Cast: Kiara Advani, Vicky Kaushal, Neha Dhupia, Radhika Apte, Bhumi Pednekar
Directors: Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Bannerjee, Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
The man calls the woman dirty. We have just witnessed a man and a woman having noisy, sweaty sex and, when he heads to the shower and she chooses not to, he calls her dirty. His Hindi words - "Gandi, saali!" - ring out cruder than any on-screen action, and they briefly sound accusatory and judgemental till she sizes him up and throws it right back. "Nanga, saala," she retorts with a laugh, holding both his towel and the last word.
Five years ago, these directors got together to make Bombay Talkies - four films with cinema as the theme - and the band seems better tuned to this format now, with each film better contained within itself as well as better suited to the others. They may have been crafted independent of each other, but the films sit rather assuredly on the same shelf. The films belie the tawdriness of the title, and instead of lust itself, each director focusses on something that is born from it.
Kashyap's film is about possessiveness. A woman stretches languorously in the backseat of a car, upholstered in a shiny dress as she listens to the songs of Mohammad Rafi. She appears unbearably patronising to the young man she is accompanying - even though it is understandable to judge a man with the collected works of Chetan Bhagat on his bookshelf - till we see she is his teacher at college. It all adds up, slowly.
She enters into this clandestine affair with her eyes open, speaking of Amrita Pritam and Draupadi, and soon finds herself consumed by it, stalking the young man and wanting more, more, more. We are indeed watching a woman unravel, but we are also watching a woman lose control to possessiveness, reduced to behaving the way a man would. Kashyap is aware of his intent - the 'Me Too' movement is referenced, and there is a cameo from comedian Sumukhi Suresh (who writes and stars in Pushpavalli, an Amazon show about a female stalker) - but the film labours its point too hard. Radhika Apte is convincingly unhinged, but Kashyap's uneven attempts at breaking the fourth-wall by letting her talk to the audience, or at caricature, via a professor who talks nerdily of monogamous penguins, come off too indulgent, as does the running time.
Banerjee's film is about fidelity. A man sits on a beach in white shorts, with a white kerchief to protect those very shorts. A still-stunning woman walks out of the water cinematically and asks how she's looking. 'Like a mother of two,' he replies, and they laugh. She asks why he never learnt to swim, and he says it's because his father wasn't a member of the Gymkhana. Later, she considers herself and says she isn't that overweight, to which he parries, "As compared to?" It is an easy, mature, finely aged relationship, free of the torridness we associate with an affair. These people, it is clear, know each other.
It is soon evident they know each other too well. He is her husband's closest friend, and, as the night turns murkier, the cuckolded husband joins them at the beach-house. Secrets and mangoes are sliced open. Banerjee's lines are reminiscent of a Woody Allen drama - in one gem, the husband calls the wife "the queen of ban sakti thi," the queen of what may have been - and so is this mature, emotionally terse imbroglio.
This film packs the wallop of a feature, perhaps because of the stunning performances. Jaideep Ahlawat - who was so strong in Raazi - is terrific as the man unable to choose between saving his friendship and saving his affair, and he finally gives up and sits by himself, reliving his own old triumphs on YouTube. Sanjay Kapoor is a startlingly good pick as the defeated husband, and there is "a moment of denial - where he hears his friend's name and still thinks of someone else - that is a knockout. Speaking of knockouts, the film belongs to Manisha Koirala. Her unbearably expressive face shows off her vulnerability but then turns inscrutable as a Sphinx. At one point the husband asks whether her affair began after one of their fights. "No, it was a peaceful day," she smiles, exhaling freely and secretlessly.
Johar's film is about loving yourself. This one is a broader comedy featuring a buxom librarian and a silly principal who believes Nabokov meant to write 'lions' when his narrator called Lolita the fire of his loins, but there is a tenderness and a sense of purpose that makes it special. A shy young bride, having considered her entire life right upto the wedding-night as foreplay, quickly tires of the five-second intercourse her husband loves so much.
Kiara Advani is positively lovely as this wide-eyed young bride, with Vicky Kaushal suitably cringeworthy as the loser who refuses to multitask, or even to ask. It is the sly writing that really scores: the girl requests a serving of small-talk before things get serious, she reads Alfred Noyes in class and thinks wistfully of riding highwaymen, and finally - in a most memorable bit of self-effacement - there is a climax triggered off by the grandmother, one that forever redefines the meaning of a song.
Akhtar's film is the finest. It is about longing, about boundaries, about all that remains unspoken, and about love itself. It starts with sounds of sex and, step by step, we see the characters and learn that she is the maid and he is the single man renting the flat. It is a minimal, beautiful film with Akhtar gradually and lovingly fetishising the very act of cleaning a house even as the maid begins to grow wistful.
She enjoys screwing the master but it cannot lead anywhere. She knows she has no right to expect more, something she is reminded when she sees a fellow maid thrilled with discarded finery, and yet her hands tremble. Bhumi Pednekar is hauntingly good as the maid, and this film - only twenty minutes long - remains the hardest to shake off.
What a classroom this has turned out to be. A+ for Akhtar, A for Banerjee, A for Johar, B for Kashyap. Lust Stories is out on Netflix, and I applaud these four distinct filmmakers for exploring this anthological format and still maintaining their originality of vision. Your mileage may vary on which film you like best, but it is heartening to watch these creators decode the idea of lust and never attempt to titillate. That would be too obvious. Carnality, after all, is only part of the equation. The headiness of lust lies also in the exhalation, the smile, the laugh. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Come.