loves Paras. With some education from Rekha (Neha Dhupia) she figures out that there are machines for that. Like Abby in The Ugly Truth, Megha’s vibrator is set off at the wrong place (the living room) at the wrong time (in front of Paras’ family). Even as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham plays out in the background. It ends with a lesson for Paras on pleasure not being one-sided and then all is well… The film almost feels like a PSA, and that adds to the humour as well. It does what it sets out to do, loud and clear. And that’s saying a lot even as the others in this anthology seem to have missed the bus.