I am unashamed to say that I grew up on a staple of Bollywood films, especially ones starring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. As I grew older, the many different variations of Rahuls (Khanna, Raichand, etc.) continued to define the idea of romance for me, and set unrealistic expectations for my relationships to come. Needless to say, I have been disappointed in my wait for a man who will run towards me with perfect hair blowing in the wind across an elongated wooden bridge or shed a single tear drop – yes, just one – of blood over the loss of a relationship with me. Despite that, for me it was and still always #SRKForeverForWhatever.
I feel I am not alone in this. When one thinks of Indian cinema, often time what comes to mind is the typical sagas of conflicted love. That or the over-the-top action Tamil cinema of South India that has been brought to the international stage by superstar Rajinikanth. This is why Netflix’s recent Indian original ‘Lust Stories’ is groundbreaking in helping redefine what Indian cinema is and could be.
‘Lust Stories’ is an anthology consisting of four short films by four acclaimed directors: Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. It addresses a theme that is always suggested in Bollywood films, but never really addressed: sex.
The films deal with women and sex in different ways: Kashyap’s film features a teacher’s obsessive tetè-a-tetè with her student and Akhtar’s film deals with the disparity between a servant and her employer. Meanwhile, in Banerjee’s film, a middle-aged woman juggles a loveless marriage with children and a two-year affair. The anthology ends with Johar’s comical dealings of a new bride’s sexual frustration.
In the majority of Asian countries and cultures, female sexual agency is still a subject of much cloak and dagger. It is an unspoken understanding that women do have sex, but much of the discussion surrounding sex still does not include women and their preferences. Often in Asian films and even a majority of Western films (see: Megan Fox in the Transformers film franchise, for example), women protagonists are objectified and sexualized rather than showcased as sexual beings with thoughts and preferences of their own. Women with sexual agency also tend to be portrayed as antagonists with loose morals, giving viewers the impression that sexuality within a female body is a crime rather than an empowering component to her existence.
Stories like the ones in ‘Lust Stories’ feature a new type of female. While different in plot, all four stories explore the idea of the sexually liberated Indian woman, unafraid to express their sexual needs and yet still conflicted due to their conventional upbringing. The leading characters in each short are unapologetic about their desires but uncertain about how to navigate around the conventions that they have been groomed to practice. The conflicts surrounding them are relatable to the women of today which makes ‘Lust Stories’ more realistic and believable than any Bollywood flick in existence.
Of course, like in real life, defeats come with triumphs: For example, the persistence of Johar’s character Megha (played by Kiara Advani) in defending her right to sexual pleasure after being cast out by her mother-in-law due to an unfortunate incident with a vibrator under her saree (hilariously accompanied by the chorus of Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham) is contrasted by Banerjee’s Reena (played by veteran Manisha Koirala). After admitting to her affair with her husband’s best friend, Reena returns to her husband and her family despite expressing throughout the short film that she is deserving of more in her life than an empty unhappy marriage.
‘Lust Stories’ also show the different dynamics of how women deal with their sexuality, such as in the stoic and quiet indifference of Akhtar’s character Sudhaa (played by Bhumi Pednekar) in heavy contrast with the loud, brash displays of emotion by Kashyap’s character Kalindi (played by Radhika Apte). Where Sudhaa remains quietly dignified throughout her employer and sex partner’s rishta (marriage proposal) with another lady, Kalindi breaks into a rage at every turn the moment she suspects her student Tejas of dating his classmate. All of these makie ‘Lust Stories’ incredibly wholesome in their attempt to show sex in women from different parts of Indian society.
While some cinephiles believe that film should be a form of escapism and therefore should not always mimic real life, the characters and the issues portrayed in ‘Lust Stories’ prove that there is a need for a certain amount of realism in films. The directors of the shorts have taken a step in the right direction to open up a conversation about issues that are considered taboo such as a woman’s sexual agency, and also have broken the stereotype of what a film from India is (or should be). A huge kudos to Netflix for bringing this original to fruition. I am hopeful for more groundbreaking shorts and films to come from the Asian region that will not sugarcoat and tell it like it is.
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