There are a lot of things that I felt while watching “Ajeeb Daastaans,” but what remained constant through the narrative was the feeling of relatability and hopelessness. Produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, directors Shashank Khaitaan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan and Kayoze Irani are at the helm of four stories “Majnu,” “Khilauna,” “Geeli Pucchi” and “Ankahi.”
This anthology talks about human beings – our relationships, our warts and strengths and the baggage that inexplicably comes with it. It deals with several topics right for unrequited love, to loyalty, sexuality and most importantly caste. These are stories that one could relate with, but sometimes gets too ambitious in their narrative. The premise being that each story brings a shocking, horrifying and/or heartbreaking twist we never saw coming.
The first film, “Majnu” (lover) written and directed by Shashank Khaitaan, seems heavily inspired from the action crime-thriller series on Prime “Mirzapur,” replete with a sexy, young dissatisfied wife, a wealthy older husband who is incompetent and absent in bed, and the other guy who creates the ‘ajeeb’ (strange) in this ‘daastan’ (story). A story about betrayal, love and redemption (in the same order), it more or less lives up to its theme. The story revolves around a couple (played by Jaideep Ahlawat and Fatima Sana Shaikh) who end up together because of a political-business alliance arranged by family, and their struggles to find happiness for themselves.
On Lipakshi’s wedding day, her new husband, Babloo informs her that their marriage is essentially a business deal for their fathers, he loves someone else and can never love her and only he is allowed to have another relationship. Babloo lives in a sprawling thakur-style mansion, is casual with a 9mm and is quick to break someone’s leg over minor improprieties, which tells us he’s the head of some lucrative criminal enterprise. So Lipakshi lives lonely in a cage with golden bars.
However, when a buff and dashing Armaan Ralhan turns up as Raj – son of their driver – a twist in their not so fairy tale emerges that turns their lives upside down. Raj is hired to be Babloo’s financial manager. Clearly sexually frustrated, Lipakshi comes on to Raj with every opportunity, and he resists. He won’t even look her in the eye, but, I mean, they’re by far the most attractive people in the film, so that’s a no-brainer. She wants to get back at her cruel and heartless husband, and doesn’t care how brazen she acts. Needless to say, this is a tense situation, and something’s gotta give and soon.
Supposed to be a twist on the typical Bollywood ‘Pati Patni aur Woh’ plot, which could have been fun, but sadly “Majnu” never tries to dig deep into the potential and ends up being quite shockingly bad. Babloo’s (Ahlawat) truth seems more or less expected, and it seemed the writer took an easy way out there to explain the lead couple’s situation. However, the end wasdefinitely unexpected.
The song “Bhavra” is beautifully written by Khaitan, and thankfully helps to take the story forward rather than just using it as a filler. The immensely talented Jaideep Ahlawat and Fatima Sana Shaikh are given very little to work with here and seem distinctly uncomfortable mouthing tropey lines like, “I made sure my father never got the happiness of being a grandfather” or her, “We have a gym here too, you can come here to workout” while she strokes Raj’s muscles. “Majnu” fails to impress with its melodramatic, soap-operatic tone.
This was followed by “Khilauna” (Toy), directed by Raj Mehta. It tells the story of a housemaid Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha) who works in homes that seem to be part of a gated community and uses her income to pay her little sister Binny’s (Inayat Verma) school fees. The two live a hard knock life— no parents, no electricity, little opportunity. They live in a tiny kholi (room) that is powered by an illegally acquired power connection from the gated community.
When they’re not running meager grifts, Meenal works as a maid while Binny goes to school.When they lose power, literally and metaphorically, Meenal decides to switch jobs and take up work at Mr. Agarwal’s (Maneesh Verma) home who is the society’s secretary and seems to spend his day driving around on a motorcycle sporting Ray-Ban sunglasses and looking menacing. He also has a pregnant wife at home, who subsequently delivers a son, and yet proud-papa is too busty ogling women to stay home and change diapers.
Meenal, who is having an affair with Sushil (the uber talented Abhishek Banerjee), the mahaulla dhobi, mouths problematic lines for feminists like me. “Let him ogle at me for a couple of hours while I clean, as long as I get electricity back in my home.” That right there is the film’s biggest problem. We never seem to empathize completely with this supposed sense of desperation. How it never occurs to an otherwise street-smart woman that a man objectifying her so obviously, grabbing her at every opportunity could be potentially dangerous, is a mystery to me.
Agarwal meanwhile lords it over his little street corner, threatening Sushil, and promising to maybe turn Meenal’s illegal electrical hookup back on, in exchange for — well, you know what. This situation, it’s like sitting on an atomic bomb, waiting for it to go off. “Khilauna” could have also been a great story where years of suppression, rage and lack of agency explode in an appalling and gory climax, but sadly Raj Mehta spends too much screen time sexualizing Meenal instead of humanizing her. We see her only from the male gaze and patriarchal points of view; whether it’s Sushil (who bangs her every night when the kid sister goes to bed), or Mr. Agarwal.
“Khilauna” tries to highlight the unfair gap between the rich and the poor, but all it does by the end is make you uncomfortable, and not in a good way. The characters seem one dimensional and lack depth. Bharuccha does a good job as Meenal, though I wish certain stereotypes around a maid’s character could have been done away with. Banerjee’s performance constantly reminded me of his role in “Unpaused” or his role as Verma in Anurag Basu’s “Ludo,” but nonetheless was the star of the segment.
Sadly “Khilauna,” unlike its jaw dropping pressure cooker climax scene, never quite builds up steam, so what you end up getting is half cooked and fairly unpalatable. “Khilauna” fiddles around with pointedly critical jabs at the caste system, but concludes with a development so outrageous, it torpedoes the entire endeavor.
The best short film in the anthology, “Geeli Pucchi” (wet kiss) comes next. The writing, direction and acting is so much better than the first two films, you wonder what it is doing in this anthology in the first place. This is a film that should be studied by aspiring filmmakers for the nuanced and subtle ways it weaves together the layers of oppression that both unite and divide women.
Ghaywan brings back several themes and issues he dealt with previously in his debut film “Masaan”, and places his characters at the intersections of caste, class, sexuality and patriarchy. He also infuses his characters with a desire to escape from a predetermined fate that is so poignantly portrayed by the central characters here. Ghaywan and co-writer Sumit Saxena story is impactful because you can’t really take sides or call one a victim and theother a victor.
Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma) is a blue-collar worker in a factorywhere she is the only woman operating the machines. It’s such a man’s world, there isn’t even a women’s bathroom. She is also Dalit and lesbian – making her thrice as marginalized; and the director amplifies her social isolation by her long walks home alone, and the absence of any friends or family members in her life. She lives alone in a battered flat, and pointedly foregoes feminine skirts and makeup for jeans, flannel shirts and a kerchief around her wrists – mawalistyle. She yearns for an office position at the company, and despite her competence and qualifications, her boss gives her a load of excuses as to why he shouldn’t promote her. This move she feels will uplift her status in society as well. Though angry and upset when she sees another woman,
Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) gets her job, Bharti befriends Priya when the latter has lunch with her, the only other woman in the building. Priya’s innocence and naivete form an interesting foil to Bharti’s more cynical and worldly-wise view. Priya is fair, beautiful, and from an upper caste family, but as we learn, her privilege is also her imprisonment. She is battling confusion over her sexuality, and just when the two share a tentative romantic moment, Bharti learns that there are other yawning gaps between them that their friendship cannot bridge or survive.
Soon Priya breaks down Bharti’s walls. They become friends, and might become more than just friends, if Priya wasn’t already married to a sweetheart of a man who desperately wants a child, and whose parents consider those of Bharti’s social strata to be markedly inferior. Who knows what they’d think if they — or the husband for that matter — knew Priya was gay.
The twist in this tale creeps up on you, and then punches you in the gut with an iconic last scene. Ghaywan slowly builds up to the climax through his characters and the chillingly believable reality of how women often turn oppressors to escape oppression, hits you straight in the face.
The last film in this anthology, “Ankahi”, is enjoyable because it allows thecharacters and more importantly, its talented actors shine. Natasha (Shefali Shah) is an upper middle-class homemaker who is struggling to keep the peace at home.She has a teenage daughter, Samaira (Sara Arjun) who is losing her hearing, and a husband (Tota Roy Chowdhury) who refuses to learn sign language or accept the situation. When she accidentally bumps into photographer Kabir (Manav Kaul) who is hearing impaired, the two develop a friendship that blossoms into love, their romance made all the more poignant by their use of signs.
Samaira also opens her heart to her mother: She’s worried her inability to hear means she’ll be difficult to love — and then says the best dialogue of the short to Natasha – “you are so pretty, and you can obviously hear. But Dad still doesn’t love you.” Your heart is broken yet? Oh, and did I mention the first shot of the short shows Natasha in bed with Kabir? Now how did that get there and what happens moving forward? You will have to watch to find out. “Ankahi” is a slice of life tale, telling us the story of a few weeks or months in the life of two individuals who are drawn together in unusual circumstances.
Shefali and Manav are perfectly cast for these roles, and their expressive eyes and faces convey complex emotions without either saying a word. Their love story has charm, flirtation, romance, but also a deeper soulful connection that makes it a delight to watch. A sentimental, straightforward story, “Ankahi” packs an emotional punch and doesn’t overreach thematically. Its success stems wholly from Shah’s performance, which plumbs the character’s depths with an almost- deceptive effortlessness — and brings the film to a dramatic peak in its final shot.Kayoze Irani makes an impressive debut as director and though the film does seem inspired by “The Bridges of Madison County” and Clooney’s “Up in the Air” for that heart-breaking last scene, “Ankahi” is crafted perfectly for the format of a short with a twist.
To sum it up, “Ajeeb Daastaans” is a mixed bag of good and not-so good stories, but its attempt is heartfelt and earnest, which definitely deserves a mention. If you are looking for that sweet happy ending then this one is not for you, but if you have a taste for hard hitting narratives that make you sit up and think, then you should give this a watch. “Ajeeb Daastaans” is playing on Netflix.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.