Directors: Abhishek Chaubey, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwary, Saket Chaudhary
Writers: Piyush Gupta, Hussain Haidry, Shreyas Jain, Zeenat Lakhani, Nitesh Tiwari
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Abhishek Banerjee, Zoya Hussain, T.J. Bhanu, Rinku Rajguru, Nikhil Dwivedi, Palomi Ghosh, Delzad Hiwale, Omkar Ketkar
Cinematographers: Eeshit Narain
Editors: Sanyukta Kaza, Kamlesh Parui, Charu Shree Roy
Streaming on: Netflix
An Abhishek Chaubey film in an anthology makes the anthology worth watching. That's the conclusion I've reached after Ray and Ankahi Kahaniya, Netflix's latest three-film collection. In Ray, Abhishek created Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, a charming, whimsical adaptation of a Satyajit Ray short story about the twisted relationship between a kleptomaniac and a wrestler. In Ankahi Kahaniya, he adapts the Kannada story Madhyantara by Jayant Kaikini into an exquisite, layered portrait of a tenuous connection between desolate people.
The overarching theme of Ankahi Kahaniya is love and longing in Mumbai. The three films in the anthology look at the alienation and loneliness the city fosters – whether you are a migrant in a shanty or an affluent woman in a high-rise whose husband is camouflaging his affair with gifts of expensive jewellery. Madhyantara focuses on the fledgling relationship between Manjari and Nandu. She lives in a chawl, grappling with unwanted and uncomfortable stares and touches. But what's harsher is how loveless her family is. Her presence and flushed youth seem to inherently irk them.They won't let her study further so she spends her time doing household chores and earning a little money with her embroidery skills. She spends this on movie tickets at a ramshackle single screen near her home. This is where Nandu works as a projectionist, cleaner, canteen worker and all-around caretaker. The cinema also doubles up as his home. The quiet desperation of their lives is in startling contrast to the fantasies they consume on screen. Their faces seem even more hollowed out in comparison.
Manjari is braver and hungrier – literally and metaphorically. She is hemmed in by misery and the lack of opportunity but she finds beauty and solace in putting a gajra in her hair or in eating a nankhatai. Nandu is more brutalised by his circumstances. In the first few minutes of the film, Abhishek and editor Sanyukta Kaza, who also did terrific work in Paatal Lok, elegantly draw parallels between their lives. So the scene shifts from Nandu selling peanuts to Manjari consuming them. Or Nandu cooking rice for his alcoholic uncle in a decrepit shanty to Manjari asleep in front of the stove in her house. The film suggests that their lives are intertwined even before they meet and the bond that blossoms between them is depicted with tenderness – in one of the loveliest scenes in the film, he gives her ice cream for free and she practically inhales it, suggesting that her appetite is insatiable. Manjari is insistent on a better life.
Manjari is played by the terrific Rinku Rajguru and you might find echoes here of Archie, the feisty runaway she played in Sairat. The story also eventually veers in that direction. But Madhyantara is a more meditative film. Abhishek wisely refuses to make things obvious. He merely alludes to why what happens, happens. Human beings are complicated and that flush of feeling toward another ultimately might not be enough to sustain a bond. Pay attention to the haunted affection in the eyes of Delzad Hiwale who plays Nandu. He is superb. This film does what the best shorts do – squeeze meaning into every dramatic beat and dialogue so that in half an hour, you undertake an entire journey. What remains unsaid here is the film's real beauty. Don't miss Madhyantara.
Sadly, from here, it's downhill. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari tells the story of a migrant who is so hellishly lonely that he forms a bond with the mannequin at the clothing store where he works. The story, written by Piyush Gupta, Shreyas Jain and Nitesh Tiwari, had the potential to be a sweet and sour comment on life in the big city but the messiness and inherent creepiness of the situation isn't allowed to fully blossom. Pradeep bhaiyya's relationship with the mannequin he names Pari strains too hard to be poignant – though there is a lovely moment when he has a hint of a smile when the mannequin leans on him. Abhishek Banerjee plays Pradeep with a timid bashfulness. But the writing doesn't match his performance. It works too hard to make him likeable. It is lovely though to see Scam 1992 actors Jay Upadhyay and Chirag Vohra. They reminded me of the show's killer line – risk hai toh ishq hai. This film doesn't risk enough.
But the worst offender is Saket Chaudhary whose film is as bizarre as it is banal. A woman, Tanu, who suspects her husband of having an affair, connects with the husband of the woman he is cheating on her with. Tanu and Manav then retrace what might have happened between their respective spouses. They actually recreate scenes and dialogue and imagine what one must have said to the other. So Tanu asks Manav: Tumhein aisa kyun lagta hai ki Natasha ne Arjun ko attract kiya hoga? To which he replies: Kyunki Natasha ko success bhaut attract karta hai. We are repeatedly told that Manav once made the 30 Under 30 list but his start-up failed, which is perhaps why Natasha's attention is wavering. This scenario – the story is co-written by Saket and Zeenat Lakhani – is so inherently artificial that the actors can do little with it. Kunal Kapoor, Zoya Hussain, Nikhil Dwivedi and Palomi do what they can. In contrast to the two other stories, this one focuses on affluent people and plays out in posh apartments, hotels and coffee shops. But little of it feels lived-in or authentic.
You can watch Ankahi Kahaniya on Netflix India.