Cast: Konkona Sen Sharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Nushrat Bharucha, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul, Abhishek Banerjee, Tota Roy Chowdhury
Director: Neeraj Ghaywan, Kayoze Irani, Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Love stories are not always about the blossoming of love. They are at times about the insubstantiality, if not complete absence, of love. But do all tales of marriages marred and relationships ruined make for twisted narratives that are uniformly engaging? In Ajeeb Daastaans, produced by Dharmatic Entertainment for Netflix, they do not.
One of the four shorts that make up the anthology - Neeraj Ghaywan's Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses) - is a film of exceptional quality. Its social commentary rests upon an unflinching recognition of the complexities of caste and gender identities. Another of the films - Kayoze Irani's Ankahee - is neatly crafted and exquisitely acted. The other two strive hard to keep up and that is about it.
Ajeeb Daastaans homes in on five women - an unloved small-town bride seeking to satiate her sexual desire, a maidservant walking the tightrope between self-preservation and exploitation in an upper middle-class locality, two temperamentally divergent female employees of a chemical factory navigating the complex chemistry of their own lives, and a Mumbai woman caught between a daughter going deaf and a husband too busy to hear her entreaties.
Netflix's latest anthology may be dismissed as a case of one too many but for Ghaywan's absolutely brilliant take on the many divides that marginalised women have to reckon with: of gender, of caste, of class, of sexuality, of familial roles. One distinguishing marker does not stand apart from another. They all overlap to create a collage of challenges that operate compositely even as each singly impacts choices and compulsions.
Ajeeb Daastaans is more a continuation of Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil) and Pitta Kathalu (Telugu), Netflix originals both, than of the earlier Hindi-language Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, which are also on the streaming platform. More than moral transgressions and desperate emotional lunges, the anthology explores lacerating social disjunctions that play out in surprising, sometimes shocking, ways.
Ajeeb Daastaans portrays people recoiling from rejection, seeking fresh beginnings, retreating to familiar routines or tilting at difficult-to-bridge divides to construct a foundation for elusive happiness. The results are uneven as much for the fictional characters on the screen as for the anthology as a whole.
Ajeeb Daastaans begins with Majnu, written and directed by Shashank Khaitan. It is about a feckless Barabanki strongman (Jaideep Ahlawat) who give in to his father's diktat and marries a powerful Hardoi politician's daughter (Fatima Sana Shaikh). Ours is a marriage of compromise, do not expect love from me, the man curtly tells his bride on the wedding night.
The understandably shocked young lady gathers herself soon enough and begins to look for love elsewhere. Her dangerous liaisons lead to complications that hinge not only on the husband's indignation and jealousy but also on a history of violence that binds him to a young hunk (Armaan Ralhan) who does his bit to queer the pitch for the couple.
A tale of simmering passions and wounded egos should have crackled. Majnu does not. Despite Ahlawat and Shaikh's best efforts to up the ante and give the story some heft, the film falls way short of the crooked tangents it seeks. It examines small-town power structures rooted in political strategies and social traditions but neither the structures, environs or the traditions are captured vividly enough. The drama of stifled desires is never more than lukewarm.
Written by Sumit Saxena and directed by Raj Mehta, Khilauna toys with the urban underclass in a dull, superficial manner. A young woman Meenal (Nushrat Bharuccha) works in middle-class homes to pay for the education of her kid sister Binny (Inayat Verma). The neighbourhood's ironing man Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) is in love with her.
The new secretary of the residents' association (Maneesh Verma), who does not take kindly to the dalliance, exploits the maidservant's vulnerability when her illegal electricity connection is discontinued, a literal representation of her lack of power over her own life and the people whom she serves.
The end of the film is meant to be unsettling but all that it manages to be is contrived because it emanates from a stray, innocuous remark that Meenal makes to her precocious young sister when the latter asks her whether she planning to make a baby with Sushil. Neither this conversation nor the appalling act that it leads to serves the film's avowed purpose of elucidating the dynamics of the class divide.
Khilauna resorts in the main to broad strokes, opting for the easiest methods to highlight the yawning gap between the powerful and the servants they employ. Nushrat Bharuchha is miscast as the maid and that is only the least of the problems that beset Khilauna.
The disconnect between Geeli Pucchi, crafted brilliantly by Neeraj Ghaywan with a script written by him with Sumit Saxena, and the rest of Ajeeb Daastaans is stark. It is as if it has emerged from a different planet. The short is driven by two pivotal performances by Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, who represent two different faces of the problems of caste and class prejudice and discrimination.
You cannot take your eyes off the screen, or let your ears wander, as you hang on to every line that the two actresses deliver and every gesture that they make. They negotiate the complex process of understanding each other's entitlements and deprivations.
Nearly three quarters of an hour long, Geeli Pucchi delves deep into the workings of social biases that inflect the multiplicity of identities, some overt and easy to grasp, others obscured and hard to work one's way around, of the two women, co-workers in a factory.
Bharti (Sensharma) is a Dalit "machine man" in a chemical plant. She, the only woman on the factory floor, has her sights set on the data operator's job. Priya Sharma (Hydari), newly married, is hired to fill the vacancy. Bharti is peeved but she befriends the new recruit.
Thus begins a process of negotiations between the tough Bharti (who has seen much more of life) and the laidback Priya (who would much rather cling to her past) - where they come from and who and what they are as persons determine their approaches to each other and to the challenges that emanate from the realities around them. Geeli Pucchi, delivered with a marvellous lightness of touch and precision of purpose, is an illuminating portrait of a society steeped in debilitatingly ossified ways.
Another pair of brilliant performances powers Ankahee, directed by Kayoze Irani from a script by Uzma Khan and Sumit Saxena. Shefali Shah as an unhappily married mother of a girl who is losing her hearing and Manav Kaul in the role of deaf-mute photographer with whom she develops a bond make this a memorable acting duet.
Dealing in silences and vibrations, emotions and tremulous expressions, gestures and signs, suppressed feelings and emotional outbursts, Ankahee also thrives on a wonderful soundscape that reflects the dualities that are at play here.
Natasha's (Shah) husband Rohan (Tota Roy Chowdhury) tells her after a heated argument that he hates "the sound of her voice". The unnamed photographer, in contrast, says that he hears Natasha's voice "with my mind". Hurt and healing are also parts of the life of Natasha's daughter Samaira (Sara Arjun). The girl, speaking sign language, asks her mom: "Will I be loved?"
Sensitive and simple, Ankahee says a lot about what goes on in a marriage rendered unstable by a twist of fate - and in hearts that find love that seems purer and truer than anything else in the world. But life has a way of springing ajeeb surprises.
Not all the four stories it tells are as startling as they want to be, but Ajeeb Daastaans is elevated several notches by Ghaywan's subtly stinging short film.