Stories by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee & Karan Johar break the silences and awkward articulation of talking sex.
What is the right word for it? A word that is sure, safe, foolproof and evokes just the right amount of electrical current on the body.
‘I think I should fornicate,’ he says. ‘You mean fuck?’ she asks. The lights are switched off but few words remain.
The new Netflix anthology film ‘Lust Stories’ is a bouquet of four stories, each about desire, love and lust, and mostly the waves they create in the lives of the characters. In the post-technology, hyper-communicating world of sexting and private Netflix viewing lies the quintessential Indian dilemma about sex – the war between talking about sex and the silence around sex that is at the core of our society.
Four stories by Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar shatter both the silences and the awkward articulation of modern relationships for viewers bred on Bollywood’s clumsy attitudes toward desire.
The problem of wording the forbidden is at its core a tussle with language in our mainstream culture. In cinema, songs and life, it is often expressed in metaphors. How do you use words that are functional but barely sexy? The problem of saying it correctly – without robbing it of its erotic value – and in a way that leaves no holes for ambiguity over consent, something that can become a future monster.
‘It was nice, wasn’t it?’ asks Radhika Apte’s character, a professor who is continuously and consciously wording the journey of her desire and actions.
‘You are making it bad by talking about it,’ answers the Marathi-speaking college student in Kashyap’s story. Their sexual relationship is forbidden, the power equation is a problem. She is a teacher and he is her student. She makes him say the sex is consensual, a word he fumbles with, just like the whole world is still fumbling around the idea of consent. They struggle to find the best way to express the relationship until conventional words are put on the table. The clarity makes it less sexy just like conventional words have a way to reduce sexiness into neat, black-and-white spaces. Their conversation ends here as we move on to the next story.
Silence is a different game altogether in Akhtar’s story where the housekeeper and the male employer start the day with sex, but barely exchange a word in front of his family. The forbidden nature of their relationship stays in their bodies and never reaches their vocabulary. Their story is never categorised but remains deceptively rooted in the grey area of power and consent.
Contemporary times have witnessed raging debates around consent. Laws have been amended, language has been classified into permissible categories, and the tricky trips of power have been laid bare.
‘We don’t WhatsApp, no text message, no phone-calls, no emails.’ Reena (Manisha Koirala) tells her intermittent lover who she is spending the weekend with in a near-empty beach house in Dibakar Banerjee’s story. The adulterous lovers have left no words or traces for anyone to ever imagine they were together. They have no paper trail or technology trail. They are forced to speak about their illegitimacy when there is an impending crisis – one that threatens to draw the three adults, who have known each other forever, into a dreaded conversation that will challenge the fragile core of both marriage and friendship.
In the story about a woman, her husband and his best friend, there is an empowering interplay of telling and not telling. The woman (Koirala) is the only one with complete knowledge of the situation, and the two men have no choice but to believe her words and her silence. It is almost as if talking about her adultery liberates her even as it terrifies the two men. They are consenting adults in an adulterous grey area where rules have been broken and friendship codes have lost their numbers. For the men, silence is necessary, they must not talk about it. The silence of the men and the control of words by the woman makes her powerful in this story.
There has been a fair representation of sexy, erring and desiring women with a voice in literature, but few in our cinema. In our cinema, dialogues around pleasure have been limited just like in our lives, where it’s easier to act toward finding pleasure rather than opening up a conversation around it. Pleasure is an untranslatable idea, you barely know what it means leave alone express it with the right words. It is difficult to campaign for pleasure apart from making people voyeurs in other people’s pleasures.
In the post-Veere Di Wedding India, Johar’s story places the vibrator and self-pleasure in the drawing room of a middle-class household. The throbbing of pleasure makes more sense to the newly married schoolteacher Megha than everything her husband says. She tries to talk about sex and the need for equal pleasure through analogies and metaphors but he does not understand her. Hers is a difficult situation, not finding the words to express her lack of pleasure without offending him. The middle-class vocabulary classifies self-pleasure in the case of a woman as right or wrong.
‘I did no wrong.’
‘What do you want to do now?’
‘Have some ice-cream.’
The act of consuming does what words could not do for the couple. In licking the vanilla ice-cream, they find what they could not express in language.
We are a society that doesn’t really talk about sex. We are now learning to talk of consent but we still fumble for words when it comes to pleasure. Our literature has taught us that sex is sexier when it comes as a recipe of the said and the unsaid. Sometimes, the concoction is dangerous. But ‘Lust Stories’ does what few films in India do – it opens up the conversation around forbidden fantasies and takes us closer to unlikely characters who try to put a word or a finger on it.
Rupleena Bose teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. After hours, she writes films. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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