It feels like a class reunion. There’s Zoya Akhtar, the cool girl who rolls her eyes a lot. There’s Karan Johar, the sorted guy who feels the need to emphasize what matters. Dibakar Banerjee is the intellectual who goes off on tangents (he refers to himself as “Tom Wolfe-ish" at one point) and there’s Anurag Kashyap, the grinning backbencher who teases the others and keeps fiddling with his phone. The talent around the table aside, this unlikely quartet shares a delightfully silly dynamic (“I lust you," growls Kashyap lasciviously to Banerjee right before we start. “I don’t lust you, Dibakar," specifies Johar. “I love you.")
Lust Stories, just out on Netflix, is an anthology film by these distinctive cinematic voices. They did it five years ago with Bombay Talkies, four films about films, but the new work is undoubtedly better (they unanimously agree). These are finely observed films where they step out of their comfort zones and do cooler, quieter things than they are known for. I was curious enough to corner them for a four-on-one interview in Mumbai last week, to see what made them tell these stories, and what they think of each other’s films.
Why, I had to ask, did they opt for the title of a B-movie? “You just broke my heart," gasps Johar. “I suggested it. Is that who you think I am, a B-movie person?" “The question is the answer," explains Banerjee. “When you go for a B-movie title with four directors like this, you have a dual advantage. You are playing to the gallery, and at the same time you are saying we don’t care about class."
They don’t care about titillation either. The films are subtle riffs on the theme of lust, never raunchy, which may have been because they only discovered their uncensored Netflix canvas after making the films. “I had to push whichever boundary I could within what I could do with actors in India," says Johar. “It took me a while to get anyone to agree to play the female protagonist. I internally vetoed 10 choices knowing that they wouldn’t do it, and, when I went to Kiara (Advani), it was a sell, it was a pitch, I had to convince her to do it." In Johar’s film, a comedy about self-love, Advani plays a young wife, who, dissatisfied with her husband’s bedroom brevity, tries out a vibrator. Given the recent outrage created by a dildo in Veere Di Wedding, Johar is relieved he hasn’t been forced to blur the instrument of pleasure. “It is a film about release that released without roadblocks," he smiles.
“He’s extremely left-wing," says Akhtar, struck by the politics of Johar’s film. “We’ve seen his films earlier, and they’ve been narratives catering to a wider audience, and they fit a particular patriarchy. And this just broke that, and smacked it on the bottom." Kashyap calls it “the redemption of Karan Johar", and Johar, who might not believe he needed redemption, smiles archly. “It’s his redemption for making Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham," Kashyap continues, giggling. “That scene with the K3G song, I’m going to mail it to Ramuji." “Is he around?" asks Johar about Ram Gopal Varma. “He’s always around," Kashyap chortles back.
Akhtar’s film, my favourite of the four, is about a maid who routinely sleeps with the young man she works for, and doesn’t dare dream beyond this mercenary arrangement. It is a wistful, saddening, deep film. “I was blown by Zoya having a definite peep into a middle-class home," says Kashyap. “And by her not using dialogues and words, or wit, or any of those things. From the other films she has made, to me this is closest to the title sequence from Luck By Chance, where very quietly you take the viewer into a state of mind. Brilliant."
“The film that has stayed with me a little more was Anurag’s," says Banerjee, applauding Kashyap’s film about a possessive female stalker. “You have made a film about stalking, and inverted it, and because the protagonist is a woman, the way you have treated a woman in your film, for the first time, is very interesting for me." “It’s a very male attitude," says Akhtar. “Coveting someone much younger, feeling entitled to ask them where they hell they are, getting pissed off that they are not their property. People will come out of the film thinking she’s crazy, but they should reflect on the way most men around us indulge in that behaviour."
“With Dibakar’s film there was transference," gushes Akhtar about Banerjee’s film, where a woman has an affair with her husband’s best friend. “There was a sense of falling for the closest thing to your partner. It’s a funny thing that your partner, besides the sexual intimacy, is as intimate with your husband." It is a sensitive, melancholic film about fidelity and secrets, and, as Johar states: “It is walking the grey path. That’s where we live, not in the black or white."
I’m fascinated that four directors, given a theme as potentially tawdry as lust—in isolation, without discussion—made films with outspoken heroines, where a Hindi movie hero like Hrithik Roshan is mentioned only as a masturbatory ideal. It is surely not an agenda, but do all storytellers now feel responsible about giving female characters more decision, more agency?
“I think it has to do with us being of the same age, honestly," says Banerjee. “It is way more interesting to do something about women, because women in India aren’t meant to have sexuality," says Akhtar. “Women in India are supposed to say no before they are married and yes after they are married. And they can never say anything else." “Hear, hear," exclaims Banerjee. “We don’t even need to discuss it," says Akhtar. “There are no bigots around this table." “When the theme was lust, I was totally thrown," admits Kashyap. “Do I make a film about threesomes? Polygamy? Infidelity? What are you going to do that hasn’t been done?" “And Mahesh Bhatt has attacked all of these themes," reminds Banerjee. “Back in the day." “So true," says Johar. “We must invite him to watch our film!" As Akhtar and Kashyap excitedly agree, Banerjee starts citing Bhatt’s 1980s masterworks. Talking about movies we love is lust as well.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic, columnist and screenwriter. His first book, a children’s adaptation of The Godfather, titled The Best Baker In The World, is out now.
He tweets at @RajaSen.