While ‘Geeli Pucchi’ and ‘Ankahi’ make an impact, ‘Khilauna’ and ‘Majnu’ end up being shockingly bad.

Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari in Ajeeb DaastaansScreenshot
Flix Entertainment Saturday, April 17, 2021 - 12:50

Ajeeb Daastaans, an anthology of four short films, is a strange combination of two really good films and two that make films my classmates made in college seem great. Now streaming on Netflix, Ajeeb Daastaans is produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment. Directors Shashank Khaitaan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan and Kayoze Irani are at the helm of four stories Majnu, Khilauna, Geeli Pucchi and Ankahi. The premise or rather promise is that each story brings a shocking, horrifying and/or heartbreaking twist in the tale we never saw coming.

Unfortunately, Shashank Khaitaan and Raj Mehta tell tales that seem so self-conscious in their desire to shock that they end up being quite shockingly bad. Ajeeb Daastans is rescued by its brilliant third film, Geeli Pucchi directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, who elicits career best performances from Aditi Rao Hydari and Konkona Sen Sharma. Ditto for the last short Ankahi directed by Kayoze Irani, that is a simple tale elevated by the scintillating Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul.

The first film, Majnu written and directed by Shashank Khaitaan, seems heavily inspired from Mirzapur, complete with a young wife, a wealthy older husband who is incompetent and absent in bed, and the other guy who creates the ‘ajeeb’ (strange) in this ‘daastan’ (story). It’s supposed to be a twist on the princess and stable boy tale, or the typical Bollywood ‘Pati Patni aur Woh’ (Husband and wife and the third wheel) plot, which could have been fun, but sadly Majnu never tries to dig deep into the potential. 

Babloo (Jaideep Ahlawat) marries Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) but tells her that he loves someone else so he will never sleep with her. Lipakshi, becomes defined by her unsatisfied sexual needs and roams around her mansion flirting with any male in sight. Babloo ignores her hypersexual behaviour, but if any man gets caught trying to get cosy with his wife, the offender’s genitals are fried in hot oil as if he were an onion pakora.

Enter Raj (Armaan Ralhan), Babloo’s driver’s son, who is tall, muscular and dashing. Lipakshi is drawn to him, and the two begin a torrid affair, but clearly all isn’t well and doesn’t end well. The immensely talented Jaideep Ahlawat and Fatima Sana Shaikh are given very little to work with and seem distinctly uncomfortable mouthing lines like, “I made sure my father never got the happiness of being a grandfather” or her, “We have a gym here too, you can come here to workout” while she strokes Raj’s muscles.

The torment started by Majnu is continued with Khilauna, directed by Raj Mehta. It tells the story of a housemaid Meenal (Nushrratt Bharuccha) who works in homes that seem to be part of a gated community and uses her income to pay her little sister Binny’s (Inayat Verma) school fees. The two live in a room that is powered by an illegally acquired power connection. When she loses power, literally and metaphorically, Meenal decides to switch jobs and take up work at Mr Aggarwal’s (Maneesh Verma) home who is the society’s secretary and seems to spend his day driving around on a motorcycle sporting Raybans. Meenal, who is having an affair with Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee), mouths problematic lines like, “Let him ogle at me for a couple of hours while I clean, as long as I get electricity back in my home.” That right there is the film’s biggest problem. We never empathise with this supposed sense of desperation. 

How it never occurs to an otherwise street-smart woman that a man objectifying her so obviously is potentially dangerous, is mystifying. Khilauna could have also been a great story where years of suppression, rage and lack of agency explode in an appalling climax, but sadly Raj Mehta spends too much sexualising Meenal instead of humanising her. We see her only from male and patriarchal points of view; whether its Sushil, Mr Agarwal, and the women Meenal works for who are defined by whether they are mothers. Sadly Khilauna, unlike its show stopping pressure cooker, never quite builds up the steam, so what you get is half cooked and fairly unpalatable.

Just when you are wondering whether you should watch any more, comes the best short film in the anthology, Geeli Pucchi (wet kiss). The writing, direction and acting is so much better than the first two films, you wonder what it is doing in this anthology in the first place. This is a film that should be studied by aspiring filmmakers for the nuanced and subtle ways it weaves together the layers of oppression that both unite and divide women.

Neeraj brings back several themes and issues he dealt with his debut film Masaan, and places his characters at the intersections of caste, class, sexuality and patriarchy. He also infuses his characters with a desire to escape from a pre-determined fate that was so poignantly portrayed by the central characters of Masaan as well. Here though, the tragedy that Neeraj and co-writer Sumit Saxena craft is far more impactful because you can’t really take sides or call one a victim and the other a victor.

Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma) is a blue-collar worker in a factory where she is the only woman operating the machines. She is also Dalit and lesbian – making her thrice as marginalised; and Neeraj amplifies her social isolation by her long walks home alone, and the absence of any friends or family members in her life. Bharti has been hoping to get a job as an accountant in the office, a move she feels will uplift her status in society as well. Though angry and upset when she sees another woman, Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) get her job, Bharti befriends Priya when the latter has lunch with her, the only other woman in the building.

Priya’s innocence and naivete form 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.

The twist in this tale creeps up on you, and then punches you in the gut with an iconic last scene that features an unforgettable tea cup. Neeraj does not set it up like a museum exhibit and then direct you there. He slowly builds up to the climax through his characters and the chillingly believable reality of how women often turn oppressors to escape oppression.

The last film in this anthology, Ankahi, is enjoyable because it allows the characters and more importantly, its talented actors to shine. Natasha (Shefali Shah) is an upper middle-class homemaker who is struggling to keep the peace at home. She has a teenage daughter who is losing her hearing, and a husband who refuses to learn the sign language or accept the situation. When she accidentally bumps into a photographer, Kabir (Manav Kaul) who is hearing impaired, the two develop a friendship that blossoms into love, all while communicating using the sign language.

Ankahi is a slice of life tale, telling us the story of a few weeks or months in the life of two individuals who are drawn together in unusual circumstances. Shefali and Manav are perfectly cast for these roles, and their expressive eyes and faces convey complex emotions without either saying a word. Their love story has charm, flirtation, romance but also a deeper soulful connection that makes it a delight to watch. Kayoze Irani makes an impressive debut as director and though the film does seem inspired by The Bridges of Madison County for its story, and Up in the Air for that heart-breaking last scene, Ankahi is perhaps the only film in this anthology that has been crafted perfectly for the format of a short with a twist.

Watch this anthology for Neeraj and Kayoze’s films. The other two are Ajeeb Daastaans (strange tales) that are best avoided.

Watch: The trailer of Ajeeb Daastaans

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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