Not too long ago Bollywood would rely on metaphors to show sexual intercourse. A man and a woman would have a meet cute and break into a song soon after; during the song, they would arrive in a lush green field and perform some awkward dance moves before falling down and disappearing into the greenery. Cut to a shot of two flowers brushing against each other.
On-screen intimacy was not a taboo in Indian cinema until 1952 when the Cinematograph Act was passed and on-screen kisses were declared indecent. Yet India’s relationship with intimate scenes in films continued to evolve over time. In the early 2000s, many lips were locked on celluloid, with actor Emraan Hashmi coming to be called a ‘Serial Kisser’. These kisses, of course, catered to the heterosexual male gaze.
Bollywood seems to have become more accepting of a variety of sexual experiences of late. Bombay Talkies, released in 2013, broke some new ground in this regard. It was an anthology of short films by four established Bollywood directors — Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Zoya Akhtar. One of these short films, titled Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh and directed by Johar, showed two men kissing. It remains a rare depiction of homosexual desire in mainstream(ish) Bollywood cinema.
The four are back now with another anthology, Lust Stories. The title, indeed, undersells the contents which dig deeper than mere lust. We are instead treated to four nuanced portrayals of sexual relationships.
Each short film has a female protagonist — a happy coincident, according to the directors. Somewhat uniquely for Bollywood, these women are never objectified for the audiences’ viewing pleasure even when they are shown as sexual beings. Lust Stories does not try to sanitise sex for the most part. It, in fact, recognises that sex can be messy.
One of the four women featured in the anthology, Kalindi (Radhika Apte), creates the biggest mess. She is a married college professor who is having a sexual relationship with one of her students. She warns him not to get too clingy but then starts to stalk him and gets jealous of his girlfriend — who is also a student in her class.
Anurag Kashyap, the director of the short film, displays his independent film sensibilities to the hilt here. He lets Radhika do a lot on her own and she does a good enough job. She is so believable in her character that she does not look her glamorous Bollywood self at all. Many of her dialogues sound like they have been improvised, giving the story an added layer of credibility. To further enhance this illusion of reality, the short film takes the form of a mockumentary, with an interview of Kalindi interspersed between the scenes.
Dibakar Banerjee, the anthology’s other indie film-maker, also deals with a married woman, Reena (played by Manisha Koirala), who is having an extramarital affair. He, however, has paced his film differently from Kashyap’s which has a near constant nervous energy about it. The entire story in Banerjee’s film unfolds during a single night and the morning after. His protagonist is a housewife cheating on her husband Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) with his best friend Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). When she is visiting Sudhir one night, Salman calls him and later pays them a visit.
The stakes for Banerjee’s characters, who are wealthy middle-aged folks with children, are high and, thus, they are willing to forego an awful lot to keep up the pretense of a normal life. While Kashyap’s story allows Radhika to go all out, Manisha is required to have a quiet intensity — and she delivers big time.
Unexpectedly, this is turning out to be a great comeback year for the 48-year-old Manisha. While she is wowing cinemagoers with her role in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju, her essaying of Reena is another noteworthy performance.
Towards the end of Banerjee’s short film, we see Reena put on her sunglasses and smile with relief. In this moment, Manisha manages to express a lot without uttering a single word. A similarly striking performance that does not rely on dialogue is by Bhumi Pednekar who is playing Sudhaa in Akhtar’s short film.
The film starts with Sudhaa and Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam) having sex. Ajit then goes for a shower and Sudhaa starts to mop the floor. Without anyone having to say this, the audience learns that she is a maid in Ajit’s bachelor pad. Ajit’s parents soon arrive to make him meet a girl and her family for marriage. Sudhaa makes tea for them, listening to their conversations while quietly going through heartbreak. At the day’s end, Ajit’s mother rewards her for her good work with some sweets to take home.
Zoya Akhtar’s love for international cinema is quite apparent in her treatment of this short film. She lets the camera linger, almost as if she is waiting for the action to unfold organically. The dialogue is concise and meant to work at multiple levels. The symbols and objects also serve a bigger purpose than just being ornamentations.
Zoya is clearly having fun here. In her feature films, like Dil Dhadkne Do, her cinematic language is often keeping with the conventions of commercial cinema though she still manages to tell meaningful stories. It is refreshing to see her push herself as a film-maker in Lust Stories.
And then there is the king of masala Bollywood: Karan Johar. His film is very different from the rest of the anthology in many ways. It has signature sensibilities of his family’s production house, Dharma Productions: the actors look glamorous, the script is a mix of humour and drama, the background music is meant to be noticed and, of course, there are songs.
Yet this is not your average Johar storyline. It follows Megha (Kiara Advani), a young school teacher married to Paras (Vicky Kaushal) who is unable to please her in bed but is blissfully unaware of his inability. Frustrated, Megha decides to take things in her own hands and brings home a vibrator.
This is surprisingly the second vibrator-related storyline in a Bollywood film this year. The first being a controversial scene in Veere Di Wedding. But while one can expect such an envelope pushing scene from a Swara Bhaskar-starrer like Veere Di Wedding, it is a bit of a surprise from Johar.
His treatment of the scene is also noteworthy. It is characteristically self-referential; as Megha has an orgasm, we hear Lata Mangeshkar sing Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham from Johar’s 2001 blockbuster of the same name. This is a bold choice, one that has ruffled some feathers and made Lata’s family speak out against it.
A film trying to push some hot buttons – just what Lust Stories does – would usually struggle with the censor board. It was unlikely that the film would have played in Indian cinemas without having to edit out many of the elements that make it work.
The film-makers have managed to circumvent the censors by releasing it directly on Netflix — as a manifestation of the evolving media landscape in India. It seems that digital cinema is finally taking off in that country with big budgets and big names slowly warming up to this medium. Kashyap’s big budget Netflix show Sacred Games premiered earlier this month to rave reviews. It has A-list actors like Saif Ali Khan. Similarly, Akhtar is working on a web-based series for streaming service Amazon.
Lust Stories shows the freedom that the digital medium can give to film-makers. Without having to worry about the censors, large distribution budgets and box office expectations, all its four directors have taken big risks. And these risks have paid off.
The writer was previously a staffer at the Herald.
This article was published in the Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.