A day filled with reviews! Both Race 3 reviews are done now, so I can circle back and finish the SPOILER review for Lust Stories. However, I would encourage you NOT to read this until you watch the Netflix series. Partly because the films are so open to interpretation, they deserve to be watched with fresh eyes and your own decisions made about them. Instead, just read my No Spoilers review and then come back here.
Just like with the No Spoilers, I am going to briefly talk about the larger ideas, and then get into the individual stories.
By the third story, I was beginning to notice a trend towards female desire rather than male. And the fourth confirmed it, that is the main thrust of this group of films, female desire and all its complexity. But that’s okay. It is female desire that is so often ignored in Indian society and culture, so there is a lot more to investigate there. So we see the way it can be a brief impulse that turns into a complicated emotional tangle, how it can be a healthy need that becomes something shameful and heartbreaking, how it can be a way of breaking free and taking control of life, and how it can be something that nags through it’s lack of fulfillment.
Female desire being present changes the nature of the male desire presented. All of these stories are of male-female relationships. And all of them involve desire from both men and women. But not the traditionally shown aggressive male desire and reluctant female, every sexual incident is clearly obviously consensual. Enthusiastically consensual. And now the film deals with all the aspects of sex and what it can mean and what it can be, men and women desiring it together, with no simple answers, no right or wrong.
Okay, a little right and wrong, Neil Bhoopalam was definitely wrong in his segment. But not in the usual way a man is wrong in a sexual relationship. Vicky Kaushal isn’t a good sex partner, but through ignorance rather than uncaring. In the Dibakar Banerjee section, Sanjay Kapoor and Manisha Koirala and Jaideep Ahlawat were all equally culpable, using sex as something to make them feel better about themselves in some way. Confusing sex with love. And in the Anurag Kashyap section, Radhike Apte was in the wrong, but only repeating the pattern of what had been done to her, the way sex had been part of a relationship with uneven power dynamics. That’s sex, and that’s relationships, they are most often a balance of good and bad, male and female, nothing clearcut and simple as the usual “man desires-woman flees”.
Anurag Kashyap and Radhike Apte Story
We open with Radhike a little tipsy and happy, going home with a young man Akash Thosar. She gently teases him for his taste in books, and then encourages him when he says it is his first time that she will teach him the way. The next morning, it is awkward and she tries to clarify that this was just a one time thing and he shouldn’t get emotionally involved. And then it is revealed that she knows him because she is his teacher in college. She is scared of getting in trouble for sleeping with a student at first, and awkwardly tries to get him to agree it was consensual. At the same time, there are monologues to the camera from Radhike, explaining her tangled head. She married young to her first boyfriend, a man 12 years older than her, who continued to have relationships with other people after marriage and encouraged her to go out and experiment as well. She tries to have a relationship with an age appropriate colleague but is bored with him, and becomes obsessed with Akash Thosar, following him and demanding he tell her whether or not he is dating one of his classmates, punishing that classmate when she receives a text from Akash during class. Finally culminating in barging into Akash’s apartment and searching his room until she finds a pair of woman’s underwear. Akash tries to calm her down, and then makes her leave. She comes back, calmer, and tells him that she is just worried about him, tries to warn him away from his classmate. Akash finally reacts, telling her that he didn’t realize how much she cared, how crazy she was getting. He is ready to forget everyone else and be with her if she wants him. And she says “Nonsense, I am a married woman” and walks out.
This is a very well-done investigation of how sex and relationships aren’t just about the two people in them, but all those other people that they have been with in the past. Radhike, it slowly becomes clear, was permanently damaged by her relationship with her husband. She clings to him, to the idea that everything he did was for her own good, even leaving her was for her own good. And she clings to the idea he gave her that you can love many people, can have sex with many people, can hurt them, and that is all somehow just a proof of your love for them. And in order to fully believe that, she has to do it for herself. Find a younger person and have sex with him. And then, as she tries to deal with what has happened, and with the continued absence and silence from her husband, she begins to be obsessed with him. Needs the validation he can give her that she is an interesting desirable person, that she has someone in her life that cares about her.
The first night with Akash, that is just them, an impulse to try something new with someone she liked. But as time went on, her doubts, her past, it all started to work on her and Akash became a representation of whatever she needed, fear that he would destroy her life by claiming non-consensual sex, then a friend she could confide in, and then a lover she could obsess over and keep for herself. It’s a film that shows how the sex itself can be healthy and good, but can still lead to complications and emotional mess later. If it had stayed a moment of enjoyable impulse between two people who hardly knew each other and had then gone their separate ways, if it had stayed simply a one night stand, then it would have bee a good thing for both of them. It was the attempt to make it more than just sex, just lust, that got them tangled up.
Zoya Akhtar and Bhumi Pednaker
Another story in which the sex itself is not the problem, but rather what comes after. It opens with Bhumi and Neil Bhoopalam naked and entangled and joyfully having intercourse. And then Neil gets up and showers while Bhumi puts her clothes back on. He asks her for a towel, she gives it to him, he teases her for not showering and being “dirty” she teases him as a “naked dog”. And then she goes out into the hallway and returns to sweeping. Bhumi is his maid. And once his clothes are back on, he barely acknowledges her. He leaves for the day and she takes a moment to lie on his bed and sigh in remembrance, before going back to cleaning. His parents arrive for a visit, greet her pleasantly and give her a bag of snacks to take home. She cleans up after all of them, Neil does not look at her. And then a couple and their daughter arrive, clearly to arrange Neil’s marriage. Bhumi is ordered to serve them chai and snacks, and walks in on Neil and the daughter flirting in the bedroom. She stays silent and serves them, and then is informed by Neil’s mother that the engagement was finalized and she should take some sweets home to celebrate. Bhumi takes the sweets and talks with a friend and fellow maid waiting by the elevator. The other maid has just received a damaged blouse from her employer and is delighted because it is silk and embroidered, even if there is a hole. Bhumi shares her sweets and the other maid says that it must have been a “good day” for her too, since she got sweets to take home.
Like I said in my No Spoilers review, this is my favorite story. Because it deals with the subtleties of a situation where the original sex is not rape, is not criminal in any way, is not even morally wrong, but the circumstances and what happens afterwards makes it ethically wrong. We open with Bhumi and Neil in flagrante partly so we can see how close and equal they are in that moment. Both naked, both orgasming together. In fact, this is perhaps the best sex of any of these short stories. But what comes afterwards is the worst.
It was not wrong for Neil and Bhumi to have sex. The implication is that this is an arrangement of long standing, they are casual in how they finish and then go about their day. It seems more or less satisfying for both of them. Neil didn’t have to marry her, they didn’t have to be in love necessarily. But he shouldn’t have tried to deny it ever happened, to turn her back into a maid. It’s not something he should go to jail for, it’s not something he should be shunned for by society, but it is something that he knew was unjust and did it anyway. And his behavior shows that he knows it is wrong, his avoidance of meeting Bhumi’s eyes, of acknowledging her.
This is a funny sort of a gap in human relationships that isn’t often investigated. The urge is to say that the sex itself was wrong (which it wasn’t) or else that if the sex was okay then everything after can’t be complained about (which is also not right). Bhumi agreed to sex, she didn’t agree to humiliation, to being ignored and cast aside. Neil didn’t force her to sex, but he also didn’t treat her as someone with whom he had a bond afterwards.
Bhumi is returned to “maid” status as soon as Neil’s parents arrive. All he had to do was acknowledge that, while the rest of the world would see her as just a maid, he would always see her as a person. They had opportunities to talk alone together, for him to acknowledge her place in his life, and he just didn’t do it. And Bhumi was trapped by the fact that the situation would have ramifications beyond Neil if she tried to do anything. She would lose her job, probably lose the possibility of any other job, and also humiliate his parents and the rest of the household. Maybe they deserved to be humiliated, but Bhumi is enough within the “maid” mentality to need more than that to break through and consider such a strong act of rebellion.
Just like the way the sex treads the line of “okay but only not okay because of the situation”, so does Bhumi’s treatment by Neil’s family. They ask her to make tea for their guests, to carry their luggage into their room, they give her leftover sweets from the engagement and bring a small gift of snacks when they visit. They tell her she does a good job, they tell their guests that she makes wonderful chai but is an average cook, it’s all perfectly respectful and kind behavior towards an employee. It is twisting the knife for Bhumi because they clearly see her as only an employee, nothing else. But without the knowledge of the relationship she shares with Neil, she is only their employee. In a different movie, they would be rude horrible people and she would glory in keeping this secret from them, or in revealing it to them and breaking their heart. But in this movie, there are no easy answers. Neil’s parents see her only as an employee, Neil saw her as a person and had sex with her, and then returned her to the “employee” role without her consent. He is far more cruel.
In the end, the answer is that as a maid, as an employee, Bhumi has no control of what happens after sex. She could agree to the sex itself, but not to her treatment post-coitus. She has to accept it as leftover sweets, or a torn blouse, something given by the rich people because it doesn’t mean anything to them.
Dibaker Banarjee with Manisha Koirala, Sanjay Kapoor, and Jaideep Ahlawat
This is one I may need to watch again. And then again and again. It’s like Rules of the Game or something, complicated relationships that shift and then shift again and again. Manisha and Jaideep are a middle-aged couple having a little getaway for the weekend at the beach. And then after seeing them joke and laugh and be happy together, Jaideep gets a phone call and it slowly becomes clear that he is getting a call from his best friend who is also Manisha’s husband, panicked and angry because Manisha has disappeared and he can’t reach her. Manisha calls him back, and invites him to come to Jaideep’s beach house. Jaideep panics, but Manisha calmly says they should just tell her husband Sanjay the truth. And slowly more backstory comes out, they are all 3 friends from college, Jaideep had a crush on Manisha since then but was too shy to say anything so she married Sanjay. 3 years ago, Manisha was angry at Sanjay and started an affair with Jaideep. And then Sanjay arrives. We heard on the phone that he was dismissive and insulting to Manisha, but in person he is just sad and confused. Jaideep avoids telling him the truth and Sanjay avoids seeing it, instead he talks to Jaideep as a friend, asking how he can save his marriage and Jaideep tries to help. Manisha finally talks to Sanjay alone and tells him everything. Jaideep comes back into the room and Sanjay acts normal with him, suggests they spend the night since it is late. Sanjay sobs in bed and Manisha reaches out and comforts him. The next day, everything is normal, Sanjay and Manisha prepare to leave and Sanjay plans a lunch with Jaideep. Manisha asks Jaideep to take her back into the house for her sunglasses and uses the opportunity to tell him that she told Sanjay everything and his only request was that Jaideep not know he knows and that she never see him again. Manisha then gets in the car with Sanjay and answers a phone call, smiling happily.
So, there is A LOT here. Essentially every one of the three could be both villain and victim depending on your perspective. I’ll start with Manisha, since she is where the film begins and ends. If she is the villain, she is the ice queen of college who is playing a game with her husband and her husband’s best friend, wanting to hurt her husband by using the one man he trusts the most, and the one man she knows has been in love with her since college. She is happy in the end because they are both miserable, she has achieved her goal of making them both feel powerless.
Or if she is the victim, she is a wife whose husband sees her as just another trophy, he calls her job a joke, who says she would have nothing if he left her (all of which we see in the film). She reached out to the one man who seemed kind of good for solace, and now she is realizing over the course of this evening that he doesn’t actually want her, not if it means the end of his friendship with Sanjay. So she gets her revenge the only way she can, breaking Sanjay’s heart and then making sure Jaideep is trapped forever in a lie.
Or what if Sanjay is the victim. After all, he is the one who ISN’T cheating. He did nothing wrong in wooing Manisha in college, how should he know Jaideep was interested in her? He is home waiting for Manisha, taking care of their daughters, while she is having an affair. He just wants to make their marriage work, he drives all the way out to the beach house to talk to her, and he trusts Jaideep so much that he doesn’t even wonder why she is there. He sobs himself to sleep after learning of her infidelity, and the next day he is willing to make a fresh start.
But what if he is the villain? He insults and minimizes his wife over and over again until he drives her away. And he has so little understanding of her, so little thought of her as an independent person that he doesn’t even see the obvious evidence she is having an affair with Jaideep. His deal at the end, that is the most harmful, showing Manisha that he puts his friendship with Jaideep and the need to maintain that friendship over their marriage.
And then there’s Jaideep. If he is the victim, then he is a sweet man who has been in love with Manisha since college. We learn that he got engaged shortly after Manisha and Sanjay were married, and then divorced almost immediately, the implication being that he just couldn’t get over Manisha. He is poorer than them, from a government school, a success with online love advice, not business deals like Sanjay. He is caught up in Manisha and Sanjay’s games against his will, Manisha pushes him to a confrontation he doesn’t want. And in the end he is tortured, forced by her to continue the affair and also to know that his good friend Sanjay knows about it but he cannot acknowledge it.
If Jaideep is the villain, then he is the perfect “nice guy” type. Seemingly kind and understanding, devoted. But as soon as Manisha asks for something real from him, to stand up for them as a couple, he backs down. He lets her down, reveals that he just wanted the ideal of her, not the messy reality. And then in his interactions with Sanjay, he goes behind her back and tries to save the marriage she no longer wants, betraying their understanding in a terrible way. He cares more for his friendship with Sanjay, old jokes and old stories, than for the possibility of a future with Manisha. He has been lying to her and lying to himself, but ultimately he is a coward.
None of these interpretations are fully right or fully wrong. Because that’s life, and that’s relationships. Everyone is simultaneously right and wrong, it just depends on perspective. The real cruelty is to discover that you don’t share a perspective with someone you thought was always on your side. Manisha and Sanjay were a team in marriage, Manisha and Jaideep were supposed to be in love, and Sanjay and Jaideep were old friends. And all of those relationships are damaged and broken one by one until they are left to stand each alone.
Karan Johar with Neha Dhupia, Vicky Kaushal, and Kaira Advani
Well, this was disappointing! Because it has a really good idea at the center of it, probably the most common and relevant circumstance of lust, and yet the execution failed. Kaira Advani is a teacher at a girl’s school who is friends with the divorced librarian Neha. She is gently envious of her students who are brave enough to go on ice cream dates with boys, unlike herself who never experienced any of that. Her mother encourages her to marry the perfectly nice boy Vicky Kaushal and enjoy all the “ice cream” she wants within marriage. But marital sex is disappointing for her. Not painful, not violent, but she is enduring it while Vicky is enjoying it. Vicky is passionately in love and sure that they have a perfect wonderful sex life. Kaira smiles and doesn’t say anything. Finally she catches Neha masturbating with an insert able egg vibrator at work and decides to try it. In the showpiece scene, she inserts it, and then is called into the living room when Vicky shows up bruised from a minor taxi accident. As the family is gathered around, the grandmother accidentally hits the buttons on the vibrator remote and sets it off, giving Kiara an orgasm in front of the family. Everyone is shamed and unhappy. And then we jump a month into the future, Kiara is confidently wearing more revealing clothes and takes control of her conversation with Vicky when they meet at the same place they had their first date in order to discuss their divorce. And he offers her a spoonful of ice cream, and her eyes widen, implying that she finally feels a desire for him that didn’t come in anything they did before.
So, the central idea is great! And relevant to pretty much any culture. A young wife, a virgin before marriage, who is just not happy with the sex they are having. But is too shy and inexperienced to know how to express that. And so the young husband goes along, happily thinking everything is perfect. Until it all comes crashing down.
The problem is the execution. It is just slightly too explicit in the beginning, both in Kiara’s conversations with Neha and with her mother, what she wants. I would find it better done if it were more subtly done, a slight glance or tiny tightening of the mouth to imply that she is looking for sex in marriage along with everything else. Instead of it being stated that she is marrying only for sex.
The interactions, including the sex scenes, between Kiara and Vicky are perfect. They are the same interactions we see in most films, the eager young husband excited to see her with wet hair, or in the morning, or really for any reason. While the wife is mature and simply smiles. But it twists it slightly so that we see the wife smiling could mean that she doesn’t feel it is ladylike to reveal her own desires, or because she truly has no desire or interest in sex with her husband. And it’s not Vicky’s fault, he just doesn’t know. He is as inexperienced as she is, unless she tells him what she wants, how she is feeling, so he can’t respond to it. And it’s also not Kiara’s fault. She doesn’t have the words to say what she wants, isn’t even sure if there is something she wants, if there is something more.
It’s the fault of the whole situation, that they got married without any sexual knowledge or preparation, without talking to each other honestly about their expectations, without knowing the importance of communication to make sure they are both satisfied. And that is what Karan doesn’t know how to address. Instead, he goes for humor.
I don’t like the masturbation scene not because it is indiscrete or anything stupid like that, but because it is a quick joke in the place of a real moment. If Vicky had come home to find her masturbating, and they had a sincere difficult conversation about why she was doing this and what was happening in their marriage, followed by sex that satisfied both of them, that would have been more honest for me. Or even better, if Kiara had learned from masturbating what sex should really be like and had asked Neha for advice the next day and returned to Vicky ready to give specific directions.
But instead we go into this amusing humorous moment instead. And then suddenly jump 30 days in the future, going from Kiara being ashamed and unhappy to being suddenly confident and blooming. The journey from shy and unhappy to confident is the most important part of her story, and it is just skipped entirely. Despite the wonderful acting from all the characters, and the simple important central idea, the film fails.