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.
The third and the easily most complex film in the quartet is Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi. Ghaywan, who in the past, has championed narratives around caste, gender, class, aspirations, prejudices, goes many steps forward this time, by exploring several subalterns together. He models the story around a queer Dalit factory worker, Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma), who is enraged by the fact that despite being a highly qualified candidate, she is denied the job of a data operator. She confronts her manager, who has hired a Brahmin girl, Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) for the job. The film in the next forty minutes analyses the intricate relationship between Bharti and Priya. At first, it seems like Ghaywan is going for the stereotypes – he plants deeply noticeable differences which distinguish both of his protagonists – Bharti is swarthy, single, masculine, on the other hand, Priya is fair-skinned, married, and very feminine. But fortunately, he doesn’t settle with the overtly typical differences but rather tries to subvert them. Bharti, though highly solid at the outset but is very lonely from inside – a very poignant scene of her breaking down after realizing that she can’t emancipate from the confines of the caste system. Priya in her own limited ways exercises authority and discretion. Ghaywan who comes with the tradition of directing short films (unlike the other three in the lot), paces the film very effectively. He unlike the previous two, doesn’t go for convoluted suspense, rather his twist is a highly admirable – more psychological and slow burn, challenging our preconceived notions of caste and class.
The last film in the anthology and arguably the best is Kayoze Irani’s Ankahi. Like its predecessor, it too tries to telltale of the unexpressed and the unheard. Set in Mumbai, Natasha (Shefali Shah) is trying to convince his husband Rohan (Tota Roy Chowdhary) for days to learn sign language which can aid him to easily communicate with their daughter Samaria (Sara Arjun). But Rohan doesn’t have the time to grasp the language, neither does he has time to save his crumbling marriage. Irani too isn’t interested in deciphering the solutions to save their marriage; rather he diverts the viewer’s attention to the romantic dynamic between Natasha and a deaf and dumb photographer Kabir (Manav Kaul). It’s a cute, innocent relationship. They both communicate using sign language, hence more with eyes than words. And the love stories which are play more around silences and employ eyes to do all the heavy lifting are highly commendable. It is remarkable that Irani just interprets the themes of his film both literary and figuratively – Natasha who can voice her opinions but is still unheard and uncared in her marriage. The short is simple and heartwarming though the ending is greatly melancholic. Running at a run time that is less than 30 minutes, the piece is shortest in the quartet and easily the most potent.
The two shots are very much lifted by the performances by its lead actors. Konkona is amazing as Bharti. It is arguably her best performance. She not only physically transforms into the character but despite a stoic face it’s in the moments of loneliness, which are quite a few in the short, she conveys through her eyes which are both filled with intense rage as well as warmth. Hydari too is exceptional. However, it’s Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul who are just above par and the standout performers. Seeing them have fun with their parts tugs at the heart. Shah who has portrayed similar parts earlier still manages to bring so much complexity and newness to the part. Kaul, who for ages has been typecast as a "serious actor", plays the role of a charmer elegantly. The otherwise credible performers – Ahlawat, Shaik, and Banerjee are earnest but couldn’t do much here owing to flawed scripts.
Ajeeb Dastaans would have been a severe letdown if it didn’t smartly place its shorts. The mediocrity of the first two films readies the viewer to place no expectations from the rest. And this where the last two benefits from, especially Ankahi – after watching the complexity of Geeli Pucchi unfold, all viewers wants its something breezy and light, and comes Irani with possibly the most attractive love story of the year.
Ajeeb Dastaans is streaming on Netflix.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.