In a scene from “Geeli Pucchi”, the third short in Netflix’s anthology series Ajeeb Daastaans, a boss tells a woman employee demanding a more intellectual job at his factory, “Inn mardon mein aur tum mein pata hai kya antar hai. Ye sab kaamgar hain aur tum karigar.” At first sight this seems like a gendered opinion, performed for our sight as a casual dig at the ineptness of men. As the film builds, you realise this statement carried a carefully warped sentiment that has more to do with caste than gender. Neeraj Ghaywan’s film is the toast of yet another Netflix series that though middling in execution has a good set of ideas driving most of its stories. It’s understandable that one would eventually seem better than the other, but in the case of Ajeeb Daastaans, the interpretation of “ajeeb” is fairly spread out over genres with moderate to stunning impact.
Film anthologies are like a bag of chips. Made from the same source material but one unlike the other. There are pieces that just feel more satisfying to hold and eat than the other, despite the same essential make-up. Anthologies have also, kind of, become Karan Johar’s thing. Perhaps it is his half-assed attempt at platforming filmmakers better than himself. Both Lust Stories and Ghost Stories were uneven anthologies pillared by the odd gem. Here too the scale tips in Ghaywan’s favour. That said, the others aren’t that far behind.
However, the first film in the anthology, titled “Majnu” kind of wastes a terrific Jaideep Ahlawat in the role of a rich and corrupt dynast. Ahlawat is forcibly married to Lipakshi, a marriage he doesn’t intend to invest in. Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) is an outspoken bride, prepared to grasp what she believes she deserves. “Iss desh ke sare mard dhongi kyun hain,” she declares from the off. “Manju” ends with not one but two twists that to an extent undermine the kooky, almost soap-like setup of the film that director Shashank Khaitan should have wholly committed to.
The second film, “Khilauna”, starring Abhishek Banerjee and a miscast Nushhratt Bharucha, is a rather potent study of the way the poor love. When not obsessed with creating its shock ending – which does deliver on its horror value – this short is effective in conveying our classist view of intimacy – that it’s the dresses we wear, the language we speak, which define intent and morality. In one telling scene a privileged man casually declares doubt over Banerjee’s intentions with Bharucha’s character and her younger sister. It’s a casually surreal moment that underlines the ease with which privilege automatically acquires moral authority over the underprivileged. The film’s change in gears towards the end makes you wonder if it would have been better suited with poetic quality of surveying the hopeless rather than following the cathartic intervention of the angry and the disillusioned.
Film anthologies are like a bag of chips. Made from the same source material but one unlike the other.
The middling quality of the anthology’s second film leaves room for redemption and it arrives in the form of Neeraj Ghaywan. The director’s “Geeli Pucchi” is the only character driven story of the anthology where Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari brilliantly essay two women who tenderly find in each other’s company a sort of refuge, but also a source of subsequent envy. Sharma plays Bharti, a machine operator at a factory who is joined by Hydari, a soft-spoken, naïve newcomer on campus. Being the only two women on the floor, both bond over common grievances – absence of a women’s toilet to begin with. As the two grow intimately close, Bharti realises that Hydari’s naivety is also a function of the caste privileges she enjoys. Bharti is constantly reminded of her place and therefore carries the outlook of a woman toughened by the injustices of time. Hydari on the other hand, though confused and lonely, can still inspire sympathy in others by the virtue of being more feminine and of caste where victimhood is sympathised with.
Sharma is nerveless and emphatically brilliant in speaking through the depth of her face. She remembers to break down only when alone. In one achingly poignant scene, she is relegated in the eye of men around her to an instrument while Hydari is celebrated for her historically labelled superiority. The camera zooms in on a dirty paper tissue that Bharti is instructed to dispose of. It’s symbolically affecting as a totem of this country’s blindness to caste privilege. Rather than latch onto her victimhood, however, Bharti executes a sinister plan to get to the opportunities she yearns for. It’s a delicious metaphor for the resistance people of the lower caste have to show in this country to survive.
The last film, titled “Ankahi”, anchored by two assured performances by Shephali Shah and Manav Kaul is a strong note to end on, one that is as poignantly romantic as it is effective. Shah plays a housewife coming to terms with her daughter’s loss of hearing while Kaul plays the deaf photographer she finds solace in. Shah’s poise matches Kaul’s charm in a story that is as much about the illusions of love as it is about its grounding realities.ss
Ajeeb Daastaans as is common to Indian cinema is streaked with love and despair, boundaries and breakages. But in this new anthology there is a whiff of new perspectives; especially of the new ways of seeing the world around you and uncoil its mannered complexity. Despite the noisy shenanigans of the first film, the other three, especially Ghaywan’s “Geeli Pucchi” and Kayoze Irani’s “Ankahi”, redeem ideas that are well worth the intrigue and risk of going to a format that hasn’t yet comprehensively delivered.