Directors: Neeraj Ghaywan, Raj Mehta, Shashank Khaitan and Kayoze Irani
Writers: Neeraj Ghaywan, Sumit Saxena, Shashank Khaitan and Uzma Khan.
Edited by: Nitin Baid.
Cinematography: Jishnu Bhattacharjee, Pushkar Singh and Siddharth Vasani
Starring: Konkona Sensharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Abhishek Banerjee, Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul
Streaming on: Netflix
Terribly banal title, Ajeeb Daastaans, reveals to some extent the central theme of the new anthology of four Netflix movies. Each of the shorts is a reef for the duality of storytelling – existing at the intersection of the privileged and the marginalized, the visible and the invisible, the spoken and the muted. The wishes of the driver’s elderly son, the fast maid, a Dalit factory worker and a hearing-impaired man define the conflicts of the prejudiced environment. This is traditionally a difficult terrain for Indian creators: there is always a risk of sacrificing the identities of disenfranchised people at the altar of narrative tricks.
Unfortunately, the first two of the four shorts lend themselves to just that. Shashank Khaitan’s Property and Raj Mehta Hilauna interpret duality as cheap salon tricks: climate changes at the level of a film degree, deaf tonal value, and general fetishization of culture and storytelling. Each person in them is a simple device designed to allow perverse disclosure, which in both cases is ridiculously fragile. Propertyin particular, it tastes bad: a great example of how socio-cultural blind spots are often rooted in the manufacturer’s love of Bollywood’s massive patterns.
She opens with hope, a young bride on her wedding night, dryly told by her older husband (Jaidip Ahlavat) that their marriage is just a political arrangement and that he is in love with someone else. This woman, Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Sheikh), spends the rest of the film torn between mourning and moaning, in line with Savita Bhabhi’s spicy stereotype of the repressed Indian housewife. She seduces the oxygen in each frame, her voice turning into a flirtatious sequel to carnal grunts, painting the mansion red with some enhanced heterosexual ping, which is a gift in itself. An ordinary person who buys a hot nightgown for her is punished by immersing his privates in boiling oil like a human steak. When the driver’s hoarse son, Raj (of course), becomes the family’s new financial adviser with a shot from the 1990s to Yash Raj, Property uses his sensual body to hide what he thinks is a sensitive heart. But the inflatableness is disgusting enough to repeat decades from the very sight he tries to turn. The twist is involuntarily comical in the same way that most horror movies tend to be involuntarily entertaining.
This ignition interruption is almost equal to the tone of the second film, Hilaunawho uses a murder investigation to portray the social tensions that are brewing in a colony of the upper middle class. A maid (misguided Nushrat Baruca), her playful 8-year-old sister and a neighborhood elder (Abhishek Banerjee) form a group of public detractors who are questioned about a crime at the home of a dirty employer. Their versions of the story form the story. The ominous subtext – “servants are toys for the privileged and masters are toys for servants” – is written by a character so that we cannot perceive the horrible nature of the crime, ultimately revealed. Again, the physicality of the film feels like a commercial device. The shrewd maid is shaped like the sexual fantasy of an Indian engineering student rather than a real person, and the graphic finish is a result of artistic posture rather than anger.
Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film, Geeli Pucchi, is easily the most achieved of the batch. This is not surprising, given that Guyvan is the only director with a legacy in this environment. Excellent Konkona Sensharma plays the role of Bharti, a strange factory worker Dalit, whose dreams of working at the desk are derailed with the arrival of Priya (skillfully executed Aditi Rao Hydari), a friendly upper caste woman with half of Bharti’s qualifications. Remarkably, Ghaywan and co-writer Sumit Saxena refuse to isolate the identity of the story. Improperly labeled feminism and empowerment are not attached to it. Instead, as in life, the intersection of multiple identities determines the grayness of people. There is gender: the two women form a relationship because they are the only women at work. There is a class: Bharti’s loneliness on the blue collar is photographed differently from the narrow interior of Savarna Priya, and Priya is often seen going down the stairs to the “bottom” to have lunch with Bharti. There is sexuality: an attraction develops between them, and Priya’s mania is humanized through Bharti’s gaze. There is ambition: Bharti’s desire to work is a measure of her freedom of action. And there is a caste: Bharti is lying about his family name Priya.
Most importantly, the last five minutes of the film ensure that the lower caste protagonist is not valued as an outsider’s hero or a determined victim. The twist, unlike the first two films, is not superficial, but subconscious: a change of character instead of an explosion of truth. Konkona surpasses the role of an early spirit. Bharti’s “masculinity” – her way of walking, talking and working – is ridiculed by male colleagues, but the actress avoids the stereotype of a noisy with great control, turning her gait into a gentle instinct for survival rather than a hardened physical trait. Perhaps the only problem with the film is its sense of exposure. At noon, one of Dalit’s workers cautiously reminds the other of their identity and social limitations. It is unlikely that two people with the same position will talk in this way. Then there is Priya’s mother-in-law, who explicitly tells her to be careful with whom she socializes, as well as her father-in-law’s nasal profession (Brahmin priest). Spoon-feeding is irritating but understandable, probably due to the fact that the caste is often lost to an uninitiated Hindi film audience.
The last piece, Ankahi, directed by Cayoze Irani, is the most uncomplicated of the four. It features Shefali Shah as a high-class housewife in Mumbai who, in her struggle to adapt to her teenage daughter’s escalating deafness, cheats on her tortured husband (Tota Roy Chowdhury) with a handsome knight in hearing armor (Manav Kaul). I like that the film is about the perspective of deafness and, as an extension, the visual language of hand gestures and muted expressions. Romance is inherent. The typical Indian love story is based on the amplification of this exact language – emotions with the eyes, mouth, body, through music and spiritual connection. The casting is accurate: there are no two better actors than Shah and Kaul in terms of facial acrobatics. They have the most naturally vivid movie faces, which makes the incredible chemistry between the two characters very believable.
The conflict of marriage basically reflects The sound of metal template. There is a push and pull between two ideologies of people with disabilities – the parent of the household learns sign language to immerse himself in his daughter’s world, the working parent saves on a cochlear implant to keep his daughter in his “normal” world. Irani shows quite a bit of directorial flair – especially in an early scene that synchronizes the cacophony of marital spit with the silence of a child watching her through a great cutout in a match with a glass of whiskey. The final scene is quite stretched, overdoing the acting, but there is still a long way to go Ajeeb Daastaans begins.
The success rate of fifty percent for most anthologies is equal to the course. But statistics do not take into account the bad of the misfires and the grandeur of the bulls. Fortunately, the sequence of shorts helps: the two dense segments are third and fourth, leaving the viewer with a sense of hope. If not for the well-executed purpose of Geeli Pucchi, However, Ajeeb Daastaans there may have been a significantly reduced metaphor for storytelling.