Yet another anthology makes its way to Netflix. Ajeeb Daastaans, consisting of four short daastaans, revolves around the concepts of love, lust, bad parenting, and queerness. It's a 50-50 win with two misfires and two triumphs. A good thing about shorts is that the bad ones don't make you suffer for eternity. Their ephemeral lifespan quickly takes you from one narrative to the next without boring you to death.
The anthology opens with Shashank Khaitan's Majnu. On their wedding night, Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) breaks the news to his unsuspecting wife, Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), that someone else is living in his heart and he cannot accept her as his wife. He further explains that he agreed to the wedding under pressure from his father. Lipakshi is not your typical Hindi Movie Bride. Instead of breaking down, she confronts Babloo and accuses him of wasting her life. This simple account of a loveless marriage is complicated with a time jump followed by a strange incident between Lipakshi and a comically creepy character with a lecherous gaze. This scene exists as a conveyor, establishing that Lipakshi has become a promiscuous woman, and if a man lays eyes on her, he will face dire consequences. The expository nature of this scene is plainly evident, which makes it puzzling and incompetent. Khaitan is not interested in creating real moments. He is more absorbed in hitting us with as many twists as possible. The conclusion is facile and engineered to match with one of its dialogue, "Hum jab bhi kuch lete hai, toh badle mein kuch dete zaroor hain." A poignant story about love and the hope it brings with it is lost due to its decision to prioritise surprises over affection.
Raj Mehta's Khilauna has a non-linear structure. It's told through flashbacks with the present events taking place at a police station and the past at a rich locality. Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha) is a maid who participates in deception. She beats her little sister Binny (Inayat Verma) to gain sympathy (and food) from her employer and sheds fake tears at the sight of a baby. Meenal is cunning because she believes that is the only way to achieve things in society. She bad-mouths the people she works for. Then there is Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee), who runs a laundry stall in the same locality. His views are opposite to Meenal's. He tells her to not criticise the people who give her clothes, fruit, and food to eat. Khilauna has one foot in the rich-poor divide. It shows how the poor have to struggle to receive services like electricity, and that too could be stolen from them without prior warning. Another foot stands in bad parenting. Binny is a small kid who gathers her worldview from the surrounding grown-ups. She stays close to Meenal and Sushil. The two of them act like adults in front of Binny, unaware of the impact it might have on her thinking. It makes for a thought-provoking or chilly narrative, and Khilauna does get disturbing, but it doesn't fully earn its horrific denouement. It doesn't plant the seeds for that repulsive pressure cooker visual, reducing it to nothing more than a shocking moment.
In the next segment, Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sensharma) has been working among men for a long time. The male-packed environment has made a man out of Bharti. Her sitting posture, walking style, and other mannerisms resemble manly gestures. Even her physical image has changed towards the opposite gender. When asked who is her best friend, she replies, "Dashrath." The question is asked by Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari), who is poles apart from Bharti. Slowly, we find out that the difference exists only in relation to the outer appearance. Peek within them, and you will find broken hearts longing for female companionship. Maybe something more than companionship. Both are victims of a society that looks down on same-sex relationships. Their respective partners couldn't fight against the system and surrendered to it. Bharti is a fighter, and even though Priya is married to a man, she dreams of breaking free from her marital scene. Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi, the best of the lot, transcends the lesbian angle of its story. Bharti develops feelings for Priya, but it's Priya's position at the workplace that she loves more than anything. Priya, too, loves Bharti, but her passion comes with a certain exclusivity. It would be a crime to spoil Geeli Pucchi, but two scenes here would pierce even the toughest of hearts in the audience. The story, undoubtedly, is praise-worthy. However, the performances really, truly elevate the material to the highest level of excellence. Geeli Pucchi is so good because it places humans before their sexual orientations. It doesn't go for cheap shots like painting the husband as a villain or making the story merely about the struggles of being gay in the backward society. It's about discrimination and inequality and the steps one is forced to take to survive in a biased setting.
There is a sublime cut in Kayoze Irani's Ankahi, where we shift from the argument of a couple to the silent POV of their daughter. Natasha (Shefali Shah) wants her husband, Rohan (Tota Roy Chaudhary), to connect with their daughter, Samaira (Sara Arjun). Rohan shows reluctance as he is occupied with his work. He is planning for the future while Natasha wants him to live in the present. She asks him to communicate with their daughter, who soon will become deaf, using sign language. He doesn't budge. Fed up by his ignorance, Natasha visits a photo gallery where she meets Kabir (Manav Kaul), a deaf photographer. Natasha soon finds herself attracted to Kabir, finding solace in his silence, away from the loud bickering of Rohan. Kaul and Shah don't just make for a good-looking couple, they also make you invest in their bond. You pay attention to their conversations and slowly start understanding the hand gestures without glancing at the subtitles. You don't need to, as their body language tells everything you need to know about what's happening between them.
Like Geeli Pucchi, the strength of this short lies in the electrifying performances. In the opening scene itself, when you see Kaul and Shah together, you, without any doubt, accept them as a lifelong couple. As it emphasises Natasha's journey, we don't get the other side of Rohan that regrets missing out on her daughter. This facet briefly presents itself when the daughter comes to their room and goes to hug her mother. It's here where Rohan's regret surfaces. He truly wants the best future for her daughter and thinks it can only be achieved through money. Apart from negligence, another reason for Natasha's attraction towards Kabir lies in her will to prove to her daughter that you can be loved even when you are deaf. It's just the hearing that is lost; the capacity for romance still remains. There are no good or bad people here. They act on their impulses, their desires, and whatever they crave at the particular moment. I don't know how many people would appreciate Ankahi when its only fault is that it comes after Geeli Pucchi, a short that raises the bar to the highest degree. While Ankahi is not as ground-breaking as the short that comes before it, it nevertheless excels on the path it commits to.