In Kayoze Irani’s short film Ankahi, the fourth film in the Netflix movie anthology Ajeeb Daastaans, Natasha (Shefali Shah) points out that the photographs clicked by Kabir (Manav Kaul) have a sadness hidden in them. Kabir clarifies, “What people see in my photographs says less about me and more about them.” To me, this reply encapsulates my feelings towards the movie. Ajeeb Daastaans is being hailed for its attempt to capture the nuances of human relationships and the politics of power dynamics in society, especially in Geeli Pucchi, the third short by Neeraj Ghaywan. When Unpaused was released on Amazon Prime in December 2020, the five shorts in the anthology tried to re-imagine the effect of the pandemic on the lives of ordinary people. I believe, Ajeeb Daastaans makes an equally ambitious effort. The four shorts attempt to address sexuality, caste, socio-economic power hierarchies and disability politics in our everyday lives. The portrayals, however, mostly fail to distinctly convey the same. The conversation around these topics gets deflected again and again until you are forced to question why they were included in the stories in the first place.
In the first short, Majnu, directed by Shashank Khaitan, when Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) comes out to Raj (Armaan Ralhan) as a queer character deeply in love with him and asks him to murder his wife, Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), we are quite bamboozled. The narrative never left breadcrumbs for us to follow this trail except for a small scene where Raj is helping Babloo with his fitness training session. The scene, predictably, contributes to the development of the affair between Raj and Lipakshi. While Ahlawat’s acting skills commendably capture the pain and helplessness felt by his character due to the long years of repression he has undergone, it seems like nothing more than an unnecessary trope in an otherwise odd revenge drama and it only serves to complicate it. It fails to capture the plight of the queer person, instead sending the character back into the hetero-norm under the garb of honour, and social and moral responsibilities. Babloo’s sexuality continues to remain unheard even though the narrative could have opened up a portal to the same.
In Khilauna, the second short directed by Raj Mehta, the plot shuttles between the past and the present through the perspective of different characters and a third-person narrator. The police constables are shown attempting to make Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha) and Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) confess to a hideous crime that they insist they never committed. The socio-economic divide is laid bare. Sushil is never heard out, his innocence is always questioned and he is beaten both the times he attempts to explain himself. Meenal, on the other hand, is molested and cannot bring herself to speak out. Her behaviour is visibly changed but her employers take no notice of it. After all, she is merely a housemaid. Another important conversation about a very prevalent form of abuse goes unfocussed upon as the unnerving climax suddenly deviates all attention to Meenal’s sister, Binny (Inayat Verma). We are forced to stop and re-think the relations between master and servant from the eyes of a child now. Binny’s last dialogue that ends the short sure sends a shiver down the spine but can it express enough rage on behalf of a victim of abuse?
This is where Geeli Pucchi comes in. It is the third short in the anthology, and directed by Neeraj Ghaywan. It stands out as a clear winner among the four. The characters are bound behind the bars of privilege and marginalisation of varying degrees. Bharti (Konkona Sensharma) and Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari) develop a friendship that is not outside of the glaring caste and class divide. Priya’s chirpy, happy face is cloaked in stunned silence by the end of the short. Bharti’s character is so nuanced that even after she propels her own self-interest, you are left undecided about which character to side with. Their cases are laid out on the table in front of us and our verdict shall, in turn, necessarily comment upon our own privilege and position in society. Ghaywan wraps his short like a beautiful present. Where Bharati is silent, Priya speaks out for her and vice versa, although with differing results. The unsaid burdens that both of them bear only end up finding an expression in their conversations with each other. However, the bridge between their caste and class is unfathomably deep and Bharti is quickly made to realise that this gap cannot be bridged. They are unheard in their own ways, except the orchestration of their silence about caste, gender and privilege ultimately lies in their own hands.
To further this feeling, we arrive at the last short in the anthology, Ankahi by director Kayoze Irani. It literally translates to unspoken and we find both physical and metaphorical references to this particular state of silence in several ways throughout this short. The most distinct example of the same is Kabir and Natasha’s short romance, which plays out through sign language. They are without speech but not silent. They hear each other out, in laughter and contemplation, as opposed to Natasha’s marriage with Rohan (Tota Roy Chowdhury), which is crumbling due to their inability to comprehend each other’s resentful exchanges. The conversation around normalising disability is central to the film and the politics that construct it, and is a good first for a Bollywood movie, but then it becomes a soppy, sad tale of love.
The heteronormative, upper-class, upper-caste, ableist, socio-economic positions of power are challenged, if not altered, by the movie. While Geeli Pucchi and Ankahi significantly contribute to this exchange of dialogue, Majnu and Khilauna appear stuck in their own webs of drama and end up using this dialogue as mere plot advancers in their own ways. Does Ajeeb Daastaans, then, strike a balance between the unspoken and the unheard? Perhaps it is not as well-defined as we would have liked it to be. The riveting background scores do their share of speaking as well. The performances by the actors bring their stories to life and stay with the audience. Unfortunately, they are not good enough to substitute for its lack of conversation about the real issues that intersperse the stories. Both the unspoken and the spoken combine in a dialogic discourse. But neither is prominent enough to be heard nor is it insignificant enough to be left unattended.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.