Lust Stories: what’s stopping Indian women from demanding sex?

Through Sudha’s reticence, Akhtar brings alive a searing commentary on how the middle class looks down on the very people who stand witness to the ugly and most intimate aspects of their lives.

By Poulomi Das

In Lust Stories — the Netflix anthology directed by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Karan Johar — Akhtar’s short begins with a quietly powerful sex scene.

A man and a woman entwined in each other’s bodies; the woman’s legs tightly enveloping the man’s back and his hands aggressively clasping her head as they settle into a rhythm. Just as you’re about to write it off as yet another missionary love-making, they attempt a role reversal. She (a scene-stealing Bhumi Pednekar) gets on top and rides him (Neil Bhoopalam) with gusto — her expressive face keenly articulating the pleasure she derives from the act while his eyes amusingly remain shut. It’s only post-coitus that we discern a fact that make us view this morning romp as a tool of silent subversion: She is his maid, Sudha.

In the next few minutes after their down and dirty sex, Sudha readjusts to her place in the hierarchy of the house. As the bachelor, he takes a shower, gets ready for work, looks engrossed in a call, and wears a pensive look while reading a newspaper on the dining table. As the bachelor’s maid, she, on the other hand, scrubs the house clean, makes him breakfast, irons his clothes, and, proceeds to change the very sheets they tainted. There’s a business-like domesticity to Sudha’s actions, almost mirroring that of an overworked wife — yet there’s an insurmountable class and gender divide between both these versions. On the surface however, they look no different (a point beautifully reiterated by the shot-taking).

Besides the fact that Pednekar channels a haunting passive-expressive body language (She has a total of two lines), what makes Akhtar’s short groundbreaking is its unflinching articulation of the hypocrisies of the entitled middle class. Through Sudha’s reticence, Akhtar brings alive a searing commentary on how the middle class looks down on the very people who stand witness to the ugly and most intimate aspects of their lives. (There’s even a wry scene where Sudha is shown drying the family’s underwear.) For her tenant’s family, Sudha is only a mock placeholder as the “mistress of the house” until they find the real one  — a suitable girl for their son. And, yet it’s Sudha who ends up welding an insurmountable power over her male tenant, on bed, and in the house — they are almost crippled without her.

In doing so, Akhtar perfects the delicate dance between emphasising how the naked emotion of “lust” is forbidden to Indian women who’re taught the other L word instead, and how despite this conditioning, women like Sudha, seem to know exactly how to recognise it. It’s also a common thread colouring all the four shorts in Lust Stories, which attempts to shatter the long-accepted translation of lust as “women wanting something they can’t have”. Instead, through the eyes of its four female protagonists, the anthology drives home the point that Indian women’s relationship with lust is hardly that pat. It’s as layered as them knowing exactly what they want but being confounded about how to have it.

Through Sudha’s reticence, Zoya Akhtar brings alive a searing commentary on how the middle class looks down on the very people who stand witness to the ugly and most intimate aspects of their lives. Image Credit: RSVP Productions

Take Kalindi (Radhika Apte), the mercurial college professor, who’s the lead in Kashyap’s short for instance. Getting married to her first boyfriend meant Kalindi barely had the chance to sexually explore herself with men other than her husband. Now in a long-distance open marriage, when she attempts to course-correct and manufacture the rite of passage of indulging in casual sex with her younger student (Sairat’extremely likeable Akash Thosar), she is unable to view lust in isolation. (Who’d think it would be Kashyap whose short wouldn’t comprise a visual sex scene?)

For Kalindi, her whole life has been about believing that love and lust coexist, which is precisely why she struggles to separate the two. Like most Indian women, even Kalindi, has never been taught how to. So, it’s not surprising that despite initiating it, it’s Kalindi who sees a fling through the prism of a toxic relationship: she expects him to be honest, see her as a priority, gets jealous if he hangs out with other women, and demands exclusivity. (To be more accurate, she behaves like men usually do.) Because, Kalindi isn’t programmed to deal with lust independently, she essentially becomes all the things she warned him about — even metamorphosing into an unceremonious stalker. Kashyap’s short is then a fascinating, zoomed-in portrait of the conflicted mind of a delusional Indian woman battling the demons of institutionalised lust and monogamy.

Even Reena (a tender Manisha Koirala), a 40-something unhappy and bored housewife in Banerjee’s short, is desperate to have autonomy over her own primal instinct. For her, lust can’t exist without self-assertion; what’s the point of sex if it doesn’t have the stamp of her authority over it? It’s why she feels distanced from her patriarchal husband (Sanjay Kapoor doing a vulnerable version Anil Kapoor from Dil Dhadakne Do) who’s a control freak and starts an extramarital affair with his best friend (Jaideep Ahlawat rocking the poker-face). But only later, does it dawn on her that even her illicit relationship wasn’t merely the product of her attraction. Instead, she was driven to it by her self-obsessed husband, for whom her independence is invisible. Unlike Kalindi, for Reena, love has got nothing to do with lust. Instead it’s about having the right to start over again.

In Johar’s short, it’s impossible to not see Megha (Kiara Advani) the newly-wed in search of her own climax, as the younger version of Reena. Like her, even Megha succeeds at not letting love and lust coalesce. And,although she’s acutely aware of her desultory sex life, this reality escapes her oblivious husband (Vicky Kaushal) for he believes in only five thrusts. That leaves Megha to be the harbinger of her own orgasm, which also means that she has effectively been denied the privilege of lusting for someone and it paying off. Even ironic is the fact that it’s her orgasm that sounds the death knell on her marriage. (If Veere Di Wedding ruffled feathers with one masturbation scene, Lust Stories will be the cause of heart attacks for multiple grandmothers.)

Despite their different circumstances and their varied relationship with lust, it’s evident that they are the same person in different stages of her life: A woman who is in control of her lust, one who has the opportunity to control it, one who is trying to reclaim her control, and one who is yet to experience the pleasure of lust. In doing so, Lust Stories leaves its audience with one evocative question: What does it mean to be an Indian woman and choose to lust unabashedly?

Poulomi Das is a writer at Arré.

This article has been previously published on Arré.