As Indian cinema’s worldwide audience grows, most people are acquainted exclusively with Bollywood – Hindi-language romantic dramas full of dazzling song-and-dance numbers that may or may not be related to plot.
But Indian cinema has always been more than that, just as Italian film extends beyond neorealism or and the French New Wave is just one piece of a rich history. Cinephiles may know Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, which offers a glimpse of the type of gritty auteurship that doesn’t pay the Bollywood bills, but speaks to some truly fine artistry. Indian short films remain a source of this ingenuity and excellence, and Netflix’s Lust Stories is a fresh new installment.
Like Bombay Talkies before it, Lust Stories is an anthology of short films from known Indian directors Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar. They are exceedingly simple stories: a teacher’s obsession with her student, an extramarital affair, a servant’s relationship with her employer, a newlywed couple with bedroom problems.
But as the title suggests, the through line of these stories is not love, but sex. Love is Bollywood’s be-all-end-all, the strongest force in the universe whose life-or-death stakes can usually be consummated by a tight hug in an open field. At the same time, commercial films commodify sex, knowing that it sells but never delving deeper than a raunchy song or provocative clothing.
In Lust Stories, sex takes center stage, and it’s often unresolved or messy. Characters struggle to explain motivation for their actions in a notoriously prude culture that hasn’t equipped them with the tools to do so. The older generation is uniformly depicted as oblivious and conservative; sex is neither seen nor heard of, and any reference to it is shameful.
The anthology arrives on Netflix on the heels of a much-buzzed Bollywood premiere: The female-led romantic comedy Veere Di Wedding. Most criticism of the film from angry Twitter users focused on the core characters drinking, swearing, and speaking openly about sex – never mind that real women in India and all over the world do this every day. Ultimately, it was a valiant effort if a bit of a thin one, and its frank depiction of desire and the surrounding discourse is something India’s short films and “artistic” media have done for decades.
(Not that it matters, but Lust Stories and Veere Di Wedding both include a masturbation scene, and the formertakes the cake with director Johar spectacularly trolling himself).
Perhaps the most timely takeaway is that poor sex education and socialization are worldwide problems. Why is it, as Radhika Apte’s character asks in the Kashyap short, that a romantic partner is supposed to be everything to someone?
“How can I expect everything of one man?” asks the married woman infatuated with a college student who ghosts her for one of his peers. Similarly, the middle-aged heroine of Banerjee’s short is comfortable juggling her marriage and her two-year affair.
The most intriguing vignette might be Akhtar’s, which contains minimal dialogue amidst the ambient sounds of a classically urban, middle-class apartment in India. The tenant and his employee are clearly having great sex, but he lets his parents introduce him to other women for an arranged marriage.
The match highlights the disparity in station, education, and means between the sexual partners, and casts a harsh light on their concerning power dynamic. Without a single explicit conversation between her characters, Akhtar spotlights wealth, class, and patriarchy, and she leaves it to the audience to draw any conclusions therein.
If this quartet of directors plans to keep sharing their shorter passion projects with audiences, Netflix may well be the platform for it. Lust Stories flies by in a blur of character and emotion, but the stories are out there, and the conversations will continue.
Lust Stories is now streaming on Netflix.