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Ajeeb Dastaans: An incoherent mishmash of some trite storytelling and few enthralling ideas

Ajeeb Dastaans, the newly released Netflix anthology, if interpreted in its entirety – is greatly analogous to many recent Hindi anthologies, marching on the same path as them – profoundly ambitious at the outset but mired down by sluggish writing and slapdash execution. It amasses four overly different stories, set in four varying geographies, originating from four distinctly diverse filmmakers, seeking to delve deeper into “fractured dynamics” to eventually explicate “twisted tales” of love, lust, power, deceit, revenge, caste, gender, sexuality, and parenthood. It appears that the first two shorts of the film took the “twisted” part of the brief more seriously, consequently constructing the twists first, followed by the rest of the narrative. The desire for a mindboggling climatic suspense is very self evident in these pieces. These shorts are less created and more designed. They look more confused than clever, more forced than felt. To one’s much relief, the remaining two in the lot are much better both in terms of their form as well as the stories they opt to elucidate.

At first, there is Majnu; helmed by Shashank Khaitan, who places his story in Barabanki, where an influential goon and a budding politician Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) is being forcefully married to an MP’s daughter Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaik). Babloo, at the very first, informs Lipakshi that he ardors someone else, but didn’t have the courage to marry his love and for him, this marriage is nothing but a mere political alliance profiting his illegal businesses. He won’t be able to love her back but will be a truthful partner and expects her to uphold the integrity of their marriage, too. Lipakshi responds with indignation and displeasure, referring to him as a dastard. It’s a powerful opening segment; Khaitan gives us a fiercer female protagonist, someone who has the guts to call out his husband for being a coward and a hypocrite. It would have been an engrossing shot if it centered more around on, for instance - gripping themes such as centers of power in the institution of marriage which in this case is a consequence of a political pact. But Khaitan just loses his way after the first few minutes, he chooses to manoeuver around a deeply dull, repetitive love triangle, with the entry of Raj (Armaan Ralhaan). Khaitan like his debut film (Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania) chooses to cash on Yrf and Dharma’s legacy of romantic dramas. Even in this overly applied attempt of him being meta and self-referencing, he fails miserably – designing a highly predictable plot. Adding to the much adversity and pain is the climactic twist, which is so bizarre and unexpected that watching it unfold appeared like some sought of a personal debasement.

It is followed by Khilona, shepherd by Raj Mehta, which in contrast with its predecessor, is much finer and progressing. Set in an urban housing colony, it seeks to deconstruct the class struggle by narrating a tale of housemaid Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha), her cute little sister Binny (Inayat Verma), laundryman Sushil (a typecast Abhishek Banerjee), and their shady masters. The tone here, from the very inception, is that of an investigative crime drama – suspenseful - the three protagonists are charged and questioned for an unknown heinous crime - the plot unfurls as the interrogation proceeds. The film is good on intent, no doubt but it’s severely let down by its sloppy execution. The characters are pretty one note, aren’t properly fleshed out. There is no room for subtlety either, everything is explained to the viewer barring the “very ajeeb” twist at the end about which the less is said, is better.