Quorum

Lust Stories: A Dossier

Meheli Sen, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Monika Mehta, and Anupama Prabhala Kapse

Introduction

Girish Shambu

Four scholars of Indian cinema—Meheli Sen, Nilanjana Bhattacharjya, Monika Mehta, and Anupama Prabhala Kapse—offer their takes here on Lust Stories (2018), a Bollywood anthology film that has created a stir in India and beyond.

In 2013, to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, four prominent Hindi-language filmmakers collaborated on the omnibus film Bombay Talkies. Now, Lust Stories (LS) reunites these filmmakers, and has drawn special attention for two reasons: rather than being shown theatrically, it was released on Netflix; and all four segments, which are separate and self-contained, feature female protagonists in highly sexualized narratives.

In the first episode, directed by Anurag Kashyap, a female college professor (Radhika Apte) initiates an affair with a male student, stalking and manipulating him in what is an incendiary narrative reversal in the era of #MeToo. The second chapter—by Zoya Akhtar, the only woman director in the group—centers on a working-class maid (Bhumi Pednekar) who is in a sexual relationship with her employer, a single man who is simultaneously considering a marriage proposal from a middle-class family. In the third episode, by Dibakar Banerjee, a married woman (an astonishing Manisha Koirala) reveals to her husband that she has been having an affair with his best friend. Karan Johar’s segment, which closes out LS, depicts a married but sexually unfulfilled schoolteacher (Kiara Advani) who experiments with a vibrator—with unexpectedly comic results.

On many fronts—its novel distribution and exhibition strategy, its unusually frank representations of love and sexuality, its centering of women characters—LS has justifiably aroused interest and debate in Indian and Indian diasporic film culture. The pieces that follow enter into and further the conversation that the film has ignited.

*****

Undoing Style, Repurposing Friendship

Meheli Sen

Lust Stories (LS) occupies that still emergent space between cinema, television, and the web that Bollywood as an industry is now trying to harness and negotiate. Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has described the offerings on the platform as “cinema infused television,” a description that fits the anthology film quite well.[1] Although LS was originally created for theatrical release, what struck me immediately upon watching it is how uniformly televisual it is in the old sense of the term.[2] Therefore, its formal and stylistic aspects deserve special scrutiny.

Recall that Anurag Kashyap’s cinema has often been an exciting exploration of the specificity of the film medium, from Dev D (2009) to Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Bombay Velvet (2015). Similarly, even Dibakar Banerjee’s commercially unsuccessful film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshi (2015) is a textbook example of what dazzling style can achieve in a period film. Karan Johar and Zoya Akhtar have typically adopted more conventional, but no less flamboyant, stylistic templates. In contrast, all four filmmakers embrace here a zero-degree style of remarkable restraint. Kashyap’s LS episode is almost entirely composed of medium shots, medium close-ups and close-ups, as Kalindi (Radhika Apte) stalks, calls, or accosts the hapless Tejas (Akash Thosar). Its only expressive concession is the handheld camera which underscores Kalindi’s neurotic prattle as she speaks to an unseen listener.

Astonishingly, almost none of the four films offers any establishing shots, as cameras instead track awkwardly through cramped interiors with only brief detours through outdoor locations. This is especially true of Akhtar’s film, although she does use overexposure in interesting ways to frame the protagonist, the maid Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar), in warm halos of light as she goes about her chores with thoroughness and precision. Overall, the anthology seems to efface quite intentionally the stylistic and formal signatures of the four filmmakers.

One of the few wide shots in all of LS is in the “morning after” sequence in Banerjee’s film, as Reena (Manisha Koirala) sits waiting on the steps of Sudhir’s (Jaideep Ahlawat) beach house. The view of his expensive (if bland) house and carefully landscaped yard is a fitting foil to the posh interiors and poolside shots of the previous evening. In a film invested in secrets, confessions, revelations, and a lack of transparency between its three characters, Banerjee fittingly uses a glass house which is fundamentally unhomely, a site of marital disintegration. Of the four filmmakers, Banerjee deploys mise-en-scène in the most interesting ways, ranging from these shots to a brief conversation between Reena and Sudhir about what degree of dishabille is acceptable for the cuckolded Salman (Sanjay Kapoor) to witness. Perhaps the lack of establishing shots was a conscious decision, given the film’s focus on intimacy and closeness between characters, but it also unmoors them from their social contexts; the challenging task of imagining the social is delegated to the viewers.

To me, what is most interesting about LS are the ways in which it retools older modes of love, lust, and belonging, by embedding itself within while at the same time disrupting the syntax of Hindi popular cinema. Banerjee’s film is the most compelling example, as the hoary modes of dostana (intense male homosocial bonds) are repeatedly interrupted—and finally dismantled—by the woman who refuses to play along with the male buddies.

In Hindi cinema, countless female characters suffer obligingly while men order and reorder their love/commitment to one another.[3] The erotic triangle is one of Bollywood’s staple melodramatic sub-genres and one that has remained popular with audiences over time. However, something radical happens here: while desired and desiring, over the course of an evening, Reena comes to realize that the bromance between Salman and Sudhir excludes and silences her absolutely; she recognizes herself not as a yaar (the endearing term for friend, which all the characters use) but as the transactional object between them. In the final moments of the film, as she damningly breaks the complicity and denial that binds the three together, Reena frees herself from the stranglehold of this lopsided affective grid.

Meheli LS 3

Koirala is the biggest star featured in LS, yet Banerjee captures her face and body in surprisingly pitiless ways. His camera lingers on the luminous beauty of her expressive face while also contemplating its fine lines and wrinkles. For example, when Reena emerges from the sea in a conventionally sexualized image, Sudhir observes that she looks like the mother of two children; she retorts that she hardly looks like a moti-amma (a fat mother). The film performs some complicated textual maneuvers in order to insist on Koirala’s vulnerability, maturity and desirability simultaneously, thereby interrupting recognizable circuits of visual pleasure and objectification.

The entanglements of love/lust with vectors of friendship figure in the other episodes as well. Having recorded a statement about “consent,” Kalindi informs a bewildered Tejas that they are now “real friends who share everything [but] without benefits,” an affective arrangement that he clearly cannot comprehend. In her confession to the camera, Kalindi claims that what enrages her the most is that Tejas is lying about his fledgling relationship with Natasha (Ridhi Khakhar), essentially a betrayal of their “friendship.” In Johar’s film, too, it is not enough that Paras (Vicky Kaushal) listens to Megha (Kiara Advani); until they meet as mutually communicating adults and friends who recognize the other as sovereign entities, their marriage remains unfinished and, for Megha, unconsummated in a constitutive sense. Within the melodramatic schema of this episode, it makes perfect sense that the final image of erotic exchange is also one of comradeship: sharing an ice-cream together. Only the maid Sudha in Akhtar’s film remains outside the magic circle of friendship, because, as she understands ruefully at the end, these bonds are also demarcated by privilege, and thus, she has received only ersatz and threadbare hand-me-downs. In this sense LS insists that love’s labor is, in fact, just that: the arduous emotional and physical work that women always perform on the path to partnership, with unpredictable outcomes.

[1] “Netflix Chief Ted Sarandos in conversation with Anupama Chopra,” MAMI Film Companion

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JywuUz_w0Qc

[2] John Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis, and Authority in American Television (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

[3] Meheli Sen, “From Dostana to Bromance: Buddies in Hindi Commercial Cinema Reconsidered,” in Film and Television Bromance: Culture, Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Michael DeAngelis (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 139-164.

*****

Streaming, Women’s Desire, and the Display of Pleasure

Nilanjana Bhattacharjya

I approached Lust Stories (LS) to discover what new directions it would pursue with respect to the portrayal of female desire, pleasure, and sexuality—and whether its female characters could act on their desires without being punished. I watched LS after seeing some other recent popular Hindi films on Netflix featuring women in prominent roles, including Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015) and Anaarkali of Arah (Avinash Das, 2017). The Netflix release of LS, amid these other films, banks on capturing the audience for these other films: those with fast broadband connections, those who have heard or read about these films, those interested in watching films with strong female roles, and those who for some reason did not watch the films in the theatre.

In the United States, communities with smaller South Asian populations often depend on a single local distributor to arrange screenings of popular Indian films in local theaters. Renting a theater for three to four showings per film is costly, so distributors often only book films guaranteed to draw a substantial audience. Lighter comedies and star vehicles are fairly reliable for attracting audiences across generations, but films that are less “family friendly” present an economic risk. At the moment, for instance, the hip-hop biopic Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, 2019) is being screened in the Phoenix area where I live but is not playing in many other areas of the country.

Last spring, the controversy around the depiction of Rajput culture in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical epic Padmaavat (2017) succeeded in generating considerable publicity for the film. When seeing it in Phoenix, I was surprised that several parents had brought their small children to a film with graphic violence in its scenes of battle and of women’s mass self-immolation. At the same time, it confirmed what I had already suspected was true: any performance of Hindu nationalist values is seen as educational, and onscreen violence is perfectly fine for children, even though sex is not. While censorship of films in theatrical release and television broadcast is fairly regimented in India, the distribution of films online and via other more informal networks can escape the control of censors, since online streaming networks such as Netflix have yet to be regulated. As a result, while watching LS, I knew that its focus on sexuality meant I would not be able to see anything like it in a theater near me. Yet I also knew that its appearance on Netflix suggested its critical acceptance, since Netflix’s reputation with global as well as Indian audiences situates LS within a vanguard.  

The passionate sex scenes that open the film by Zoya Akhtar made for awkward viewing on my phone as I sat beside a young mother and her five-year-old daughter on a flight this past summer from Tokyo to Bangkok. That experience in turn led me to think about how and why Netflix offers its individual male and female viewers the chance, on mobile devices and laptops, to consume sexually explicit material that they would avoid viewing in the presence of others who might potentially judge them, especially in a theater—or on the television in the family living room.

LS foregrounds how often social codes demand that women conceal their experience of desire.  Zoya Akhtar’s film features an upper middle-class man who conceals his relationship with his girlfriend (who is also his servant/maid) from his parents, but the fact that his girlfriend enjoys their physical relationship as much as he does is what truly needs to be hidden—and what makes her film the most interesting. Karan Johar’s film, the last in the series, introduces the topic of desire from the perspective of a woman, Megha (Kiara Advani), who cannot find sexual fulfillment in her new marriage.

Nilanjana LS 1

While Johar establishes how “pleasant” her new husband Paras is, he depicts in excruciating detail Paras’s  consistent failure to provide Megha with any sexual pleasure in the privacy of the bedroom. When the topic of pleasure, or its absence, comes up at the dinner table, her mother-in-law and the other wives in the family make it clear that within their traditional family, the concept of women’s desire does not exist. The other women encourage Megha to have two children as fast as possible, because then Paras will no longer seek to have sex with her—something presented as a positive, because sex itself is understood as drudgery.

At work, Megha learns from her divorced and sexually liberated colleague Rekha that female desire not only exists but can be satisfied—on one’s own. Following a climactic sequence of mishaps during which the family accidentally witnesses her attempts to pursue her own sexual pleasure with a vibrator and chastises her, the ending suggests that Paras and Megha have reconciled and are moving toward a more mutually pleasurable relationship. Since the director, Johar, has recently come out as a gay man, it may be possible to read his focus on female desire as an analogue to male homosexual desire, since neither can be made explicit within socially accepted norms.

The wide audience for Netflix’s foray into portraying unconventional relationships suggests that streaming platforms will be a significant factor in redefining the limits of what can be shown on screen and how—especially in relation to female desire. Netflix enables audiences that may have missed semi-independent, smaller-budget films like Angry Indian Goddesses or Anarkali of Aarah or even LS during their brief runs at multiplexes to access them in more private spaces. With the popularity of LS and the revival of these other films, perhaps streaming networks like Netflix will now encourage filmmakers to feature more prominent women’s roles, with greater agency, and thus expand the terms of discourse around them.

*****

Online Distribution and the Production of Female Sexual Agency

Monika Mehta

Of the four films in Lust Stories (LS), Zoya Akhtar’s work engaged me the most because of its depiction of middle/upper-class scenes of domesticity from the perspective of a female servant.  Discarding Bombay cinema’s conventions of family drama and its rules about the representation of sexuality, the film unexpectedly opens in the midst of Sudha (Bhumi Pednekar) and Ajit’s (Neil Bhoopalam) passionate lovemaking; two heaving, tangled bodies appear and then, Sudha gets on top.   After they roll off the bed, Ajit invites Sudha to join him in the shower, but she brushes him aside. Until this moment in the film, I had viewed Sudha as a partner, a desiring and desired lover. But when she picks up the broom and starts sweeping, I realized that she was a servant.

Monika LS 1

Later, the arrival of Ajit’s parents and his prospective in-laws and bride underscores in both banal and painful ways Sudha’s lowly status and lack of agency. While handing Sudha a packet of snacks, Ajit’s mother praises her for being a good servant and for looking after her son; the privileged viewer knows that she is not simply a servant, and that the packet of snacks is a degrading compensation. When Ajit’s prospective in-laws arrive, Sudha is sent to make tea.  The camera lingers on her tea preparations so much that I wondered if she was going to spit into the tea; she doesn’t. A distraught Sudha balances the tea-tray nervously before entering the bedroom where Ajit and his prospective bride are flirting, the same bedroom where she made love with him. I thought maybe she’d drop the tea on their laps; she doesn’t. The film denies its presumably middle and upper-middle class audiences either the pleasure and satisfaction of minor retaliatory acts or the ability to dismiss Sudha by reading such acts as the sign of a bad servant.  In so doing, it allows the protagonist’s frustrations and anger to linger, compelling viewers to reflect upon the structures that confine and restrict Sudha’s agency and desires.

Both publicity and viewer discussions have focused on the explicit representations and articulations of female sexuality in LS, noting that these are made possible by its status as digital content backed by Netflix. Despite its salacious title, LS doesn’t necessarily offer franker depictions of sexuality than prior films. A range of genres—sex crime-thrillers, horror, and soft/hard-core porn—produced in India provide more explicit content. What, then, makes LS so novel and potentially enjoyable for South Asian diasporic audiences? The omnibus’s innovation lies in the ways in which it disrupts Bombay cinematic conventions of family drama and romance, a disruption made even more appealing by the fact that the films are helmed by A-list directors. There is also the not-incidental pleasure—in part, generated by the title—of viewing sexual content that is not regulated by the current Hindu nationalist government. While India has regulatory apparati for film, video, and cable and satellite television, it has not censored digital content—though there are now discussions about this matter with a new committee considering how to regulate content.[1]

Recently, in order to avoid state policing, Netflix and other streaming companies have “agreed [to] follow a new industry code of conduct and self-regulation for online content in India.”[2] Practically, this would mean that Netflix would select or generate content that is not likely to offend its potential consumer base. As an added protection, a rating system would give viewers the heads-up so that they could self-select content. Netflix frames this decision as “freedom to create and freedom to choose,” stating that it is protecting both producers and consumers.[3] Recasting regulation as choice, it contends that it is merely giving consumers the ability “to make viewing choices that are right for them and their families.”[4] Netflix’s decision shows that it is more concerned about not alienating its consumers than protecting freedom of speech. Such acts of censorship through regulation have political consequences, as they privilege the tastes and values of some consumers over others. In India, they embolden and empower Hindu nationalist viewers, who are quick to attack representations that seemingly denigrate Hindu traditions and culture.

In the United States, Netflix already offers its viewers the ability to self-select content.  LS is rated as “TV-MA” which along with “R” and “NC-17” are classified as “Mature” content, considered to be unsuitable for children age seventeen and under, who are prohibited then from accessing the material.[5] Ratings thus designate proper viewers for media content and frame the experience of this content.[6] In this case, the rating signals that the content is for an adult audience, thereby perhaps whetting some appetites and leading others to make judicious use of Netflix-provided parental controls or profile features.

This regulatory regime invites a consideration of how Netflix makes its ratings decisions, and what impact these decisions have on the viewing of its media content. For example, why is the American television show Jane the Virgin (The CW, 2014-) which has more sexually explicit scenes than LS, rated as TV-14 (not suitable for children younger than fourteen) instead?  Is there a vision of India, Indian audiences, or more generally, South Asian audiences at work in making these choices? Why are the Hindi films Masti (Indra Kumar, 2004) and Pyaar ka Punchnama (Luv Ranjan, 2011), puerile sex/romance comedies, both narrated from the perspective of three male characters, rated TV-14 rather than the TV-MA rating assigned to LS? Why are these narratives about male heterosexuality and desires available for a wider viewership, while LS which engages with female sexual desires, pleasures and concerns has only a more limited viewership?

These questions make visible the extent to which ratings are not merely informative but also generate and cement rigid gender and sexual hierarchies. Thus, as Netflix expands its regional and national market, an analysis of its regulatory practices needs to attend to its selections and the choices that it offers viewers.

[1]Vidyut, “Ministry of Information & Broadcasting attempts to regulate media online, Medianama, https://www.medianama.com/2018/04/223-ministry-of-information-broadcasting-attempts-to-regulate-online-media/.  The Modi government has proposed an Internet plan which would introduce greater regulation and surveillance of social media and websites.  Shashi Tharoor, “This proposed Internet law sets a terrifying precedent,” The Washington Post, January 18, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2019/01/18/modi/?utm_term=.1200d1c60923.

[2] Netflix has signed a similar code for Southeast Asia. See: Nyay Bhusan, “Netflix Pushes for Self-Regulation of Content in India,” The Hollywood Reporter, January 17, 2019. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/netflix-censor-content-india-1176765.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Netflix, https://help.netflix.com/en/node/2064?ui_action=kb-article-popular-categories.

[6] Monika Mehta, Censorship and Sexuality in Bombay Cinema (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011; Delhi: Permanent Black Press, 2012).

*****

“Any Other Song”—Gender Reversal in the Age of #MeToo

Anupama Prabhala Kapse

Anurag Kashyap is a natural choice for directing  a web-based feature like Lust Stories (LS). His Gangs of Wasseypur, Parts I and II (2012) anticipated long-form seriality long before it came the vogue. It was Gangs of Wasseypur, alongside the unreleased Paanch (Five, 2003), that established Kashyap’s reputation as a global auteur with roots in the Hindi heartland.

The introduction of internet platforms that are OTT (“over-the-top”) has overhauled several key aesthetic, emotional, and romantic parameters of contemporary Bollywood media. Kashyap’s more recent theatrical release Manmarziyan (2018), distributed internationally as Husband Material, uses the word fyaar for sex: it is a portmanteau term that combines “fuck” with yaar (friend or lover) and rhymes with pyaar (love). In an older cinematic universe, clear boundaries existed with regard to sex between would-be lovers: friendship meant no sex. Not only does Fyaar conflate two words, it signals a new set of values that permit sexual mobility and experimentation. Narratives embodying themes such as these are increasingly to be found on web platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Balaji and Voot, which are aimed broadly at a young audience, and have reorganized collective viewing habits into single user platforms meant for private viewing on small, user-controlled screens.

Kashyap’s contribution to LS is the opening segment, one that has an ostensible focus on femininity but in reality is predisposed toward male sexual dilemmas and anxieties. It opens with the words of an old Hindi film song. The lyrics and the nostalgia of their familiar, affect-soaked vocals evoke a young girl’s discovery of her sexuality and the possibility of sexual fulfilment: “If you can turn your eyes away for a moment, dear moon, I will finish making love to him” (dum bhar jo moon phere, o chanda, mein unse pyaar kar loongi).[1] Any sense of nostalgia disappears, however, with the revelation that the protagonist Kalindi (Radhika Apte) is a female professor who attempts to initiate a sexual relationship with Tejas, a male student.

Anticipating the unraveling and potential dissolution of Kashyap’s jointly owned production company after allegations of sexual harassment gathered force during the #MeToo movement in India, the depiction of Kalindi’s infraction is geared to display a male predicament triggered by female aggression. The dialogue often indicates an awkward mis-gendering whereby female voices mouth male predicaments. Kalindi also snubs Tejas for his provincial, mass-market understanding of sex (he is an avid reader of Chetan Bhagat’s novels). In a soap-opera-esque style, close-ups of Tejas’s simple and innocent face represent a male subjectivity in crisis. Kalindi’s bellicose body language and scowl intimidate an already distressed Tejas. In a clear reversal of Bombay cinema’s honor codes of laaj and izzat (chastity and socio-sexual respect), a woman robs a man of his virginity.

anupama LS 1 say that it was consensual

“Say that it was consensual.”

Ironically, it is Kalindi who occupies the role of the predator while Tejas is positioned as a survivor. So dumbfounded is he that he can barely pronounce “consensual.” An internal chorus of students reinforces his sense of outrage with whispers that Kalindi is weird. Though played for comic effect, Kalindi’s on-camera and social media “disclosures”—a core impetus of the #MeToo movement—are rhetorically framed as unstable, narcissistic, even defamatory (in several shots, she is seen talking to herself in a mirror). Where Kalindi’s narration is reduced, in the most stereotypical way, to female chatter, LS as an anthology is characterized by too little sex with too much talk about sex. While women’s speech is excessive, male protagonists are shown to struggle with speech and fail to verbalize. Words deaden sexual pleasure: “Don’t talk about it!” says Tejas; “[Have] I ruined it!” the loquacious Kalindi exclaims.

Interestingly, OTT platforms wrestle with the topic of sex by reengaging compulsively with the film song. LS effectively opens and closes with the sounds of a Lata Mangeshkar song. If Kashyap invokes Mangeshkar to signify threats to male privilege under new gender norms, Karan Johar deploys Mangeshkar’s voice to overlay the implicitly erotic with explicitly sexual meanings. TV makes an appearance as a frame within a frame: a media dinosaur that has switched hands from the youngest to the oldest member of the household, it is now held by an old lady seemingly trapped within older erotic regimes while the younger generation moves on. Despite a so-called OTT liberalism, both Kashyap and Johar press the female body into expressing the fearful and openly threatening aspects of sexual pleasure. So candid an embodiment of female pleasure was bound to provoke a voluble outcry: “Why? Why did Karan Johar use Lata Didi’s immortal song …  regarded as a sacred inviolable anthem on the virtues of a joint family? … why [did he] nee[d] to use a Bhajan-like [devotional] song sung in the most revered voice of Asia to show his heroine in an orgasmic state? He could have used any other song,” and so on.[2]

Clearly, “any other song” would not have done: the effect would not have been as forceful. Female pleasure remains a contentious topic—LS evacuates the film song of its erotic and romantic meanings to make room for the sexual, fluctuating precariously between comic celebration, bawdiness, and a fear and resentment of sexually liberated women. It should not come as surprise, then, that the final sequence of LS has been read in split and diametrically opposite ways. Social media feeds suggest a popular reaction that is virtually bipolar: posts waver between a grudging acknowledgement of the need to alter existing sexual norms, on the one hand, and a reaction of horror and outrage at the supposed despoliation of a female body and voice once held to be sacred.

[1] The original song appears in Raj Kapoor’s Awara (The Vagabond, 1951), enacted by Nargis and sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar’s voice has signified genteel femininity for at least three generations of Indians.

[2] “Lata Mangeshkar’s Family Upset with Karan Johar over use of her K3G Song for Orgasm Scene in Lust Stories.” www.bollywoodhungama.com/news/features/lata-mangeshkars-family-upset-karan-johar-use-k3g-song-orgasm-scene-lust-stories/. June 22, 2018.

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