Lust Stories
A still from Lust Stories on Netflix | @karanjohar/Twitter
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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 rupleena.bose@gmail.com

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  1. Lust Stories (on Netflix)

    It took me three sittings to go through the four Lust Stories, currently making waves – to the extent anything can make waves in the restless and expanding ocean of social media. It is an anthology that aims at opening the portals of discussion on women sexuality. The reason I took time to warm up to it was this – to me the first two stories appeared not so much about lust (noun ‘strong sexual desire’) but instead about rejection and convenience.

    In the first story (by Anurag Kashyap) a teacher’s licentious equation with her student is no more than an occasional one-night-stand. It takes a turn and grows into a searing obsession, though this does not appear to be fuelled by physicality alone but by his growing attention to a girl of his own age. Increasingly, it is the element of perceived rejection that feeds the bitter anger, even borderline madness. Is there an element of lust in all this? Perhaps. But it is buried under a growing mound of hurt at being sidelined, a pure shadow-play of ego.

    The second story (by Zoya Akhtar) of a man’s dalliance with his maid is even more linear. This is a relationship that appears born out of convenience for the man’s lust and her reciprocation. It is a detour from their ‘normal’ lives and one would be forgiven to conclude that there is an unspoken but tacit understanding that matters are ephemeral and destined to peter out. Yet, there is a rippling disappointment for the woman is completely understandable on a human plane. But measured against the backdrop of their lust, it is not convincingly explicable. I dug for a deeper meaning and drew a blank.

    The third story (by Dibakar Banerjee) of a man’s affair with his close friend’s wife is more nuanced. It is a sensitively treated story and Manisha Koirala brings to it a realism that can shake up and scare. But it must say something about our middle-class mores and Bollywood-fed cultural diet, that in this day and age, the theme of ‘woman too has desires’ still needs to be showcased. We really haven’t evolved all that much, have we?

    When I came to the fourth story (by Karan Johar) I was expecting no evolution at all. Indeed, as the segment began, Karan Johar did not disappoint me; it appeared a watered down version of his soapy-syrupy movies, complete with half-clever dialogues and lilting songs. There was also the dramatic background music that transported me to the last North India baraat I had endured. But after I had checked all the usual boxes of disappointment, a bit of magic reared its head. Of the four stories, this turned out to be the most direct treatment of lust. To coax issue of women’s sexuality out of shadows and into plain sight, Karan Johar wove a story around lack of sexual satisfaction and use of sex toys. It surprised me that the maker of Dilwale-talk had now turned to dildo-talk. Congratulations on your graduation, Karan!

    And congratulations to all of us for this incipient conversation.

  2. Why can’t sex just be sex.. or just be.. why does it have to be an education or a comment on morals etc…

    These stories allow sex to just be… It is part of our lives.. most people just wish to make it the devil’s tool… or make it a tool for procreation… It is a lot more than that…

    This is an attempt at taking judgement out of sex…. It is an attempt at showing it as it is…

    Giving a platform for people to have conversations around it.. in ways healthier than porn viewing amongst friends…. And Rupleena has tried to explain what the stories are about….

  3. Kudos!!! Thanks to these movies – Finally women of India are being sexually liberated. After economic, social and political empowerment the women now have sexually empowerment – this is being reflected in the movies now. Patriarchy and outdated concepts of family, sex, chastity, husband-wife dynamics won’t survive for long in the 21st century.

  4. watching movies of the Prostitutes directors actually who want to sell condoms and vibrators to public. their really creative otherwise lies in making movies out of stolen ideas and remakes from south cinemas

  5. the hoe who says i am married woman actually wants pre maritial sex and if not satisfied after marriage will find multiple partners. JOKE is THIS DRAMA SUITS ONLY ON TV

  6. You add more value to sex, more brownie points, more eroticism to it, when it is a result of the verbal consent of one, and silent acknowledgement of the other. But one should be careful to understand the note of the other, and be witty about it. If that happens, sex is spontaneous and more passionately driven. I think Ms. Rupleena was trying to say this, but I might be wrong.

  7. Is having sex outside the marriage u call women empowerment or talking about their affair make India forward in sex education. Sex education or talking about sex is totally at differrent level please dont compare it with rubbish stories.

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