Ajeeb Daastaans Review : The complexities of life served with honesty; some work while others fail

STORY: This anthology touches on the underlying sadness in loveless marriages, broken hearts and secret identities, caste barriers and gender biases and, most importantly, how silent love conquers each and everyone.

REVISION: ‘Ajeeb Daastaans’, as the title suggests, is heavily invested in the ‘big reveal’ or in giving shocking value to all of his stories, and there are four of them, and the anthology begins with Shashank Khaitan’s first ‘Majnu’ fragment. A much younger and sexually liberated Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) is married to the emotionally and physically unapproachable local bully Babloo bhaiya. She is a lonely princess — political in nature — eternally trapped in her majestic mansion. Until he graduates from an MBA, Raj Kumar (Armaan Ralhan) shows up on his doorstep and Lipakshi goes on an exciting adventure with him. His is a fast-paced romance, but one that would free them both: he from everything his father has done for an ungrateful Babloo, and Lipakshi from Babloo himself. Clearly, Shashank Khaitan wanted to highlight the sad reality that marriages of convenience and political relationships constitute, but his characters and their emotional connection (or lack thereof) are not so genuine. Jaideep Ahlawat is frying men’s penises for flirting with a wife who doesn’t care, Fatima Sana Shaikh is madly in love with a man with whom she evidently has no real chemistry on screen. Khaitan’s ‘Majnu’ is a hasty story of love and revenge without round characters and with little visual and cinematic appeal. It is clumsy and lacks seriousness at all.

Raj Mehta’s second story, titled ‘Khilauna’, is a major departure from its predecessor and delves into the socio-economic concerns that have prevailed in the community for centuries. Two orphaned but convenient sisters are upset by the new neighborhood secretary for turning off the electricity they had obtained through illegal means. The future dad has his eyes on Meenal (Nushrat Bharucha) and the lady knows it. The cheerful younger sister Binny (Inayat Verma) is that little monster in disguise who carries out everyday scams with Meenal like a pro. Meenal wants to enter the secretary’s house so that she can eventually convince him to reconsider his repeated requests for electricity. Her boyfriend Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) from the laundry is skeptical of the plan. “Kya hello kar lega? Uske gharme biwi hain. Dekhta hai toh dekhne de, ”Meenal assures him. Raj Mehta has an interesting take on India’s class distinction and the mistreatment and unspoken tension that runs rampant between the haves and the have-nots. Unlike the first story, this one takes its own time to establish the uniqueness of each character. If Meenal is cunning and a cheeky opportunist, then Binny is his capable second-in-command. Sushil, on the other hand, is a puppy in love and represents the kind of men who submit to their oppressors. The climax, which again serves as a “shocking revelation,” is well thought out and gives the audience something to ponder.

Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Geeli Pucchi’ is a knockout in this anthology. Ghaywan, through skillful writing and even clever direction, reveals the plight of a woman living in an unjust world: first, for being a woman in a male-dominated factory, then for being Dalit, and then for choosing undaunted. Ghaywan must have known that he is creating something extraordinarily shocking, which is a powerful actor like Konkona Sen Sharma who is entrusted with the battered but not broken Bharti Mandal. Ghyan marries Bharti’s loneliness with a seemingly cheerful and optimistic Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) whose privileged life and upbringing contrast with the life of hardship Bharti endures. She loses promotion to Priya for not ‘meeting Excel’, her pet cannot poop on ‘her’ side of the colony and is not even seen or recognized as a woman. It also doesn’t help that Bharti is pining for her former lover.

What really stands out in this story is that there are no messiahs or saviors in Bharti’s story: the same Dalit woman who is treated harshly for A) being a woman and B) for being Dalit. Meela of Ghaywan is a strong and feisty woman with shades of gray in her personality. She does not long for the one who breaks her heart, but uses deception and manipulation to take away what should have been hers in the first place. This kind of bold depiction of a woman from an underserved community could have gone terribly wrong, but the narrative is so organically gripping that near the end you almost want Bharti to destroy Priya. Not for conspiring, no. But for snubbing her for being, well, her.

There are very few actresses who can thrill their inner turmoil with just the muscles of their face like Konkona does. ‘Geeli Pucchi’ is no different. Aditi Rao Hydari has her own battles as the privileged child who does not know how to love: literally and figuratively. The actress, with her ever so charming demeanor and childlike innocence, portrays a different kind of image for fighting: patriarchy, a lack of understanding of her sexual identity and all that. This story goes smoothly from one obvious social issue to another, and before you know it, you’ll have seen it all in about 30 minutes.

The final act is from newcomer director Kayoze Irani, who transports you into the world of love ballads and whimsical art and artists while keeping you in touch with the harsh realities of life and love. Natasha (Shefali Shah) is in a dysfunctional marriage and has a deaf daughter. The husband (Tota Roy Chowdhury) is working hard to keep his daughter specially trained and perhaps coming up with a technology-based solution. But the couple fight and argue about missed dinners and WhatsApp chats, among other fixable problems in their marriage. She tells Kabir (Manav Kaul), a deaf painter, that she had “a serious relationship and it’s over.”

‘Ankahi’, the title of this track, occurs over a period of a few days and practicality to hell with what is about to happen. The wonderful background music and that unmissable voice of Prateek Kuhad transports you to the Bollywood of the 90s when love was simpler, and its presentation, visually captivating.

It is not easy to marry the mundanity of life with a utopian world, but Irani does it with poise. ‘Ankahi’ trusts that its viewers are smart to read between the lines and that is why Irani, with great courage, leaves us a lot to interpret. Now we don’t know about you, but we close our laptops with a big smile on our faces.

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