Ajeeb Daastaans Review
This anthology is an emotional roller coaster ride which is not as exciting as it seems to be
Rishira Ganguly -
What is the story about?
Ajeeb Daastaans is an anthology of four films:-
- Majnu, directed by Shashank Khaitan
Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) and Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) are stuck in a loveless marriage because of the political and power ambitions of their fathers. Lipakshi thus torments her husband by flirting with others who Babloo has to then "take care of" as the family's reputation is at stake. Enters Raj or Raj Kumar Mishra (Arman Rahlan) who is the son of the family's driver but does not conform to his father's legacy of servitude. He reluctantly joins Babloo's business and handles his financial affairs. Tables turn for the three characters when one of them becomes the puppeteer, leaving the other two on the ruins of a wishful relationship.
- Khilauna, directed by Raj Mehta
Meenal (Nushrratt Bharruccha) and Binny (Inayat Verma) are sisters who live on the outskirts of a Society. They share their small world with "press wala" Sushil (I searched the whole web for an English word to replace press wala and only found Iron Man). Sushil and Meenal share a sexual relationship but which only Sushil is invested in. After their illegal electricity gets cut, Meenal asks the woman at whose house she works as a maid, to help her. The woman tells her to ask help from the neighbourhood secretary, Vinod Agarwal (Maneesh Verma). Meenal flirts with Vinod in order to get a job as a maid at his house which she gets. When Vinod tries to take advantage of Meenal's situation, she gets a hold of herself and runs out of there. Later Vinod calls Sushil, Meenal and Binny over in the evening for his son's birthday but he doesn't know that death might come knocking on his door instead.
- Geeli Puchhi, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan
Bharti (Konkona Sen Sharma) is the only woman working in a factory. She does not want to remain in her position as a factory worker but wants to become a data analyst at the factory. Her dreams are soon quashed when her dream job is taken over by Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) who becomes the second woman apart from her to step into the factory. Bharti confides in Dashrath (Bachan Pachehra) about the unfairness of the situation but he tells her that it's because she is a Dalit that she was not offered Priya's position. When Priya strikes up a conversation with Bharti, she finds her warmth overwhelming and is not able to give her the hate she thinks Priya deserves. Bharti hides her surname from Priya and they develop a friendship. Soon, Bharti finds herself falling for Priya. Priya also finds herself in the same boat even though she is married to a loving husband, Shiv (Sreedhar Dubey).
- Ankahi, directed by Kayoze Irani
Natasha (Shefali Shah) is a mother who cannot convince her husband Rohan (Tota Roy Chaudhary) to learn sign language to be able to better communicate with their daughter Samaira (Sara Arjun) who is going deaf. Rohan thinks it's a waste of time to learn a new language when he can get his daughter a cochlear implant. One day Natasha meets Kabir (Manav Kaul) a portrait photographer who also talks through sign. Natasha and Kabir start meeting frequently and in his companionship, Natasha feels free. But, all that glitters is not gold and soon complications arise.
All of the four films in Ajeeb Daastaans are fueled by the narrative and the theme that runs throughout. Yet, it would be unfair to put all four films under one analytical perspective and so the analysis of each film will be done separately:-
This Shashank Khaitan directorial was the weakest link in the four anthology films. If someone started the anthology through Majnu, and not continue watching the rest of the three films, they would not get what Ajeeb Daastaans as a whole is trying to say. Majnu treads a path that has already been walked on by Amazon Prime Video's Mirzapur and so the storyline, the film's concept, all seem familiar to fans of the show. The film seems to be inspired by literary works such as Rabindranath Tagore's Noshto Nir/ Satyajit Ray's Charulata or even Satyajit Ray's adaptation of Tagore's book Ghare Baire. A loveless marriage, an unsatisfied wife, a lonely man and a stranger who is more understanding than anyone else is a common theme that is seen in a lot of films. I did not really find Majnu to be suited for a film whose title promises the audience strange tales because there was nothing really strange about the story itself. In fact, the film was quite predictable from the beginning although the ending was unexpected. It's almost as if the climax made up for the disappointing body of the film.
For the first time, more than the characters, the story has made a bigger impact. It is especially surprising that such a horrifying tale should come from Raj Mehta whose previous directorial was Good Newwz. Khilauna seems to be inspired by fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel and twists it into a stranger than fiction account of its own. The bad news (pun anyone?) about the film was that the characters, except for Binny and Sushil were not really properly realised. The character sketches felt like they had been written by an "outsider" who is not really privy to how someone who gets electricity illegally would talk and walk. In this, Abhishek Banerjee has done a brilliant job of bringing his own flavour to the character so that even if his lines don't seem realistic, his acting makes up for it. The story actually emerges as the hero of Khilauna and there are so many red herrings spread throughout the narrative that by the time you reach the climax of the whodunnit, you are left quite shocked and even nauseated.
Quite frankly, this Neeraj Ghaywan film is one of the most important films in Ajeeb Daastaans. With the prolific storytelling that Ghaywan brings to Geeli Pucchi, the underlying subplots tug at your grey cells and really make you think about the shortcomings of an imagined culture that people have been indoctrinated with. Ghaywan stands with a mirror in hand and reflects it back to the audience with his film. The ease with which he brings discussions on caste and sexual identity to the table is why Geeli Puchhi becomes important for a detailed analysis. The film majorly talks about identity, one that we create for ourselves and one that is given to us and if we really have the agency of choice. Ghaywan takes William Congreve's line "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and weaves a brilliant story around it.
Kayoze Irani's debut film is simple but with a powerful narrative and an even powerful cast to bring it alive onscreen. Ankahi is a story of words in limbo between the frustrated full stops of a husband and wife's quarrels or the absence of words in the warmth of companionship. There have been many Bollywood films that have been created around the use of sign language but Ankahi makes it the focal point of the narrative. With an amazing cast who portray the characters with fineness, there are but some limitations. There was a resistance in fleshing out characters that did not serve the purpose of being the protagonist. Shefali Shah's Natasha does find an escape in the romance that blossoms between her character and Manav Kaul's Kabir but in the end, Kabir only remains as the photographs he clicks, a medium for others to reflect their feelings through him. Perhaps this story was not made for the short film format but it would have been more interesting if Kabir or even Tota Roy Choudhary's Rohan would have been given more definition.
For Majnu, I feel that Jaideep Ahlawat has done a fantastic job. In a way, Ahlawat carried the story on his back. Fatima Sana Shaikh and Arman Rahlan do not bring anything particularly new to their characters and it feels like old wine in new bottles.
Child actress Inayat Verma as Binny in Khilauna stole the thunder of all the actors in the short film. She was very much present in the situation she was acting in and never went overboard or even under with showing her emotions. Abhishek Banerjee was well suited as Sushil as he wore the skin of his character like a piece to the puzzle. Nushrratt Bharruccha could do with a little polishing as it was hard to believe her character Meenal who comes from a background starkly different from the status quo of previous characters the actress has portrayed.
Aditi Rao Hydari and Konkona Sen Sharma as Priya Sharma and Bharti Mondal in Geeli Puchhi were a pleasure to watch. They brought to their characters little details, in the way they walked, spoke, smiled or even tugged at a part of their clothing that brought their avatars alive onscreen.
Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul, Tota Roy Choudhary were mesmerising onscreen in Ankahi. The chemistry between Shefali Shah's Natasha and Manav Kaul's Kabir sparkled onscreen.
Music & Other Departments
The theme songs of all four films were well crafted, in the sense that they suited the situation. "Kuch Na Kaho" by Prateek Kuhad for Ankahi and "Bhavra" sung by Jahanavi Kejriwal for Majnu are two of my favourites.
What really irked me as an audience was the ignorance of Nushrratt Bharruccha's clothes and even her look in the film Khilauna. The actress portrays a housemaid in the film but which was sadly not realised in the film. Meenal was made to look glamourous with perfect eyebrows and nail polish that has not been chuffed even after washing utensils and clothes all day. Although I get that the director probably wanted to portray Meenal as flirtatious owing to her manipulative intentions but partly why Nushrratt Bharruccha as Meenal is not believable is because of her look and her clothes.
Ankahi and Geeli Puchhi's cinematography is very welcoming to the audience, in it we do not feel like intruders but as part of the narrative of the characters.
The great thing about Ajeeb Daastaans being an anthology of four films is that all four are starkly different from each other in storylines and yet what makes them a part of the bigger picture is the threads of similar themes that weave the stories together. Themes of deceit, discussions on caste, sexual identity, language, human relationships and the imaginary social divide between humans are all subplots that are a part of the four films. Another interesting thing to notice is that all of the four films are somehow connected to children or babies. I don't know how it particularly factors into the thematic underline but it is just an interesting fact to notice.
Majnu felt really out of place in the anthology and it felt like the film did not really contribute much. If the writers and makers of Khilauna could have focussed on the characters the way they did on the story, the movie would probably have been even better. In Geeli Puchhi, Aditi Rao Hydari's character was written off hurriedly by the end of the film but which in a way gave for Konkona Sen Sharma's character to shine onscreen. Ankahi was a charming film but was only limited in its character sketches. There was a sense that perhaps some characters were not defined properly to give more importance and put more focus on the protagonist, Shefali Shah's Natasha.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes, I did. All four stories bring something new and different even after being under the same roof. They showed the creative vision of the different directors and gave a glimpse into where they come from.
Do I recommend it?
If you want, you can skip Majnu but otherwise it makes for a good one time watch