R E V I E W – A N T H O L O G Y F I L M
Let me tell you before you get into it. Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans is not what you’d expect. An anthology of four shorts, produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, Ajeeb Daastaans nearly managed to be heavier on the scale of must-watch than avoidable.
Directors Shashank Khaitaan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Kayoze Irani hold the reins of Majnu, Khilauna, Geeli Pucchi, and Ankahi respectively. Each contains a stellar cast with engaging characters. So what makes each stand out or flop?
Majnu is the typical pulpy romance story with a twist that doesn’t quite feel like one. It is complete with a criminal landlord, his unhappily married wife and the outsider. Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) is your commonplace oppressive master: torturous enough that his conscience is as absent as his character’s depth, and absent enough in bed that his wife, Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Sheikh), openly makes sexual advances toward any male in sight. Enter the dashing son of Babloo’s old chauffeur, Raj. He is tall, educated and knows his way around the books, wooing Babloo with his businessman terms like hedge fund.
Despite Raj’s initial rejection of Lipakshi’s courting, the two soon begin a sneaky fervid affair. Jaideep and Fatima’s discomfort mouthing the unpalatable lines is too limpid to avoid. The end marries a twist one would’ve seen coming from miles away with a dull, barren predicament. It is unknown to me why the producers would decide to place the worst of the bunch in the beginning; as if getting the bad news out of the way in a hurry (like Babloo to Lipakshi on their wedding night).
Khilauna had the potential to be a superb short, if not for the distasteful portrayal of the characters, especially Meenal, played by Nushrat Bharucha. Meenal is a housemaid toiling in the homes of a gated compound to send her younger sister Binny to school, except… you won’t really guess that Meenal is the maid. There is no evidence of the physical labour she does every day. She has the perfect glaze on her skin and the perfect hair. You can scrutinise all you want but you won’t find a scrap of wrinkle, acne, stretch mark, or dark circles on her. That is what came off to me the most about the ravishing Meenal. She looks like the epitome of the male fantasy of the hot maid.
The short spends too many clips sexualising her instead of humanising her, compelling the audience to empathise with her. We only ever get to view her from the archetypal male gaze, be it from her lover Sushil, the harasser Agarwal or the women whose homes she works in who are defined only by their fertility. It is appalling, besides, that a girl with street smarts like Meenal will not see it coming when the man who ogles her cleavage and hourglass body behind his Raybans tries to molest her. Khilauna has the shock factor on its side with the slow reveal of the pressure cooker bustling and whistling and gurgling out blood. The conclusion is quite oddly satisfying with the terminal unnerving dialogue of Binny.
A tale of two women navigating their life in two distinct circumstances of oppression, Geeli Pucchi is by far a cut above the rest. In its meticulous cinematography and exemplary deliveries of Aditi Rao Haidari as the upper-caste privileged Priya Sharma and Konkona Sen Sharma as the lower-caste discriminated Bharti Mandal, Geeli Pucchi makes you wonder what a capital short film is doing in this anthology in the first place.
Bharti works as the only woman in a factory and strives to get the data operator’s job, confident that she has all the qualifications. So when Priya — the sweet, meek, doting young wife who is quite not as eligible as Bharti — gets the job, she is affronted. But she manages to befriend Priya who insists on sharing lunch. Soon Bharti realises it’s not her credentials at all where she is lacking, rather it is shoes she can never fulfill — for she is a commoner, a Dalit. Despite Priya’s unwavering kindness and compassion, Bharti understands that there is a whole chasm of difference between them that their friendship cannot bridge. It is the story of how women can become oppressors to escape oppression. It’s strange that when Bharti implants the idea in Priya’s head to become a mother, so that Bharti can replace her as a data operator, Priya effortlessly switches to being very allured by her husband and is able to completely dismiss her attraction, which she deems sinful, to Bharti. There is an apparently problematic representation of sexuality here, inadvertently making it seem to be a choice.
Furthermore, another criticism which finds solid ground in the film is casting Konkona as the queer, underprivileged Dalit. At this time and age when correct representation is quintessential, couldn’t a paradigmatic actor have been cast and given recognition?
That being said, with the unforgettable silver tea cup in the end, Geeli Pucchi concludes in such a manner that you cannot decide who won or who lost, befitting of a supreme short film.
Ankahi is a story which is equal parts beautiful and tragic. The greatest success of the film is that it granted Shefali Shah as Natasha and Manav Kaul as Kabir the space to maximise their acting efficiency in very little words and a lot of emotive expressions in sign language. Natasha is the mother to a teenage girl losing her hearing, and wife to a man who refuses to spend time engaging with their daughter and learning sign language. In her downtrodden days, she comes across Kabir, a happy-go-lucky photographer quite content with the language of the eyes instead of the mouth. Over the span of a few weeks or months, they spend their treasured moments together, gradually falling for each other. Kabir silently swooning over Natasha, their flirtation, romance, and soulful connection, is very gratifying to watch. The end manages to wrench your heart in its sorrow. Definitely a must-watch.
The writer, a cynic, is a part of TDA Editorial team.