Freedom and Lust

 Sneaking into the Mirror, Kalam Patua, 2009

Sneaking into the Mirror, Kalam Patua, 2009

In 2014, a study offered biological evidence to back something most of us have known to be true thanks to that elaborate experiment called life: you can tell love from lust just by the way a person’s gaze travels. Stephanie Cacioppo, whose previous research had shown different networks in the brain are activated by love and sexual desire, co-authored a study in which a group of subjects were shown a set of images. They were then asked to decide whether the image evoked romantic love or sexual desire.

“People tended to visually fixate on the face, especially when they said an image elicited a feeling of romantic love. However, with images that evoked sexual desire, the subjects’ eyes moved from the face to fixate on the rest of the body. The effect was found for male and female participants,” reported the study.

(Incidentally, none of the images that were given to the subjects contained nudity or erotica, but some inspired lust anyway. Feel free to toss that into the next conversation in which anyone suggests a variation of “she was asking for it”.)

Most classic depictions of lust do rely upon the gaze. There is an illicitness to the lustful gaze, a hushed acknowledgement that hormones have flushed logic out of your system. The question of whether that gaze is sleazy or tempting depends upon the ‘object’ of that attention. Desire unhinged from emotion can be delicious when there’s consent and complicity. Remove that consent and complicity, and all you have is sleaze and power play. Add it to the mix, and everyday behaviour gleams with longing — that side-eye glance that acknowledges the other, the back that arches just to preen, the parted lips, the tapping fingers, crossed legs. It’s our dirty secret so we don’t put it to words.

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For about 30 seconds, when Radhika Apte stuck her head out of a car window and enjoyed the wind in her hair, Lust Stories lived up to its promise. A vintage Bollywood song chittered in the background. You felt the night, the neon and music tugging at her. Yellow streetlights lit her up, catching the shine on her lips and the glint in her eyes. Darkness lingered on her curves and hollows, creating a map of shadowy desire. For about 30 seconds, all you saw on screen was sensuality.  

Then the scene ended and it all went downhill when Apte’s character, Kalindi, started talking.

If the idea of Anurag Kashyap’s short in Lust Stories was to show Kalindi as an unhinged, delusional maniac (with a side serving of sexually predatory behaviour), Apte’s performance is electric and brilliant. There’s no reason we can’t have a film about a woman like that, but since characters are devices of communication, you've got to ask, what is the point that Kalindi is trying to make?

Listening to Apte explain herself and talk about sexual freedom, I was reminded of an old theatre exercise in which an actor is told to deliver the same line in four different ways. Depending on the speed, the tonal inflections, the way they hold themselves, the look in their eyes, the meaning conveyed by the words can change completely.

Had Kalindi lounged rather than looked tauter than a guitar string about to snap, and spoken with languorous confidence about her open marriage, she might even have convinced you to give it a shot. Instead, Kalindi’s words come at you like a train wreck. Every line in her body underscores how out of control she is and the jumbled ideas that she articulates seem like defensive justifications for deviant behaviour. Because that's what lust reduces a woman to?

It gets worse when you see Kalindi’s story in the context of where India's ongoing gender rights conversation, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

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Fun fact: it wasn’t until the 1500s that the word ‘lust’ came to be associated with sin and sex. Until then, lust (from the Proto-Germanic lustuz) was a word for appetite, desire or even inclination. It could be a little unruly, but there doesn’t seem to have been much judgement attached to it. Then came the task of translating the Bible. That’s when lust became a bad word. Blame it all on the difficulty of translating “concupiscentia carnis” into English. Had it not been for such challenges of translation, lust wouldn’t have the crackle of transgression and sin that it does today.

Of course we can lament how, in this process, shame came to be attached to perfectly normal physical processes, but there is a silver lining. Lust, as we understand it today, is both a reminder of the boundaries that regulate sexual behaviour as well as a force that can (and often does) force its way past those regulations. It rattles our cages. That’s why following its demands is so often depicted as freedom.

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Lust Stories is an anthology of four films, all of which place sexually-active women in the spotlight. This is a big deal for Indian commercial cinema. Let’s not forget that just last year, the disaster that is the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused to certify Lipstick Under My Burkha for release in theatres because it was “lady-oriented”. The idea of making Lust Stories about its heroines is also a big deal because in our cinema and society, women have usually been the cast as the passive sexual objects.

Released on the streaming platform Netflix, Lust Stories has four unrelated segments directed by Anurag Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Karan Johar. The real disappointment is that four of the our most talented filmmakers in Bollywood were given creative freedom and a topic like lust — and for the most part, they went ahead and stuck to stereotype and convention anyway. 

With neither box office nor the CBFC breathing down their neck and practically no reason to fear some disgruntled khaki-short-pant-loving uncle would slap a case of obscenity on Lust Stories, the directors were free to think out of the box. They could have been provocative with the subjects they chose, experimental in the storytelling styles they adopted; they could have rattled our cages. Yet, Lust Stories is for the most part studiously cautious and steers clear of scandal.

Meanwhile critics and ‘influencers’ cheered on Lust Stories like it had ushered in a revolution. It's as though they saw a different version of the anthology or they're a herd of Pavlovian sheep. Either way, it's disappointing.

If this is how low we’re going to set our standards — particularly as critics — how is cinema and storytelling in this country ever going to reach any level of maturity? Lust Stories is on a platform with films and series from all over the world. Imagine a Netflix subscriber clicking on Lust Stories after watching a season of The Affair.

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Despite the title and the presence of people who do have sex in Lust Stories, not one of the four films in the anthology is actually about lust. The first two are about extracurricular sex. The last two are about marriage. All of them look at the expectations that develop after one has had sex with a person, rather than the hormones or attraction that throw logic and caution to the winds. All of them are acutely aware of the society in which they’re set and the rules that regulate feminine behaviour. Except for the heroine of Karan Johar’s film, the women in the film are true to established types — bunnyboiler, submissive domestic, bored wife, dominating mother in-law, oomphy divorcee, etc.    

Johar and Akhtar’s are the most easily enjoyable of the lot. Akhtar’s has the only proper sex scene in Lust Stories and the first one in commercial Bollywood that isn’t strategically wrapped in silk sheets or obscured by conveniently-placed furniture/ furnishings (rejoice!).  Johar’s has the only proper orgasm (once more! With feeling!).

Akhtar’s film is about Sudha, a maid who thinks she’s in a relationship with her employer, but discovers he’s about to marry someone else. The lust story in this one is actually the employer’s, who isn’t the focus of the story. Bhumi Pednekar as Sudha communicates a wealth of emotions wordlessly. Heartbreak, pain, disappointment, anger, despair, hope – yes. Lust? No.

There’s nothing wrong with Akhtar’s film. It’s fine, beautifully shot in fragments, but bland because it carefully steers clear of the power dynamics that must inevitably layer a sexual relationship like the one between Sudha and her employer, especially in a society like ours where inequality is taken for granted. Like, for instance, there's no exploration of the questions raised by the slapping sound we hear when Sudha's having sex. I have been reliably informed that it's Sudha doing the slapping (missed that detail when I was watching*), which is presumably included as a red herring so that we're suitably shocked when we realise the maid was slapping her 'master'. But this is a throwaway detail in the story. Had it been explored, we'd have at least dipped our toes in the paddle pool of power play, hierarchy and lust; but no.

Akhtar’s is the second film this year that shows a love story between a maid and her employer. Rohena Gera’s Sir, which was screened at Cannes Film Festival, has a similar premise but the two films have little in common. The key divergence is in the character of the male employer rather than the maid – the ‘heroes’ are the ones who take the two films in different directions. The heroines, on the other hand, are similar. Both maids are quiet, efficient and caring. To me, the similarity in characterisation suggests these films show us how maids are viewed by the privileged (those who hire maids, effectively). Both Akhtar and Gera’s gaze is sympathetic and respectful, but the identification feels more superficial than intimate. The maids in these films aren’t personalities. They’re a type. That the fact of a maid being the heroine feels like a breakthrough says volumes about the inherent biases that dominate our society and collective thinking.

Johar’s film, set in a candy-coloured world that exists only in Johar’s imagination (bless), is the only bit of good cheer in Lust Stories. It’s about Megha, a newly-married teacher who has a loving husband and a boring sex life. Then she discovers the vibrating bullet. Unfortunately, so does her family since it (and Megha) get turned on in the living room, with mother-in-law, sister-in-law and husband as audience.

It’s a sweet little film and possibly the most enjoyable one in Lust Stories. Contained in the candy floss fluffiness of Johar’s film are some golden nuggets of progressive thought: that it’s not the visible cleavage that’s the problem but the mindset of those who ogle at it; that a woman has a right to pleasure; that men need to be allies. That said, do not use another person's vibrator without washing it thoroughly.

In Megha we finally get a heroine who isn’t clichéd, despite the artifice that surrounds her. She has the self-confidence that comes from being a working woman, along with the hesitation that comes from her lack of sexual and romantic experience. She feels real (even if she does have the smooth prettiness of a Barbie doll). We’ve rarely seen heroines like her in commercial cinema, and that (rather than Megha orgasming) is a real shame.

Unfortunately, although there’s curiosity in Megha about sexual pleasure, there wasn’t one moment when we saw lust in her eyes – not for her husband, or ice cream, or even the vibrator. Still, with the masturbation scene and the way Megha’s in-laws react, Johar does show how lust is vilified. Apparently Lata Mangeshkar’s family is upset by the “desecration” of a song she sang, “Kabhie khushi kabhie gham” (Megha orgasms while it plays in the background), which is used in the film. They’ve said Johar has turned the “dream song” into a “nightmare”, which shows you just how unnerving female sexuality is to the bulk of India.

Sandwiched between Akhtar’s and Johar’s films is Banerjee’s study of an urban (and urbane) marriage. It opens with Reena, a beautiful anti-nymph, frolicking among waves. In its delighted sensuality, the shot is reminiscent of Kalindi in the cab, at the start of Lust Stories.

The man accompanying Reena stays on the beach, enjoying the view but determined to keep a safe distance. He’s Reena’s lover – though you’d never guess from the way they look at each other – and also Reena’s husband’s best friend. When her husband shows up, their triangle reveals different kinds of partnerships. On one hand is the old friendship between the two men, held together by shared memories and rapport. On the other is the understanding of a long-married couple, built upon the foundation of being able to anticipate one another simply because of years spent together.

By the end of the film, you realise both relationships are pivoted upon secrets and lies. There are glints of darkness in Manisha Koirala’s portrayal Reena, who, for all her loneliness, is ultimately revealed to be an expert manipulator. She plays both men and ultimately has them exactly where she wants them. We never really get a sense of what turns her on, though. It’s evidently not the men, but neither does it seem to be the power play even though she is very much the puppeteer.

I liked the quietness of the film and the subtle way that each character tried to manipulate the other, but if lust played any role in Banerjee’s film, I missed it. And hello, I’ve been reading Mills & Boon romances (Modern AND Desire, thank you very much) for more than 20 years. Maybe it’s supposed to be an exploration of lust by way of its absence.    

Considering how insipid most of Lust Stories is, the one thing that can be said for Kashyap’s segment is that it’s not bland.

Kalindi, a lecturer in a college, has sex with one of her students, 21-year-old Tejas. After having sex, she breaks the fourth wall and tells us she hopes Tejas won’t get clingy and entertain delusions of a relationship. Then she starts worrying that he’ll accuse her of raping him and orders him to record a statement in her phone, declaring their sex was consensual. Meanwhile, we learn that Kalindi is in an open marriage with her husband, who is literally and figuratively out of the picture. Then she starts stalking Tejas. When Tejas finally tells her that he wants to be with her, Kalindi tells him to hold on to his shorts because boss, she’s married.

I’d just like to take a moment to assure everyone that although I burst many blood vessels in the process of watching this misogynist nightmare (more on that later), I am still alive and more coherent than Kalindi.

Four films and 90 minutes later, you’re left with neither revelation nor insight. There are no moments that make your pulse race or that you want to remember when you lie in bed, in the dark. Despite being made by four of our most celebrated directors, not one is brilliant and the best of them is just about good.

But we’re still supposed to give the filmmakers a round of applause for their efforts. Why? Because of the context in which Lust Stories is made.

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    Context (kɒntɛkst), noun
the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

The tricky thing about context is that the same factors that get you bouquets can also earn you brickbats. So, for instance, Lust Stories has received widespread critical acclaim for privileging women and talking about sex in a society that considers it a taboo subject. To talk about sex in stories about women has been applauded for being a double whammy of progressive awesomeness, which it is. But this also means that at least some of us are going to look closely at what is being said and what is being added to ongoing conversations.

There’s no doubt that India needs to loosen up about sex. Not because there’s silence on the subject, but because these conversations are held in secret and riddled with ignorance and confusion. The only sex education the average Indian gets is when they visit places like Konark and Khajuraho, and see the temples covered in friezes showing impossible sex acts. It is still normal for a couple to be beaten up by vigilantes and local police because they’re out on a date. Virginity is still a prized commodity and homosexuality is still illegal. So yes, we really do need to talk about sex and related topics.   

Invariably, when sex is discussed on public platforms, it’s in the context of crimes like rape, molestation and harassment. The conversations have got louder thanks to the internet and we’ve tussled with thorny subjects like the age bracket to define juveniles when it comes to sex crimes. The legal definition of crimes like rape and harassment have been updated, both by Justice Verma Committee and court cases like the recent one against Mahmood Farooqui.

The Farooqui case — in which a lower court stated that forcible oral sex qualifies as rape and a high court pronounced that a “feeble no” does not communicate absence of consent — is particularly relevant to the opening film in Lust Stories, directed by Kashyap and written by Apte and Kashyap.

Of the many intensely uncomfortable moments in this film, one is when Kalindi orders her student and lover Tejas to say the sex they had was consensual. He doesn’t know how to say the word, but he parrots what he’s told to and at one point, Kalindi tells him to speak louder. Because you know, when you say something feebly, you don’t convince anyone. The Delhi High Court taught us that.

In another scene, Kalindi is in the staff room where her colleagues are discussing a news report of a teacher having had sex with an underage student. One colleague points out that the student isn’t so young as to be an innocent. Another says the point is not the student's age, but that a teacher having sex with a student is exploitative (these aren’t the words used, but it's the sense of the argument). Kalindi doesn’t say anything, but you can see panic rising in her. She’s had sex with her student. She knows he was a virgin. She doesn’t know how old he is. Was this statutory rape? (He’s 21, so it wasn’t, but from the power dynamic that the film shows, it’s evident that she’s in a position to command him, which makes the case for his consent … feeble.)

Kalindi’s actions are reminiscent of stunts pulled by men when they’re pursuing unwilling women. The manipulation, the emotional blackmail, the stalking – it’s almost textbook and for those who have had to suffer this compulsive behaviour, Kalindi is a trigger. Her words, however, are not the claims of possession ( “she’s mine”) that abusive men usually offer by way of justification. Instead, Kalindi’s presents a patchwork ensemble of arguments made by feminism in favour of equality and sexual freedom for women. Only she delivers them in manic monologues that not only serve to make Kalindi sound insane, but also reduce the words to hollow rants.

The cruelty of the film lies in the complete lack of empathy for Kalindi. In fact, in the way the scenes are arranged, the storyteller's gaze positively revels in watching Kalindi wreck herself. Take something as simple as breaking the fourth wall, which Kalindi does early on in the film. It’s a device that allows a character to articulate the subtext. It also emphasises how much of a person’s behaviour is fake and performative. In Kalindi’s case, the more she talks directly to us, the more incoherent she sounds. Her words contradict her actions, making her seem hypocritical. She has different rules for herself and different ones for Tejas. She wants the freedom to date other men and remain married, but she’ll stalk Tejas and demand his complete attention.

It's almost as though the film is taunting feminists. Kalindi is excessive, angry and incoherent. She’s a man-eater. She’s a tease. She’s exploitative. She’s manipulative. While Kalindi exhibits the dysfunctional behaviour of toxic masculinity, the film seems to sneer at us and ask, “Do you dare call this out in a woman? Or is it only a problem if a man does it?”

And with that, Kashyap’s film reaffirms all the negative tropes about feminists, feminism and strong women.

Is that really what we needed to add to the conversations about consent, sexual freedom and women’s autonomy?

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In 2017, a study titled ‘The State of Artistic Freedom’ calculated that 20% of all censorship cases in film came from India. According to their calculations, India had censored the most films among the 78 countries included in the study.

You wouldn’t think sex or the romance of a heterosexual couple would be considered particularly interesting in a country of more than a billion people, but love and sex are political minefields in India. Falling in love is often a political act. There is rebellion in an Indian getting married. You’re resisting family traditions when you choose your own partner. When you do marry the person selected for you, there are set of structures and constraints that you’re strengthening with that action – structures and constraints that tend to belittle women while demanding more of them. If you fall in love with someone from another community, then you can actually be killed for it or be identified as a perpetrator or victim of “love jihad”. In 2018, we needed the Supreme Court of India to remind us that a woman has a right to choose whom she marries and the court cannot annul a marriage that has been consensually entered.

In this country and in this context, something like Lust Stories had the potential to stand for freedom. There was no CBFC to appease. There was no pressure to ‘make money back’ at the theatres. There were (presumably) no starry whims and insecurities that needed catering. Four of India’s most talented filmmakers were given freedom with Lust Stories.

What we see in those 90-odd minutes is not just that they didn’t know what to do with freedom, but something far more tragic. Most of them volunteered to stay within the confines and play it safe. Not one of them was bold enough to explore the transgressive powers of lust. None of them dared to rattle the cage.

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*Thanks to Rituparna and Aparna for pointing out my mistake about who slapped whom.