The last time Konkona Sen Sharma directed something, it was 2017. A year after that, the first installment of Netflix’s Lust Stories was released. Sex used to be a bigger taboo in India back then, so content like that was bound to get all the attention. Especially with four of the big names of Bollywood directing one segment each, Lust Stories was destined for popularity. However, from a cinematic point-of-view, it was not particularly great. Three out of the four directors, Kashyap, KJo, and Zoya Akhtar, treated lust as some kind of forbidden fruit and put a woman at the center of the story, which effectively villainized them.
I am sure you all have seen the “Kiara Advani TV remote” video and so many edits of that all over the internet over the past six years. While that particular segment was supposed to be a representation of female empowerment, the result was actually the opposite, as people mostly made fun of the whole thing. I thought it was intentional from KJo’s side (who was also the producer), who made sure that people would talk about it (and the whole thing) for years. And it did start a conversation. Sex is still a huge deal in this country, but the country has become at least 10% more casual about it. There has been a sense of acceptance, even in the elderly section of society. That is why Lust Stories 2 didn’t have to make the “lust” part of its stories something elusive or criminal. It actually got a golden opportunity to tell genuinely intriguing and relevant stories where the theme could be used in different forms. Konkona’s segment has fully utilized that power and emerged victorious. It is a glorious comeback for the lady in the director’s chair. Two of the other three segments are not as effective as Konkona’s one but still pack a lot of punch- especially the final one, which has Amit Sharma of Badhai Ho fame at the helm of it.
In anthology movies, order is actually important. Lust Stories 2 gets that mostly right. R. Balki’s opening segment, titled Made For Each Other, is the most straightforward and obvious one. A love-cum-arranged marriage is about to happen between two gorgeous, young, affluent people, perfectly emulated by Mrunal Thakur and Angad Bedi. They are into it; their families have nothing to complain about- except there is one hitch. The bride-to-be’s uber-progressive grandmother keeps insisting that the couple should definitely check their sexual compatibility. While it puts the middle-generation of parents in discomfort, the young ones actually take it seriously. Balki is known for his trademark quips, which have been used here extensively. There is nothing particularly wrong with the segment per se. But there is a severe lack of conflict. Balki has raised a very important question, but instead of doing something substantial with it, he mostly plays it safe and relies on the performances of his actors. Neena Gupta, as the grandmother, is on fire here, which works out in the director’s favor. But overall, the whole thing falls short.
Balki’s follow-up is Konkona’s segment, The Mirror, which does exactly what the first one fails to do. It doesn’t leave abruptly. Telling the most interesting story among the four, this one carefully builds up the plot in a sublime fashion. It happens so naturally that even an inevitable scene of confrontation between the two leads hits you harder than you would expect. The segment would have been equally impactful if it had ended there. But Konkona’s choice of offering the audience a rather sensible, even wholesome, epilogue makes it even better.
Tillotama Shome and Amruta Subhash have done a fairly good job at playing their respective characters, who belong to two different worlds: a high-society working woman and her maid hailing from a Mumbai slum. But it is Konkona’s directorial vision that has taken this segment to the height of greatness. Taking a subject as risky as voyeurism and making it work with subtle use of various props, natural light and sound without losing control for a single second only proves how far Konkona has come as a director. The Mirror is a perfect followup to her debut, the stunningly intense A Death In The Gunj. I can’t wait to see what this lady does next behind the camera.
While the first two segments very much adhere to the central theme of lust, the final two play it rather boldly. Both Sujoy Ghosh and Amit Sharma’s segments are ambitious. Except Ghosh’s story is a dud, whereas Sharma’s gut-wrenching final segment is mostly a winner. Going a little off track here; a few days ago I was looking into the promotional material of Lust Stories 2 over the internet to get the basic idea. I didn’t have to put in any effort, as Netflix’s marketing team ensured that everybody got teased by Vijay Varma and Tamanna Bhatia’s scorching chemistry. This would be an absolutely effective strategy for sure, as this would not only ensure a lot of viewership, but people would also sit through the third segment to see the two in action. It’s not that you don’t get any. There is, in fact, a moderately graphic scene between Varma and Bhatia. But thanks to Ghosh’s laughable story with an awful name like Sex With Ex, the much-talked-about chemistry doesn’t get a chance to flourish. Ghosh’s idea was quite intriguing, actually. Varma plays an unfaithful business tycoon, and Bhatia plays his ex-wife, whom they meet under mysterious circumstances. But Ghosh going “all style and no substance” dooms the whole thing and ruins all the fun. The only redeemable quality is probably the “what is really going on” vibe, which quickly fizzles out as well. Varma still tries his best to save it by bringing his natural charm to a young Amitabh Bachchan-inspired character who even has an iconic name like “Vijay Chauhan.” Too bad Ghosh did him dirty.
Instead of using the theme of lust as a flashy prop like Ghosh, Amit Sharma’s final story, titled Tilchatta (which means cockroach), crafts a proper narrative around it and uses it as a medium of destruction. The casting of someone as mainstream as Kajol did seem gimmicky to me, but the way Sharma presents the actor here makes all the sense. Kumud Mishra as an emblem of good-for-nothing, royalty-obsessed rural men, drowned in debt but still high on toxicity, is also an against-the-grain casting that pays off wonderfully well. Mishra is a great actor, and his performance is particularly terrifying here, which is not surprising. What doesn’t sit right with me here is how Sharma decides to end his story. Despite having all the chances of giving a satisfying finish to a tale that effectively stands against an extremely disgusting kind of patriarchal society, Sharma does a cop-out by bringing in an unnecessary final twist. It does raise the shock value and effectiveness of the story, but the obvious choice would have made a lot more sense.
Lust Stories 2 is a significant improvement over its predecessor, that’s for sure. With a new production house and new group of directors, it does manage to soar high—at least when it comes to Konkona and Amit Sharma’s segment. However, Balki’s lack of courage and Ghosh’s horrible misfire do bring it to the ground, where it is going to receive a lot of justifiable criticism.