Directed by: Adeeb Rais
Writer: Adeeb Rais
Cast: Soni Razdan, Vinay Pathak, Sayoni Gupta, Priyanshu Painyuli, Maanvi Gagroo, Husain Dalal, Gauhar Khan, Rajit Kapur, Sharib Hashmi, Tanmay Dhanania
Cinematographer: Dhruv Datta, Niteesh Jangid, Prajwal Shivanna
Editor: Rajat Kashyap, Sumit Lalwani
Streaming on: Amazon Mini TV
I've run out of ways to say this. But here goes. Another day, another middling anthology film/series with more misses than hits, more characters than people and a vast menu of ideas that amount to little more than a cheap midnight buffet. This sudden deluge of modern trying-too-hard short films makes me wonder why the studios don't just reinvent the concept of anthology storytelling by instead curating collections of award-winning shorts that actually need the exhibition platforms and eyeballs? Everyone wins. Everyone belongs. The problem with creating new stuff is that, well, a precious few 'industry' filmmakers seem to understand the medium. Kaali Peeli Tales is no different even though it is. Unlike other Indian anthologies, all its six shorts are helmed by the same director – which means that it has no excuse to be wildly uneven. But this also means that the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none syndrome gets very real very fast. It's not always wise to have the same voice singing different songs. By the time the director starts to get a feel of the language, the concert ends.
The title is probably the most interesting part of this project. It refers to Mumbai's iconic black-and-yellow taxis – enduring symbols of the city that have, over the years, thrived on merging the person with the place. The film gets the role of the kaali-peeli cab on point – the stories here don't revolve around the cars, they get resolved in them. All the six taxi rides happen at night, too, once enough of the day has passed for every end to feel like a beginning. Or at a time when the body is too tired to defy the awakening of the mind. A tipsy wife floats the notion of an open marriage to her husband. A long-closeted man finally opens up to his younger lover. Two ex-convicts trade thoughts about their first day of freedom. A 'broken' family bonds over memories and a song. A phone call fixes a relationship threatened by infidelity. A commitment-phobic social media influencer kisses a divorced blogger. These are bittersweet moments – some more than others – that each of the Kaali Peeli Tales culminate in. The destination might be soothing, but the journey is quite a slog.
Most of the shorts suffer from one or more defective elements. Marriage 2.0 relies a lot on chemistry and conversation between a young married couple. But the dialogue is stilted and strange, turning an unorthodox premise into an unlikely one. The scenes where the husband and wife convince their respective office crushes – both juniors – to join them for a birthday dinner comes off as creepy rather than funny. You'd think they were scouting for a foursome. Then there's the double date itself, which features some cringeworthy flirting and awkward acting. Fish Fry aur Coffee, starring Sharib Hashmi, is thoughtful in its staging – two ex-prisoners from two completely different walks of life struggle to reconcile with the world they left behind. I like the situational contrast: the ship has sailed for the hopeful one, while it's still docked for the hopeless one. But despite a decent setup, the final exchange in the taxi lacks the emotional maturity the film earns.
Ditto for Single Jhumka, starring Sayani Gupta (in a cab again after Detour), a well-acted film that exhibits a grown-up take on infidelity and female agency but still succumbs to the sentimentality it tries to subvert. The idea – of not villainizing a partner to glorify the lover – is far better than the execution. Just as it is with Harra Bharra, starring Vinay Pathak and Soni Razdan as a divorced couple who reunite for their daughter's big night. The balance between dysfunctionality and love is clearly defined, but the little details – like the banter between the two – are far from remarkable. A dramatic background score abruptly seeps into a half-serious moment, and the too-good-to-be-true camaraderie teeters on the edge of superficial wokeness.
The worst of the lot, ironically, stars the director himself. Adeeb Rias plays an Instagram influencer who falls for a pretty travel blogger at a wildlife resort. The short is painful to watch. Everything – especially the acting by the lead pair and a weird taxi driver who speaks loudly to himself without breaking the fourth wall – is a disaster. Maybe the most functional of the six is Loose Ends, the story of a gay couple facing a reckoning when the wife of the older partner gets pregnant. The boyish Siddharth Menon, who also occupied the same-sex triangle of LOEV, is compelling as a restless catholic man waiting for his lover of five years to embrace their truth. The film feels informed – the two men meet discreetly at a quarter bar, the wife (a striking Gauahar Khan) is a famous television journalist, a parent tries to better understand his son. But Tanmay Dhanania's performance as Kartik, the closeted teacher in a relationship with his ex-student, is oddly wooden – his lines sound oversincere, his face is blank, and his delivery is almost saint-like in a land of alleged sinners. The final scene in the taxi is diluted by a theatrical score, yet the film leaves quite an impression on the unassuming viewer – reminiscent of Karan Johar's raw segment of Bombay Talkies.
That being said, Loose Ends may be the standout short but it is by no means an undisputed winner like, say, a Geeli Pucchi (the Usain Bolt of Ajeeb Daastaans), a Vishanu (the Serena Williams of Unpaused) or an Interview (the Roger Federer of Feels Like Ishq). Perhaps because Kaali Peeli Tales emerges deep into the digital era of Anthology Fatigue™. Or perhaps more because it's at best a forgettable fusion of quasi-Mumbai melancholy. I miss the whole taxi, not the vehicle of its parts.