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Lust Stories review: Scintillating anthology that explores nuances, joy of sexuality and female freedom

Release Date: 15 Jun 2018 / Rated: A / 02hr 00min


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Shriram Iyengar

Directors Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar explore different aspects of sexual freedom, relationships, and individuality from the perspective of women. 

Theatres are right now being fuelled by the rabid testosterone of Salman Khan's Race 3. For movie lovers unwilling to participate in another exercise of machoism, there is Lust Stories. The anthology of four films directed by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar is a nuanced, delightful take on women as free, sexually independent creatures with desires, dreams, and ambition beyond the reach, and sometimes the ability, of men around them.

The anthology begins with Kalindi (Radhika Apte), a college professor questioning the dynamics of relationships and sexual freedom. She struggles to balance her objective dalliance with Tejas Bhave (Akash Thosar), while trying to keep a stable relationship with her husband. This constant fight between her ideological and personal self makes this a riveting watch. The actress is in fine form, and as a writer, has also delivered a very effective statement. It is directed by Anurag Kashyap.

The story is followed immediately by that of Zoya Akhtar's Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar), a quiet maidservant accepting and aware of her status in society, and the exploitation faced by her. Despite her status, she is never shy in bed. She can curse as good as her upper-middle-class employer (Neil Bhoopalam) in bed. Pednekar, despite having at the most five lines, manages to deliver a performance that keeps you glued.

Dibakar Banerjee focusses on a woman's search for self-identity beyond that of a husband and her family. Manisha Koirala plays the hotshot banker-turned-housewife, who has an affair with her husband's (Sanjay Kapoor) best friend, Sudhir (Jaideep Ahlawat). Banerjee eschews any dramatics to create a nuanced portrayal of three individuals caught in each other's web. Koirala is fantastic as the woman who is ready to accept the consequences of her affair, even as the men around her beat around the bush for a simpler adjustment.

The final story remains the most delightful of them all and is directed by Karan Johar. In contrast to Johar's commercial films, the short captures a world where women are unafraid to flaunt their sexuality, needs or ambitions, and where men are blubbering idiots incapable of action. Neha Dhupia and Kiara Advani are vulnerable, brave and sassy as the women strutting around in a world that seeks to contain them.

The films, in no little way, belongs to the women. Whether it is Radhika Apte's ambiguous lover, Bhumi Pednekar's stoic caregiver or Manisha Koirala and Kiara Advani's ambitions, there is a completeness to these characters. Women in Hindi cinema are often not given the space to express their yearnings, ambitions, and the constant disappointment of the men around them. The film did remind your reviewer of the late poet Maya Angelou's words:

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.

'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

In this anthology, women talk about sex. They rant and rave about the confusion of their relationships. They quietly simmer in anger, and sometimes, just let go. It makes the film a refreshing change of sight for every cinephile who will be hounded by the sight of Salman Khan's pectorals staring down from theatre hoardings in the next week.

Radhika Apte, Kiara Advani, Manisha Koirala and Bhumi Pednekar deliver intense, delightful performances that hold up their stories. They are backed by equally interesting performances by the men. Akash Thosar, Sanjay Kapoor and Jaideep Ahlawat, in particular, are standouts, while Vicky Kaushal delivers another delightful Netflix performance after Love Per Square Foot earlier this year.

A word of praise for the fantastic opening animation (Studio Kokaachi) that reminds one of Saul Bass's animated synopsis of movies. It works in drawing the audience in, as well as revealing some key elements and metaphors of the shorts to follow. The music, another fantastic element that plays to the strengths of the stories. 'Jugni' by Amit Trivedi and 'Tune Kaha' by Sneha Khanvalkar and Prateek Kuhad are the standout tracks.

But the strength of the film is the courage to explore a subject often forgotten, or hidden under the wraps of metaphors, in Hindi cinema. Perhaps it is the digital platform that allows filmmakers a certain freedom to go beyond subjects that traditional theatre audiences would wish to watch in public. Lust Stories explores and reveals the fact that lust is not bad. It is just different from love, but just as natural and necessary.

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