Ajeeb Daastaans, currently streaming on Netflix, is yet another addition to the current trend of anthology filmmaking we are seeing on OTT platforms. This collection of four short films traces the journeys of various characters as they navigate through crests and troughs of different dramatic terrains. The stories in the anthology are layered with an intense feeling for masculinity, lust, bigotry, revenge, compassion, and deception. The narratives do their best to push their characters into a multiplicity of circumstances that aim to highlight the centrality of the action of human beings – their thoughts and actions, their freedom, and their sense of agency. While each director tries to bring his unique contribution to the series (not always successfully), it is the maverick editor, Nitin Baid, who deserves a special mention for his acumen in deftly putting together the compilation, where each narrative is strikingly different from the other.
The first installment, Manju, begins with a scene where newly married Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) is waiting for her husband, Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat). As he enters the room, he immediately announces to his wife that their marriage is a profitable deal for both their parents and since he loved someone else, he won’t be able to love her. Lipakshi retorts on the hypocrisy of men in the country but then silently resigns herself to her fate. This is a critical scene and that too at the very beginning of the anthology as we attempt to invest in the series but the director, Shashank Khaitan, rushes through it so fast that there is no breathing space for us to properly comprehend the scene or empathize with the principle characters. Therefore we just don’t care enough for the story or its players even when three years later, the cool and confident hunk, Raj (Armaan Ralhan), walks into the life of the unhappy couple. Even though he has got a job in London, he refuses to go because his ‘Babloo Bhaiya’ has asked him to work for him with a hike in the salary. Raj’s father, who works as a driver for Babloo, is loyal to his boss but the level of allegiance of Raj towards the revered and feared figure of Babloo is much higher. Lipakshi, who is sexually and emotionally starved, gets attracted towards Raj and even flirts with and seduces the young man in front of her husband. What follows next is a tale of lust, power and revenge with a twist in the climax that owes its debt to conventional tropes of typical Bollywood fare. Fatima has a controlled and measured control over her character and looks beautiful but not enticing enough while Armaan is adequate at best. It is Jaideep Ahlawat with his mature acting prowess who (expectedly) proves to be the saving grace of the film. On the technical side, the frames are well lit and composed and no doubt, the production design is eye-catching but it lacks the depth and feel of the story. Manju is the weakest amongst the four films and not the best of beginnings for the anthology.
The narrative of the second short film, Khilauna by Raj Mehta, begins with police interrogation and the events are told to us in flashbacks. Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha) is a housemaid, who along with her little sister, Binny (Inayat Verma), leaves no opportunity to think up different ways to reap benefits from her employers living in expensive flats. Meenal is innocuous by nature but shrewd enough to channelize her genuine beauty and fake innocence to extract advantages from people in power. Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) a poor ironing guy working within the premise of the posh locality is her lover and has been threatened by the newly appointed secretary Vinod Agarwal, not to fool around with her in the stall. Meanwhile, the neighborhood people have cut off the illegal power connection of Meenal’s house. Because of this, Binny is unable to sleep now as she could only do so with the TV on. The problem can only be solved by Vinod and so using her charm, she convinces him to appoint as a maid to look after his pregnant wife. And one day as Vinod makes an unwanted advance towards Meenal, the narrative takes a drastic turn with a climax that is so gory and macabre that it is gut-wrenching. The biggest achievement of the film, or so the makers might have thought, is the creation of perhaps the most good-looking and sophisticated housemaids ever seen in Indian cinema through Meenal. However, if the actor and director had only spent an hour and a half attentively watching the character of Ratna (Tillotama Shome) in Is Love Enough? – Sir (2018), that would have been a fruitful exercise and a good reference point for them to flesh out Meenal’s character convincingly. Inayat Verma plays her character with aplomb while Abhishek Banerjee convincingly replicates his role from Vishanoo in Unpaused (2020) of a helpless migrant laborer. This particular film suits the title of the anthology, as it is a ‘strange tale’ being told but I have to add here that it is strange in a plain, weird way.
By now, it has become a common strategy that the best amongst the series of short films is always slotted in the middle and Neeraj Ghaywan’s meticulous and perceptive character study, Geeli Pucchi, is no exception. The anthology finally lifts a couple of notches with this segment where Konkona Sensharma plays the role of Bharti Mandal, who despite her qualification, loses the job of a Data Operator to Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari), who also has the same degree as her. The probable reason for this is Bharati’s caste even if the manager of the factory cites other factors. For she is a Dalit who has been graciously ‘allowed’ to eat at a table but is not permitted to work at one with the higher officials. Whereas, Priya is a Brahmin, whose father-in-law is going to become a head-priest in the coming year so she must be cautious about whom to mingle with. Regardless of the caste division, a bond develops between the two women and culminates into a game of sexual attraction, bias, emotional manipulation, and deception. Ghaywan is, thankfully, less interested in plot twists and concentrates instead on the psychological revelations of his characters. The film short on glamour and doesn’t boast of an expensive production design like the others in the lot. But it does hold its head high in depicting a low-key, interior-bound drama rather sensitively and intelligently. The layered complexity of the storytelling is enhanced with the restless camera moving within the ordinary spaces and institutional corridors, reflecting a perpetual shifting of the moral viewpoint. It becomes increasingly clear that it’s not easy to apportion praise or blame and identify the ‘other’ as the cause of their woes. Konkona adds another feather to her cap proving yet again that she is one of the finest contemporary cinema actresses in India. Aditi as the contrasting character trapped within her desires and confusion, also delivers a persuasive performance in a segment that is head and shoulders above the other three in its cinematic execution.
The final film in the installment, Ankahi by Kayoze Irani, is the story of a middle-aged mother, Natasha (Shefali Shah), whose daughter Samaira (Sara Arjun) is going deaf. Her husband, Rohan (Tota Roy Choudhury), refuses to learn sign language to communicate with their only child saying he doesn’t have the time to do so. The couple bickers and their relationship falters as the daughter watches them sadly from a corner of the house. Natasha finds solace in the company of a photographer Kabir (Manav Kaul) who is both auditorily and vocally disabled. Both Natasha and Kabir communicate through sign language, the only original streak in this otherwise clichéd tale of love and infidelity. The sign language not only connects them, both emotionally and physically but also serves as a metaphor for the unspoken intentions of the characters. This finally results in a shattering climax where one of them realizes the bitter truth that people can also communicate with their eyes. The on-screen chemistry between Shefali and Manav lifts the story. Tota in whatever little screen space was given to him justifies his role perfectly. By the time the film, surprisingly garishly designed, ends, one can’t help but feel that what we’ve seen is little more than old wine in a new bottle.
Overall as is the nature with anthologies like this, the cumulative film consists of some bright spots and some disappointments with measured portions of mediocre fare that passes by without leaving much of an impression one way or another. Fortunately, the collective effect of the piece, thanks to Ghaywan’s segment and some fine performances throughout, just about passes muster.
Hindi, Drama, Anthology, Color