Cast: Cast: Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Arrman Ralhan (Majnu), Inayat Verma, Nushratt Bharruccha, Abhishek Banerjee (Khilauna), Konkana Sensharma, Aditi Rao Hydari (Geeli Pucchi), Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul (Ankahi)
Directors: Shashank Khaitan (Majnu), Raj Mehta (Khilauna), Neeraj Ghaywan (Geeli Pucchi), Kayoze Irani (Ankahi)
Netflix’s latest is a set of four short stories bunched together as Ajeeb Daastaans. These are a mix of tales that weave into them a sense of freshness and triumph. Admittedly, one of them, Raj Mehta’s Khilauna, ends as a sheer shocker. Another segment, Ankahi by Kayoze Irani, climaxes into a huge disappointment for the charecters, while Geeli Pucchi helmed by Neeraj Ghaywan leads us to what seems like a clever ploy to wrest an office position. Shashank Khaitan’s Majnu leaves us with a feel-good mood.
All the four in the anthology engage us, each imaginatively written and tightly scripted to tell us a tale in just about 30 minutes. Great, when we are made to sit through a plodding 160 minutes or so of often needless narration. Also, Ajeeb Daastaans has been mounted tastefully and performed by most actors to near perfection. There is a sense of authenticity, and the plots run with easy finesse.
Admittedly, Khilauna may be hard to digest, and I was left with this feeling, oh but can this happen! Barring this, the others are entirely believable. Majnu may appear passe; we have seen this in other films and web series, but the subtle performances help eclipse the lack of novelty here. And, the manner in which Geeli Pucchi underlines how a woman employee treated unfairly because of her Dalit background gets back at her boss is amazing. She does not abuse him. She does not beat him up, but like in a game of chess, she checkmates him. The best part is, he does not even realise it. This is what I call great writing.
Now for some plot details. The first, Majnu (Romeo) , is the story of unhappy marriage between the rich and royal Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) and the pretty Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh). But on the night of the wedding, he tells her not to expect him to consummate the relationship. Then what do I do, she quips. Please maintain the decorum of the family, he answers in an unfeeling tone. Young Lipakshi has her sexual urge, and naturally. So, she begins to stray. And when the handsome and dashing Raj Kumar (Arrman Ralhani) arrives armed with an ambition to study in England – and mind you he is the family driver’s son – Babloo starts feeling queasy. It is easy to guess how the narrative will flow, but the end is quite unexpected.
Khilauna (Toy) is a power-packed take on the social and economic disparities which are still rampant in what is arguably a modern India. Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) is a street-side vendor who removes the creases of rich people’s clothes. But struggles to iron out the ripples in his own life. Nor can his lover, Meenal (Nushratt Bharruccha, too attractive to play a maid). Binny (Inayat Verma, and what a lovely performance), her seven-year-old daughter, is perky, and keeps asking all the wrong questions. What do you and Sushil do at night, she wants to know, and child’s mind is a sponge absorbing just about everything. But this cannot be a good thing.
Although, Geeli Pucchi (Wet Kisses) directed by Neeraj Ghaywan may appear to harp on lesbianism, the underlying message is all about the covert cruelty of caste prejudice, of how a Dalit woman, Bharti Mandal (portrayed by Konkana Sensharma), despite her good education and credentials, is barred from an office position that eventually goes to one from a higher caste. She is Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari), who finds that in an all-male set-up, the only other woman is Bharti. The two strike a friendship over shared lunch in the office canteen, and it soon turns out that their relationship is not what it looks like. Both are lesbians, and Priya is even married! In a very clever ploy, Bharti changes the rules of the game. Both Hydari and Sensharma are fantastic actors, and they infuse radiance into thel short. This gives a certain freshness to Geeli Pucchi.
Finally, Kayoze Irani’s Ankahi (Unsaid) also has a luminous cast in Shefali Shah, who as Natasha plays mother to a deaf-mute daughter, and Manav Kaul’s Kabir, a deaf-mute artist. Struggling within the confines of a marriage where the man is indifferent to her needs and uncaring towards the girl, Natasha falls into the arms of Kabir, pretending to be deaf-mute as well. The end reminded me of the George Clooney starrer, Up in the Air, where he is rattled find his lover in a totally different avatar.