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
Anthology films are currently in fashion. The good thing about the format is that in most anthologies, there is at least one stand-out entry. Like Zoya Akhtar's short in Lust Stories or Dibakar Banerjee's in Ghost Stories or Avinash Arun's in Unpaused. In Ajeeb Daastaans, that film is Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi. Even though the short doesn't match the searing brilliance of those earlier ones, it is the clear winner in this patchy four-film collection.
Geeli Pucchi means wet kiss. The term signifies the tenuous connection that two women in a small town in North India make with each other. Bharti Mandal, played by a terrific Konkona Sensharma, is the sole woman working on a factory floor. She's smart, ambitious, tough. When a co-worker insults her, she retaliates. But not with a slap. Bharti punches him in the face, like a boxer in a ring. We are told that she gets into fights every two or three months. We are also told that the factory has no toilets for women. But Bharti doesn't complain – either about that or her toxic co-worker. Her rage simmers just beneath the surface. Bharti is female, Dalit and gay. Which means she is marginalized three times over. Her talent and ability alone will never be enough to get her ahead.
Priya Sharma is the opposite. Neeraj emphasizes Aditi Rao Hydari's porcelain beauty and Aditi expertly nails Priya's naivete, her constant patter and her child-like eagerness to be friends with Bharti. As the upper-caste 'Sharma ji ki bahu,' Priya is allowed to work but not allowed to walk to the factory. Priya has privilege, which she is blissfully unaware of but she is in fact, more trapped than Bharti. Briefly, the two find warmth and a hesitant intimacy – there's a lovely scene in which Bharti cooks chicken for Priya who isn't allowed non-vegetarian food at her husband's house. But ultimately, Bharti comes to realize, the chasm between them cannot be bridged.
Caste and gender have always played a starring role in Neeraj's cinema but here he also throws in sexuality. He and writer Sumit Saxena create a layered story which keeps twisting with exquisite subtlety. Watch out for the details – like how the word 'chudail' binds the two women or the way Bharti's face hardens when she understands that she will always be an outsider or the superb use of a steel tea mug. The background score by Alokananda Dasgupta enhances the complex emotions embedded in the story – loneliness, desire, resentment, revenge. And the end will leave you both conflicted and satisfied.
Debutant director Kayoze Irani also tells a story about a tenuous connection. Ankahi is about a housewife, Natasha, struggling to keep her life on track as her daughter loses her hearing. Her husband, who seems to be in denial, claims that he is too busy to learn sign language. As their bond is reduced to screaming matches and silences, Natasha finds refuge in friendship with Rohan, a hearing-impaired photographer. Their relationship plays out in pretty gardens, cafes, comedy clubs and his beautifully furnished apartment. The jagged edges here are only in the emotions but Kayoze sustains a lovely warmth and Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul are wonderful. These two are such seasoned players that with minute expressions, they speak volumes. The ending reminded me of Jason Reitman's 2009 film Up in the Air. I hope after watching this, more directors think of Manav as a romantic lead. Oodles of charm are waiting to be tapped.
The other two stories in this collection – Majnu by Shashank Khaitan and Khilona by Raj Mehta – seem to have been conjured up in a parallel universe from Neeraj and Kayoze's. The first is a purposefully pulpy tale about a thuggish political leader who is forced, as he says, into a 'gatbandhan ki shaadi.' He abandons his wife on their wedding night, so she proceeds to flirt outrageously with every man who crosses her path. At one point, she squeezes a bicep and suggestively asks, 'gym jaate ho?' There aren't many actors who can make writing like this look good. Fatima Sana Shaikh fails as does the usually wonderful Jaideep Ahlawat. This is the rare instance when he seems to have dialed in his performance.
In Khilona, Nushrratt Bharuccha gives her best shot at playing an alluring housemaid who is trying to sustain herself and her daughter. The story, also by Sumit Saxena, attempts to comment on class divisions or as someone puts it – Kothi wale aur katiya wale – but the plot is too amateurish to land.
The dastaan in Ajeeb Daastaans is plural, which took me back to Abbas Tyrewala's film Jhootha Hi Sahi in which characters kept describing things as ajeebs. There are plenty of ajeebs here too. But what stayed with me was the expression in Bharti's eyes in the last shot of Geeli Pucchi.
Watch Ajeeb Daastaans for that. It's available on Netflix.