Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans is an earnest commentary on outcasts and privilege, but with flaws

Directed by Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan and Kayoze Irani, Ajeeb Daastaans is now streaming on Netflix…

Short films are like dangerous waters. Even in Netflix’s previous attempts at anthologies, not every film has been great. Dibaker Banerjee’s terrific short in Ghost Stories is the only film that comes to my mind when I think of a good short film in the Netflix universe. Outside this world, there’s Jyoti Kapur Das’ sweet Chutney, starring Tisca Chopra and Rasika Dugal and Priyanka Banerjee’s empowering Devi, starring Kajol, Neha Dhupia, Shruti Haasan among others. Of course there are many more, but these are off the top of my head. Getting a short film correct isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and Ajeeb Daastaans is proof of that.

While the anthology is an earnest attempt at talking about outcasts, marginalisation, power politics and privilege, it doesn’t really hit the bull’s eye at all times. Two of the four films seem like they aren’t even trying, one does a good job because of terrific actors and one will be remembered as one of the greatest short films of all times (Hindi). And that’s Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi.

Featuring a terrific Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi is about the lives of two women – Bharti Mandal (Sensharma) and Priya Sharma (Rao Hydari) – which are as sloppy as a wet kiss. Bharti and Priya lead opposite lives. Bharti is stern, ambitious and smart. She is the only woman at her workplace, where there is no toilet for women. When new employee Priya asks her where she goes if she wants to take a leak, she casually says, “jahan sab jaate hain, isme kya hai?” All Bharti ever dreams of is for her work to be appreciated for how it is and not for who she is. She’s a Dalit lesbian. The struggle for her is three times worse – a woman, a Dalit and gay. Sensharma does a wonderful job playing her. You see the constant anger in her eyes, the deprivation, and the urge to be seen, even by just one person. You cannot take your eyes off her. There’s no actor I find as irresistible as Konkona Sensharma.

Konkona Sensharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul in stills from the film

Aditi Rao Hydari is at the top of her game too. She taps into Priya’s innocence, her ignorance of self, and delivers a wonderful performance. Priya is everything that Bharti is not. She wears sarees, talks too much and is too naive. If someone at the workplace hit her, like they hit Bharti, she would scream and beg for mercy. She’s a delicate, privileged woman, who doesn’t even recognise her privilege. She’s unaware of it. In a striking scene Priya is shocked that Bharti walks to work everyday, remarking that she, “Sharmaji ki bahu,” cannot. She doesn’t realise how this may affect Bharti, how Bharti is, or can never be, “Sharmaji ki bahu.”

Gender dynamics, marginalisation of Dalits and sexuality is at the forefront of Geeli Pucchi. In remarkable scenes, in silent ways Ghaywan and writer Sumit Saxena comment on the ‘untouchability’ of Dalits. In one of my favourite scenes in the film, you see Bharti at Priya’s house and unlike the first time she was there, she’s offered tea in a steel cup, while others enjoy their china. In the film you see the rise and fall of hope, while in the final scene, it’s clear to Bharti that the difference will always be, even in friendships.

Kayoze Irani’s short, Ankahi, is as full of heart as is Geeli Pucchi. It also has the ambition and actors to be as good as the other film, if not better. But somehow, Ankahi never takes the between good and really good. Irani’s director falls short, the writing of the end is a little too easy. I wish it was left open to interpretations. Every question that Irani’s film asks has been answered in it. While that may be good for a thriller, here a lot could’ve been left to the imagination. However, what works beautifully for him are his actors. Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul are both brilliant in their roles. She plays a troubled homemaker who finds love outside her marriage. He plays a deaf photographer who is constantly, and subconsciously, on the lookout for someone who can hear him. They find each other and what we get is a haphazard film with performances to remember. Both Shah and Kaul have a lot of charm in them and Ankahi is proof of it.

Fatima Sana Shaikh, Arman Ralhan and Nushrratt Bharuccha in stills from the film

The other two films, Shashank Khaitan’s Majnu and Raj Mehta’s Khilona don’t blend into the anthology. While both the films talk about outcasts, we never see what’s actually happening. Khaitan’s film loiters too much on the surface and to add to that, neither Fatima Sana Shaikh nor the always reliable Jaideep Ahlawat deliver. They play a couple married out of business and political interest. There’s no love, or sex. He has explicitly stated that he will never be able to love her, so she is on the hunt for love. But this is a failed hunt. As is Mehta’s film where Nushrratt Bharuccha plays a maid servant who is trying to give her younger sister a better life. Abhishek Banerjee plays a dhobi, who is also Bharuccha’s love interest. Despite good performances, the film doesn’t work because there is no meat to work around.

Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari are at the top of their games. Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul are as fascinating performers.

Ajeeb Daastaans has both good and bad. It is upon you to pick what you like and watch it. I would highly recommend Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi. It’s good to see how Hindi Cinema is trying to understand anthologies. And hopefully, this Bombay Talkies format will be explored even more, despite the reviews.

Ajeeb Daastaans comes at a time of political unrest – a film on outcasts, privilege in a time when the ruling party can see nothing beyond its privilege. The Kumbh Mela is a religious activity but the month of Ramzan “might increase the spread of Covid-19”. We live in a country where there’s no place for minorities, where even the majorities are nothing but a mere vote. But as the film provokes us to recognise and remember that women, Dalits, people across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum are humans at the end of the day and worthy of equality, we too must recognise the perils of bringing the Narendra Modi lead BJP to power. And we must remember these in the 2024 elections. Till then, all we have in days of solace is art, and some daastaans…

Ajeeb Daastaans is currently streaming on Netflix.

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