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The Tragic Truth Is That, Mostly, Women’s Desires Go Nowhere.

Shubhodeep Pal on Lust Stories

It is tempting to think of Lust Stories as an anthology of three short films that address lust in passing — and one film that cannot have enough of it. (The alternative is to think of it as a collection of four short films with a very badly chosen title.)

The first three films — by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee — are all written from a curious counterpoint. In different ways, each looks at women (thankfully, all these films are about women) grappling with various consequences of lust. Explicit lust — desire-soaked, breath-depriving, skin-tingling — is conspicuously absent in each of these films.

What the first three directors deny, Karan Johar revels in. His is the most surprising, subversive turn. If this were a school assignment, Johar would have scored the highest for his literal reading and presentation of lust as a fact of life — an ever-burning fire that needs dousing. The film is poignant, funny, and, unusually for a Johar film, brimming with more ideas than it can explicate — lecherous behaviour by a man in power; the secret society of women with desires; the suppression of women by fellow women; the inability of men to gauge and fathom the need to return pleasure; lust as something inherently forbidden (typified by the appearance of a very funny Lolita scene, and multiple ice-cream metaphors); the necessity of women to literally take matters in their own hands. The execution is campy but fun (though it feels somewhat off-putting after the three sombre shorts that precede it; perhaps the anthology should have started with this one). It is also, to my mind, the bravest and most essential film of the four. It is the only one I’d feel awkward while watching with parents — a rather accurate gauge of whether it manages to plumb emotions forbidden, denied, and unaccepted.

With the oddity of Johar’s film out of the way, it’s easier to assess the other three on an equal footing. The craft in each is distinct, and distinctly pleasurable. But as the days pass, these films have been fading a little. What remains is the feeling that little about them was actually about lust itself — Banerjee’s film is arguably the lowest on it. It is finely crafted with bravura performances from Sanjay Kapoor and Manisha Koirala. Yet a niggling question remains. Was Koirala’s dalliance with Jaideep Ahlawat — a long-running three-year affair — a product of lust or the desire for love? Two people in love, two people who need each other will, of course, have sex. Does that count as lust? Despite the film’s poignant exploration of a marriage torn apart by incompatible egos (the male’s arguably larger) I feel hard-pressed to count it as a lust story.

Kashyap’s film is held together by a remarkably schizophrenic Radhika Apte performance. And that’s where the trouble begins. After her one-night stand with a student, Apte’s character comes unhinged. In a country where women’s agency over their bodies is frequently denied, Apte frequently comes across as an obsessive woman stereotype — it’s a toxic trope that made me rather uneasy about the way it was written. Moreover, the film itself appears far too conscious of its avante garde attempts at imbuing newness into proceedings — such as through Apte’s over-written monologues. Its intellectualisation appears forced and literal, and far too self-congratulatory — and undercuts any rawness that Kashyap brings to it. Is the character’s lust driving her into a frenzy — confused and jealous of her student’s new love interest? It might well be so, but I was hard-pressed to draw the link.

Akhtar’s film is, quite literally, a silent masterpiece in filmmaking. Framed like a painting and acted with great dexterity by Bhumi Pednekar, the film resonates with silences that hang heavy and glances that say more than words ever could. It is a film that moves two ways — across the stifling and unchaining of desires at once. Framed in a claustrophobic flat, the world shrinks more and more for Pednekar, (whose character, a domestic helper, has been sleeping with her employer), when his parents and prospective in-laws come visiting. Each movement, turn, and frame emanates meaning. Namrata Rao’s editing is a masterclass, pulling in the viewer to the tenseness of it all — the bated breath with which Pednekar seems to calm herself, the edge of the seat uneasiness that permeates each frame. I’ve read in places that the film appears unfinished because it goes nowhere. I beg to differ. The tragic truth is that, mostly, women’s desires go nowhere. That, in itself, is a complete story.

 

Shubhodeep Pal is a writer and photographer. He tweets as @diaporesis. 

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