Ajeeb Daastaans (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – Four shorts explore the surprising ways in which unexpected catalysts inflame the uncomfortable emotions simmering under fractured relationships.

My Take – Beginning his collaboration with Bombay Talkies (2013), and then continuing with Lust Stories (2018) and Ghost Stories (2020), Karan Johar as a filmmaker clearly wants to be involved in creating anthologies irrespective of the themes they adopt.

Incidentally, when taken into account, among the three anthologies, as a director Johar‘s shorts always stood out from the rest as the weakest limb of the lot mainly due to their unstable, hokey and melodramatic presentations. Hence, I had no idea what to expect from his latest production venture, which sees his Dharma Productions’ digital arm, Dharmatic Entertainment tie up with Netflix to offer Shashank Khaitan (Dhadak), Raj Mehta (Good Newwz), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan) and Kayoze Irani (son of actor Boman Irani making his directorial debut) a chance to direct four potent stories addressing marginalization, gender, bigotry, class and caste but with a twist in a tale we will never see coming.

As one would expect, despite the abundance of talent at disposable, the end result is a mixed bag of stories that one could relate with, and too ambitious for their own good.

Simply put, the four part anthology is a combination of two really good films and two ranging from average to below standard, with director Ghaywan walking up with all accolades for his impeccable Geeli Pucchi, and director Khaitan handing in the reins with the weakest of the lot in Majnu, and followed closely behind by director Mehta‘s Khilauna. Mainly as the two short seem so self-conscious in their desire to shock that they end up underwhelming.

In a surprising turn of the events, director Irani comes up with the simplest of stories which is further escalated by its performances. Nevertheless, the overall attempt is earnest, which continues Hindi cinema’s current attempt to break norms on OTT platforms with hard hitting narratives.

The first story, Majnu, follows Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) and Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh), who are forced to marry out due to political alliance, with Babloo clearly stating to Lipakshi to not expect husbandly duties from him since he loves someone else. Over time, defined by unsatisfied sexual needs Lipakshi roams around her mansion flirting with any male in sight, with Babloo punishing anyone caught in the act. However, their dynamics further complicate with the arrival of Raj Kumar (Armaan Ralhan), the good looking grown up son of Babloo’s driver, to whom Lipakshi is instantly attracted.

The second story, Khilauna, follows Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha), a housemaid, who works in homes situated in a gated community and uses her income to send her little sister Binny (Inayat Verma) to school, while living in a room powered by an illegally acquired connection. But when the room loses connection, despite hesitance from Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee), a clothes presser with whom she is romantically involved with, Meenal finds a job at the house of Vinod Agarwal (Maneesh Verma), the society’s secretary. However none could have anticipated the crime they would find themselves getting entangled with.

The third story, Geeli Pucchi, follows Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma), a Dalit worker employed in a factory dominated by men, who despite possessing the relevant degrees and work experience is unable to climb the ladder of hierarchy, due to her lower caste. She is also finds herself resenting the new hire, Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari), who scored the job without any of those. However, what Bharti doesn’t expect is developing an unexpected friendship with her new Brahmin colleague.

The fourth story, Ankahi, follows Natasha (Shefali Shah), a mother who is trying to come to terms with the sudden disability of her daughter, Samaira (Sara Arjun) and the distance it’s creating between the child and her father, Rohan (Tota Roy Chowdhury). However, a chance encounter with an artist named Kabir (Manav Kaul) served with a similar condition gives Natasha a new lease of life and she starts delving deep into her feelings.

Beginning with the best of the lot, for his story, director Ghaywan brings back several themes and issues he dealt with his debut film Masaan (2015), and places his characters at the intersections of caste, class, homophobia and patriarchy. He also infuses his characters with a desire to escape from a pre-determined fate that is a very relatable element for most people belonging to the middle class. Technically, both Bharti and Priya are oppressed and morally questionable characters.

Comparatively, Priya’s innocence and naïveté forms an interesting foil to Bharti’s more cynical and worldly-wise view. Priya is fair, beautiful, and from an upper caste family, but as we learn, her privilege is also her imprisonment. She is battling confusion over her sexuality, and just when the two share a tentative romantic moment, Bharti learns that there are other yawning gaps between them that their friendship cannot bridge. Hence when the twist in the tale creeps upon you in the end, it hits hard, as you can’t really take sides or call one a victim and the other a victor.

Director Ghaywan slowly builds up to the climax through his characters and the chillingly believable reality of how women often turn oppressors to escape oppression. In contrary, director Irani‘s short, the second best in line, is a simple slice of life tale that sees two individuals drawn together under unusual circumstances.

Though the segment extensively uses sign language, the story and the characters’ charm make it a delight to watch. For a directorial debut, Kayoze Irani is impressive, as he successfully tells a warm tale with enough humor and heart break without losing an ounce of its simplicity.

In comparison to these two, director Khaitan‘s Majnu lacks the nuance and sensitivity. Though Class plays an important role here, the characters aren’t written well enough to garner our sympathy. Both Babloo and Lepakshi belong and enjoy affluent positions yet want to be loved, and longed to be with someone who feels the same way. And just we comes across as someone who we can empathize with, the story does not give him any arc to develop. The whole story just crumbles with its unreal climax.

A similar problem lies with director Mehta’s Khilauna which tries to highlight the unfair gap between the rich and the poor, but all it does by the end is make you uncomfortable, and not in a good way. Meenal is another addition to the terrible cliché of house help. How it never occurs to an otherwise street-smart woman that a man objectifying her so obviously is potentially dangerous, is mystifying.

This one could have also been a great story where years of suppression, rage and lack of agency explode in an appalling climax, but sadly director Mehta is more interested in sexualizing Meenal instead of humanizing her. Sure, nothing prepares you for the climax, but a few moments of shock does not justify what a disappointment the segment is.

Performance wise, both Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari make us root for them, as Konkona’s restrain complements Aditi’s energy. Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul are perfectly cast for these roles, and their expressive eyes and faces convey complex emotions without either saying a word, while Tota Roy Chowdhury and Sara Arjun provide ample support. The immensely talented Jaideep Ahlawat is given very little to work with and seem distinctly uncomfortable at times. The same goes for Fatima Sana Shaikh who looks drop dead gorgeous, but is misused.

Nevertheless Armaan Ralhan manages to leave an impact. While Nushrratt Bharuccha does a good job as Meenal, it at times borderlines from going over the top. Abhishek Banerjee, Sreedhar Dubey and Maneesh Verma are also good, however, it is once again Inayat Verma who steals the show. On the whole, ‘Ajeeb Daastaans’ is an earnestly produced anthology which despite exceeding its grasp, deserves praise for being ambitious.

Directed – Neeraj Ghaywan, Kayoze Irani, Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta

Starring – Jaideep Ahlawat, Nushrat Bharucha, Abhishek Banerjee

Rated – R

Run Time – 142 minutes

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