Directors: Neeraj Ghaywan, Raj Mehta, Shashank Khaitan and Kayoze Irani
Writers: Neeraj Ghaywan, Sumit Saxena, Shashank Khaitan and Uzma Khan.
Edited by: Nitin Baid.
Cinematography: Jishnu Bhattacharjee, Pushkar Singh and Siddharth Vasani
Starring: Konkona Sensharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Abhishek Banerjee, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul
Streaming on: Netflix
The awfully corny title, Ajeeb Daastaans, somewhat reveals the central theme of Netflix's new four-film anthology. Each of the shorts is a riff on the duality of storytelling – existing at the intersection of the privileged and the marginalised, the seen and the unseen, the spoken and the silenced. The desires of a driver's adult son, a hustling housemaid, a Dalit factory worker and a hearing-impaired man define the conflicts of inherently prejudiced environments. This is traditionally tricky terrain for Indian creators: there's always the risk of sacrificing the identity of the disenfranchised at the altar of narrative gimmickry.
Unfortunately, the first two of the four shorts succumb to precisely that. Shashank Khaitan's Majnu and Raj Mehta's Khilauna interpret the duality as cheap parlour tricks: diploma-film-level climactic twists, tone-deaf shock value and a general fetishisation of culture and storytelling. Every person in them is merely a device meant to enable a perverse revelation which, in both cases, is laughably flimsy. Majnu, specifically, is in poor taste: a prime example of how socio-cultural blind spots are often ingrained into a maker's love for mainstream Bollywood templates.
It opens with a hopeful young bride on her wedding night dryly being told by her older husband (Jaideep Ahlawat) that their marriage is only a political arrangement, and that he is in love with someone else. This woman, Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), spends the rest of the film torn between mourning and moaning, conforming to the saucy Savita Bhabhi stereotype of the repressed Indian housewife. She seduces the oxygen in every frame, her voice becomes a flirty extension of a carnal grunt, painting the mansion red with the sort of heightened heterosexual pining that is a giveaway on its own. A commoner who buys a sultry nightie for her is punished by dipping his privates into boiling oil like a human fritter. When the driver's hunky son, Raj (of course), becomes the family's new financial advisor with a 90s-Yash Raj-hero entry shot, Majnu uses its sensual body to hide what it thinks is a sensitive heart. But the conceit is cringeworthy enough to reiterate decades of the very gaze it's trying to reverse. The twist is unintentionally comical the same way most horror movies tend to be inadvertently funny.
This misfire is almost on par with the whodunnit tone of the second film, Khilauna, that uses a murder investigation to depict the social tensions brewing in an upper-middle-class colony. A housemaid (a miscast Nushrratt Bharuccha), her playful 8-year-old sister and a neighbourhood dhobi (Abhishek Banerjee) form a group of societal misfits being interrogated for a crime at a sleazy employer's house. Their versions of the story form the narrative. The sinister subtext – "servants are toys to the privileged and masters are toys to the servants" – is spelt out by a character, lest we can't perceive the ghastly nature of the crime revealed in the end. Again, the physicality of the film feels like a commercial device. The shrewd housemaid is framed as a sexual fantasy of an Indian engineering student rather than a real person, and the graphic ending is more a consequence of artistic posturing than lived-in rage.
Neeraj Ghaywan's short film, Geeli Pucchi, is easily the most accomplished of the lot. This isn't surprising, considering Ghaywan is the only film-maker with a legacy in this medium. An excellent Konkona Sensharma stars as Bharti, a queer Dalit factory worker whose dreams of a desk job are derailed with the arrival of Priya (a cleverly cast Aditi Rao Hydari), a coy upper-caste woman with half of Bharti's qualifications. Remarkably, Ghaywan and co-writer Sumit Saxena refuse to isolate the identity of the story. No misplaced labels of feminism and empowerment are attached to it. Instead, as is the case in life, it's the intersectionality of multiple identities that defines the greyness of its people. There's gender: the two women form a bond by virtue of being the only females at work. There's class: blue-collar Bharti's loneliness is shot differently from savarna Priya's cramped domestic space, and Priya is often seen coming down a staircase to the 'lower' section to eat lunch with Bharti. There's sexuality: an attraction develops between them, and Priya's manic-pixie-ness is humanised through Bharti's gaze. There's ambition: Bharti's aspiration for a job is a measure of her agency. And there's caste: Bharti lies about her surname to Priya.
Most importantly, the last five minutes of the film ensure that the lower-caste protagonist is not valourised as an underdog hero or resolute victim. The twist, unlike in the first two films, is not superficial but subliminal: a shift in character instead of an explosion of truth. Konkona excels in the role of a wounded spirit. Bharti's "manliness" – her walking, talking and working style – is mocked by her male colleagues, but the actress eschews the butch stereotype with great control, turning her gait into more of a tender survival instinct than a hardened physical trait. Perhaps the only problem with the film is its sense of exposition. At lunch, one Dalit worker cautiously reminds the other of their identity and social limitations. It's unlikely for two people of the same standing to converse that way. Then there's Priya's mother-in-law, who explicitly tells her to be mindful about whom she socialises with, as well as the on-the-nose profession of the father-in-law (a Brahmin priest). The spoon-feeding is jarring but understandable, likely derived from the fact that caste is often lost upon uninitiated Hindi film audiences.
The final short, Ankahi, directed by Kayoze Irani, is the most uncomplicated of the four. It features Shefali Shah as an upper-class Mumbai housewife who – in her struggle to adapt to the escalating deafness of her teen daughter – cheats on her crabby husband (Tota Roy Chowdhury) with a handsome knight in hearing-impaired armour (Manav Kaul). I like that the film is composed around the prospect of deafness, and by extension, the visual language of hand gestures and muted expressions. Romance is inherently ingrained into its form. The quintessential Indian love story is founded on the amplification of this precise language – emoting with the eyes, the mouth, the body, through music and spiritual connection. The casting is accurate: there are no two better actors than Shah and Kaul in terms of facial acrobatics. They have the most naturally vivid movie faces, which makes the unlikely chemistry between the two characters very believable.
The conflict of the marriage at the core reflects the Sound of Metal template. There is a push-and-pull between two disability ideologies – the homemaking parent learns sign language to immerse herself into the world of her daughter, the working parent is saving up for a cochlear implant to keep his daughter in his 'normal' world. Irani shows a fair bit of directorial flair – especially in an early scene that syncs the cacophony of a marital spat with the silence of the child watching it through a terrific match-cut featuring a glass of whisky. The final scene is quite stretched, overdoing the 'face' acting, but it's still a long way ahead of where Ajeeb Daastaans begins.
A fifty percent success rate for most anthologies is par for the course. But the statistic doesn't take into account the badness of the misfires versus the greatness of the bullseyes. Thankfully, the sequence of the shorts helps: the two solid segments are third and fourth, leaving the viewer with a sense of hope. If not for the well-performed purpose of Geeli Pucchi, however, Ajeeb Daastaans might have been a considerably diminished metaphor for storytelling.