A beleaguered middle-aged man turns to the beautiful woman lying next to him for consolation. He has just learnt a bitter truth about his marriage and doesn’t know how to react. She holds him, runs her hand through his hair as if to say, ‘It’s alright, things will be fine’. He holds her tighter, as if seeking comfort, acknowledgement of his grief and perhaps an acceptance of his own guilt at letting things come to this pass. She is stoic, he is dumbfounded, yet there is a silent understanding between them. What happens next is left to our imagination.
The woman this man turns to is actually his wife and the bitter truth that has devastated him is that she has been cheating on him with his best friend. And the conversation and action that happens between them is at the said friend’s house. Welcome to the complexities of the institution called the ‘modern Indian marriage’. An institution that has just shown a giant middle finger to all those morals and sanskaars that hitherto governed it!
The above-mentioned scene stays in your mind long after viewing Lust Stories, the Netflix anthology on love, lust, betrayal and marriages, directed by four of Bollywood’s finest filmmakers – Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar and Karan Johar. Simply because, it lays bare several myths about fidelity, love and trust – elements that are supposed to be the bedrock of a committed relationship. They don’t shock you as much as they make you realize how drastically yet smoothly our social mores and beliefs have changed over the years. The beauty of the anthology also lies in its realism and unapologetic look at desire, both male and female. In matters of relationship, long gone are the janam janam ka saath or till death do us part fantasies pedaled by our movies and pop literature. Instead, undying love and loyalty have been replaced by pragmatism, temptations and a willingness to keep body above soul. What makes this four-story film all the more riveting is the ‘ordinariness’ of the protagonists and their lives. Lust, in cinema as well as soap operas, is usually either glamorized or melo-dramatised. Songs, uber-good looking actors, heart-pounding sex accompanied by snazzy music… these are the staples when it comes to showing lust be it in Hollywood or Bollywood. Think Unfaithful (Richard Gere-Diane Lane) or in its poor country cousin Murder (Emraan Hashmi-Mallika Sherawat), to give just two random examples.
Lust Stories takes this sheen off lust. The protagonists stay in one or two BHK apartments in non-Instagram worthy Mumbai. Their language is regular, they lead far from jet-setting lives and their romance is not champagne-soaked. They are people like you and me. The college lecturer who has a secret affair with her younger, undecided student living with his aaji. The corporate professional with strange sexual fetishes even as he agrees to a marriage arranged by his parents. The well-heeled businessman, his adulterous wife and friend, all living in upscale neighbourhoods and driving fancy cars, and the middle-class repressed-yet-sex obsessed newly married couple, struggling to keep their fantasies hidden from parental eyes. These are all easily recognisable, supremely identifiable Indians who hold the mirror to some uncomfortable yet ‘real’ truths about relationships in urban India, caste, class and age differences, notwithstanding.
Look around you. Your well-groomed bachelor neighbour could perhaps be having dirty sex with his housemaid who has to scrub the floor and make him tea. Needless to say, she will never be good enough for marriage. But is she even allowed to dream more from her saab? It’s a question that does not get answered. Or, take the example of your family friends among whom there will undoubtedly be the ‘perfectly matched’ couple with grown up children. You know, the sort who go for holidays together, fret over their kids’ education and join for golfing sessions with fellow rich couples. Are they perfect as they seem? Simply put, scratch the surface of a seemingly ideal relationship and the not-so-hidden skeletons tumble out with remarkable ease. Another lesson that pops up from this anthology is that urban India has become convenient when it comes to cheating. Rituals, traditions and the sanctity of marriage are all great, but why rock the boat for a ‘stray’ incident here or there? ‘Lead your life and let me lead mine while saying married’ is perhaps the new-age mantra. Divorce and the resultant mess, is way too stressful and cumbersome.
I know of a couple, a typical well educated middle class couple, where the 50-something wife has been having an affair with a man 10 years younger than her for years, yet continues to be married to her loving husband who, after the initial shock, preferred to look the other way than end the sham of a marriage. “What’s the point…. Too many questions will be asked, it will be embarrassing for the children,” was his logic. Suddenly, standing up for self-respect, fighting betrayal, getting shocked by infidelity seems to have gone out of fashion!
Lust Stories also reveals the change in Indian women who are far more uninhibited and open about their need for sex. There is no embarrassment in the lady, in one of the stories, who is in an open, long-distance marriage but seeks pleasure through an illicit affair with a student. Who knows what her legally-wedded husband is up to! In another story, a young wife depends on her experienced friend to learn the art of self-pleasure since her husband is just not up to the job. Whatever be the age or economic and social situation of the women, they are shown to own up to the needs of their bodies rather unabashedly.
While all this may be new territory that urban Indians are negotiating, what is familiar are the emotions that the lust in Lust Stories lead to. Be they guilt, jealousy or love, it’s these emotions that form the crux of the plot in each story. The partners may change, they may be nonchalant about adultery but the core still remains the same – love along with a bit of lust is all that you need in life!