(Alert: The review contains spoilers)
Anthologies seem to be the current favourite of streaming platforms. The latest from the stable is Ajeeb Daastaans (Peculiar Stories), streaming on Netflix. Consisting of four stories, Ajeeb Daastaans left me utterly confused with its inconsistency.
Karan Johar's short in Ghost Stories and Lust Stories stood out because of how bad they were, but nothing can beat the decision to open the latest with the weakest storyline. Neeraj Ghaywan offers the only redemption through his impeccable Geeli Pucchi.
Let's take a look at how all the films have addressed marginalisation, gender, bigotry, class and caste.
Ajeeb Daastaans opens with the Shashank Khaitan-directorial Majnu. Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat), the spoilt scion of a wealthy family, is forced to tie the knot with a politician’s daughter Lepakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) because his father stands to gain from the ‘alliance’ and also because the old man disapproved of Babloo’s lover. We are introduced to these two trapped characters on their wedding night. Babloo tells Lepakshi, “Pote ki Khushi hum babuji ko denge nahi, toh aap humse koi ummeed maat rakhiye (I don’t want my father to experience the joy of becoming a granddad, so don’t expect anything from me)” Do filmmakers still expect viewers to sit through dialogues like these with straight faces in 2021?
Moving ahead, Babloo makes it evidently clear that he has been wronged, but he does not even make a tiny effort to free his wife from the shackles that are choking her. But Lepakshi is not someone to silently bear the injustice being meted out to her. She gives a piece of her mind to her husband the day they are married, and we expect an interesting story to be carved around her. Unfortunately, the plot takes a whole new turn with the entry of a third person, Raj Kumar (Armaan Ralhan). We are also in for a surprise when Babloo actually reveals what happened to the person he loved.
And that’s where Majnu’s problem lies. The film lacks the nuance and sensitivity while narrating both Babloo and Lepakshi’s stories. Babloo is battling his own demons but is in complete denial of his own privilege. Just when he comes across as someone who we can empathise with, the story does not give him any arc to develop. Lepakshi also suffers from the same apathy. She wants to be loved, to be longed and to be treated with respect, but ends up being a puppet in both Babloo and Raj Kumar’s hands.
Class plays an important role in Majnu. Babloo thinks that his ‘class’ has given him the power to trample upon his driver and the latter’s son Raj. Babloo doesn’t know what hedge fund is but his ego prevents him from saying that openly to Raj. But what about caste, which is bound to exist in a society so conservative in its approach?
Amidst all the disappointments, Jaideep Ahlawat is someone to look out for. Jaideep embraces Babloo’s rage, his vulnerability and his privilege with great confidence. Armaan also shines as the cunning Raj, but Fatima Sana Shaikh’s performance is not convincing at all.
Khaitan has definitely made progress from his highly problematic films Dhadak and Badri Ki Dulhania, but Majnu fails to land.
The short film, helmed by Raj Mehta, begins with a seven-year-old child in school uniform being questioned by a police officer at the station. She speaks about Sunil (Abhishek Banerjee), the guy who presses clothes in a posh neighbourhood, and who is made to look like a suspect in a tragedy that has gripped the colony. The girl enquires about her elder sister (Nushrratt Bharuccha), who works as a domestic help in the same area. Meenal and Sunil are also being interrogated about the crime.
Cut to the flashback, and we see Meenal moving around the neighbourhood flaunting her curves. She abuses, doesn’t hesitate to pocket a few hundreds carelessly left behind by her employers because Meenal detests the manner in which she and her community are treated. But Meenal is another addition to the terrible cliche in which house helps in most Hindi films are coloured. While accepting a job with a man who spares no chance to gaze at her lecherously, Meenal asserts that the only thing he would do is leer. Didn’t she think about the consequences of her being alone at home with the man? Is she that naive?
Nothing prepares you for the climax of Khilauna, but a few moments of shock does not justify what a disappointment this movie is. Are we supposed to feel for Meenal, who works day in and day out to ensure that her sister gets a good education and encourages her to dream big? Or are we supposed to criticise her for manipulating a relatively nice employer and insensitively calling her out because she can’t bear a child? What lacks in this otherwise bizarre tale is empathy, be it for Meenal and her precocious sister, Sunil or the underprivileged. Added to that is Nushrratt Bharuccha’s performance, that does nothing to save the sinking ship.
Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses)
The one story that lifts up this unimpressive anthology is Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi or Sloppy Kisses. Konkona Sen Sharma plays Bharti Mondal, a Dalit worker employed in a factory dominated by men. Despite having relevant degrees, Bharti is not being able to taste success because her manager is quick to remind that it’s a privilege only enjoyed by people belonging to higher castes. Bharti develops an unexpected friendship with her Brahmin colleague Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari) but don’t expect the story to tread the beaten track.
Ghaywan nails Geeli Pucchi in the way he depicts homophobia, patriarchy, caste, class and privilege. A supposedly caring husband insists that his wife’s friend persuade her to leave the job just because she has given birth. Another ‘open-minded’ character flinches and hesitates to rise beyond her prejudices. Separate tea-cups, different lifestyles, choosing what to eat - Ghaywan points out that our everyday actions reveal our inherent and deep-seated biases.
Both Bharti and Priya are morally questionable characters. They are oppressed, but the collective rage does not translate in helping each other out. Bharti’s U-turn in the end diverts our feelings for her. All credit goes to Konkona and Aditi for making us root for them in the beginning, only to be stunned later. Konkona’s restrain complements Aditi’s energy, and it’s refreshing to see Hydari explore parts that allows her to showcase her talent.
Directed by Kayoze Irani, Ankahi (Unspoken) recounts the story of Natasha (Shefali Shah), a mother who is trying to come to terms with her daughter’s (Sara Arjun) disability and the distance it’s creating between the child and her father (Tota Roy Chowdhury). A chance encounter with an artist (Manav Kaul) with a similar condition gives Natasha a new lease of life and she starts delving deep into her feelings. The film extensively uses sign language, interspersed with loud arguments between Natasha and her husband. In sign language, Natasha is able to convey what she can’t to her family. The exchanges between Natasha and the artist are also hilarious. But the beautiful film gets derailed in the end. The change in Natasha’s attitude and the inconsistency of the character are totally uncalled for.
Despite the flaws, Ankahi makes for a good watch because of Shefali and Manav. Both of them lend a poetic quality to the script. They don’t attempt too hard to perfect the sign language, which is why we feel the pain, the insecurities, the fear that their characters are going through.
Ajeeb Daastaans sets out to experiment with a thought: that seemingly nice people are not necessarily devoid of flaws. Just because some of them have been wronged or have been treated with apathy does not make them perfect or helpful. The biggest flaw, however, is that for most of the stories the intention and the outcome don’t go hand in hand.