Just watched the new Netflix original Lust Stories made by the same quartet of directors who had done Bombay Talkies, and which I had enjoyed. This too is a four in one, and touted to be, if you go by the review in The Telegraph of Kolkata, about lust from the woman’s perspective, and what is more important, does not shame her but makes her feel more liberated, more powerful.
I found the first story delightful in a cynical way. The young woman says she is wary about men with whom she has one-night stands, because they get attached and emotional too easily, and start stalking her and attempting to control her life and making a nuisance of themselves in every possible way: they apparently lack the maturity to ‘take it and leave it’ as every smart, modern, liberated person should. Then she turns around and behaves in exactly the way she says she despises in men as soon as she has bedded a very young man – who happens to be one of her students in college – she haunts him, follows him around, rings him up incessantly, screams at him at every imagined slight, tries her utmost to break up his other relationship because she cannot bear to see him with another female, even at a restaurant, and yet, when he, embarrassed and shocked and guilty for no real fault of his own, offers to make her his permanent one and only, snaps at him without a trace of self-consciousness ‘Are you mad? I am a married woman!’ I do hope that the writer/director has been trying to tell us precisely what I have been saying all my adult life: there is nothing universally good about women, many of them can be just as crazy and unpleasant as the worst of men. And I wonder whether it was a deliberate stroke of artistry to show that highly unstable and immature characters like that can become teachers these days... one last thing that this mini-movie brought to mind is something that I have been alternately laughing and grimacing over for quite some time now – the way people all over the world have gone stark, raving mad about ensuring whether or not the sex was consensual, the time is not far off when all men who know what is good for them will get audio recorded- (or better still, written and signed) statements from their about-to-be partners in bed that it was just so, even their own wives, preferably every time they are thinking of doing it, and file the growing mass of paper away in a burglar-proof safe for the day when they will be called for in court. Watch the movie to find out which scene I am talking about (and one very personal take: Radhika Apte is ageing fast and not gracefully, unless the makeup man was told to present her that way).
The second story is very real, very common, and very sad. The domestic help pleasures her employer in bed and hopes that something like a good and lasting relationship might come of it, only to see a match being fixed up for him right before her eyes, and he going around as if she has ceased to exist, entirely insouciant and unapologetic. I know just how she feels, as did Tagore – in more than one poignant story (The Postmaster and The Castaway spring immediately to mind) he has shown how the slighted party feels, how it can happen to either gender and regardless of age, and how there is no help for it; the victim has to grin and bear it. Which is exactly what Sudha does when she bites into the mithai and smiles resignedly if a trifle ruefully to herself before deciding to move on. The sex bit is actually irrelevant unless you are a prurient teen regardless of your physical age. Which is of course actually a very common type of adult in India still (you should see the prudish and ignorant mother in the fourth movie who came to yell at the schoolteachers for not scolding her daughter for chatting on Facebook and giving her ‘bad books’ – Lolita – to read), but that is neither the director’s fault nor mine.
The third story is about a failing marriage and the woman finding solace in the arms of her husband’s lifelong best friend. The husband, though overtly more assertive and domineering, is actually much the weaker character (haven’t I seen far too many!), and the woman, as portrayed by Monisha Koirala, is not a very sympathetic character either. I doubt very strongly whether this can actually be called one of the ‘lust’ stories, because the lovers seem neither to get much pleasure out of the sex nor to be too eager about it; I would have said they are in it because they have found true companionship, but the man is not keen on making new, deep commitments which conflict with an old one, to wit the friendship, and in any case the curtain drops over ambiguity, because the woman tells the lover that her husband has ordered ‘this must end’ and goes back with and to him... the reviewer in The Telegraph called this one the ‘most mature’ story, but I think I am much older than she and have seen much more of the world, and to me it remained very unclear what the whole point was, unless it was simply to show that lots of people are caught up in nasty relational tangles and have no real idea how to get out of them, though they might thrash around like landed fish for a while. Yes, indeed, such is life, whether you are filthy rich or not.
The last one is the most hilarious, though one cannot miss the sadness. But at least there is hope here. The young husband cannot sufficiently satisfy his new bride, and she finds a better substitute for him in a vibrator (the woman from whom she had filched it had called it her real husband: this one character at least was in-your-face about not wanting much out of marriage beyond sex), but unfortunately drops a bomb in the household while doing it, and it nearly comes to a divorce, were it not that the husband wants to see if the marriage can be made to work, still, because he has apparently fallen in love. What a pity that so many marriages remain loveless and unfulfilling in this country for reasons like this, simply because ‘nice people’ prefer not to talk about ‘such things’ if they can help it, whereas a little bit of honesty and candour would quickly bring a happy resolution via the doctor’s prescription or a shrink’s counsel. I wonder whether the juxtaposition of sharply contrary women’s views was inadvertent or not, but it is good to see that we are beginning to acknowledge in a forum as public as the cinema that while many women still think that having children is the be all and end all of a woman’s life, there are many others who think it’s all about sex and nothing else. I have never been able to decide which is the more pathetic, the more revolting attitude.
Nice though not unforgettable cinema, slickly made, provoking thoughts that I had and shared thirty and more years ago. But I wonder about that reviewer’s opinion. It is good if this sort of thing does not shame women any more – I have never really believed that shyness (lojja) is woman’s ornament, and have seen that in practice this lojja comes out as coyness and prudishness and opportunism, which most men find both mildly disgusting and very difficult to handle. But, how do these situations make women feel ‘more liberated and powerful’? That could at best be said about the woman in the last movie: watch and judge for yourself. And if behaving like the cantankerous female in the first one is what smart urban Indian women think does make them liberated and powerful, I will have difficulty stifling yawns when it comes to dealing with women who claim they are grown up. I have known women of a bygone age who were far stronger, deeper, more interesting specimens of humanity, you see – women who did worthwhile things and whom you could have intelligent conversations with. Alas, I have hardly met half a dozen like that in the 25 to 60 age-group in the last thirty odd years, in person or over the net, though I have dealt with thousands. I wonder if the directors could make a movie based on what I have had the misfortune to see?