Has there been a bigger, more resounding creative flex in director Zoya Akhtar’s career than silencing her critics with her shortest film, featuring her quietest protagonist? Forever accused — unfairly — of telling stories about the one-percent, her 20-minute short in the Netflix anthology Lust Stories focused on a house-help entangled in a taboo sexual relationship with her employer. It’s set entirely inside a middle-class apartment, treats supporting characters like background noise, and essentially grabs prejudiced audiences by the scruff of their neck and demands that they pay attention to a person who has been so dehumanised by society that simply expressing basic human feelings feels like an act of rebellion for her.

Starring Bhumi Pednekar in her finest form, the short film set the tone for Akhtar’s immediate future as a filmmaker, which would be dominated by films (and a show) that examined our nation’s vast inequalities. She followed it up with Gully Boy, another short in the anthology film Ghost Stories, and the Prime Video series Made in Heaven.

But there’s something about the quiet power of her Lust Stories short, which I’m sure has a title that hasn’t been revealed to us, that stands apart from the rest — even if its protagonist is the kind of person you wouldn’t pay attention to if they were to walk by you on the street. And a large reason behind its success is Pednekar’s pitch-perfect performance as Sudha, the house help.

She speaks less than 10 words in the entirety of the film, but conveys more than what lesser actors would have been able to do with pages of dialogue at their disposal. There is a tendency for performers — especially when they’re playing characters who don’t have words to rely on — to overdo it with their faces. Notice reaction shots in even the best Hindi films. Everybody needs to take it down a notch. But Pednekar’s performance is so subtle that if you were to look away for even a second, there is a chance that you might miss a near-indiscernible twitch of the lip, or how Sudha averts her eyes — almost as if to protect herself from the truth that is knocking at her door.

Centred around a ‘rishta’ meeting for her lover Ajit’s potential wedding, Akhtar’s Lust Stories short is essentially a day in the life of Sudha. We’re thrown head-first into the action — no pun intended — and wordlessly introduced to Sudha and Ajit’s ongoing relationship. Observe the saucy smile on her face as she chucks a towel at him as he’s cleaning up, and then compare it to the wry smirk that Pednekar flashes as she leaves Ajit’s house, having just learned that their ill-defined arrangement will probably have to stop. This isn’t merely a ‘raat gayi baat gayi’ situation for Sudha. And that is where the tragedy of her story lies. She almost definitely had feelings for Ajit, even if he was only using her.

Lust Stories, as a whole, also has great value as a cultural object. It was released in June 2018, and almost pre-empted the #MeToo movement in India, with its strong commentary on power dynamics and abusive workplace relationships. It’s also a reminder of a time in the entertainment industry that we can all safely say has passed; a time when streamers were actually putting together interesting (and often risky) projects, and not simply populating keywords on their internal search engines. Lust Stories came just a year after back-to-back Netflix India debuts Sacred Games and Ghoul, and just a few months after Love Per Square Foot, ostensibly the first Netflix India original film.
Over the years, the streaming landscape hasn’t so much evolved as it has been eradicated. Every platform is guilty of contributing to this collective homogenisation — except, perhaps, SonyLIV, but I can sense trouble on the horizon even there. The trouble — and this is pure speculation — is that while Netflix attracted top-tier Indian creatives, it settled, more often than not, for the forgotten leftovers that it was presented by them.

But unlike Sudha in Lust Stories, who is told to pack a box of leftover ‘mithai’ for herself after Ajit’s ‘rishta’ is arranged, the executives at Netflix had the option to say no. Sudha — and this is the point of the film — is someone who doesn’t have agency. She cannot say anything as she witnesses, firsthand, utter humiliation at the hands of Ajit and his folks. She cannot say anything to his future wife, whom she sees flirting with him on the same bed that they were rolling around in just a couple of hours earlier. She cannot say anything because she’s been silenced through years of social conditioning, and being told that she is the lesser being. In every relationship in her life, she is the lesser being.

In Lust Stories, this has a deeper meaning than usual, because Sudha isn’t merely a woman; she is a woman of a different caste and of a different socio-economic class than Ajit. These cultural nuances might be lost on foreign audiences, but in India, metaphorical barriers such as this might as well function as invisible, impenetrable 10-foot walls between two people. Ajit isn’t a romantic partner; he isn’t even a symbol of aspiration. He is the forbidden fruit. And Pednekar is able to tap into not just the yearning that Sudha feels, but also her desires. It remains her finest performance.

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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