New Delhi: There are a lot of things that I felt while watching Ajeeb Daastaans, but what remained constant through the narrative was the feeling of despondency. This is when a line from Kayoze Irani’s segment Ankahi came to my aide. Manav Kaul plays Kabir, a photographer who is deaf and mute. When Shefali Shah’s Natasha tells him, “I think the photographs you click have a little sadness in them,” to that Kabir responds, “What people see in my photographs, it says less about me and more about them.”
That’s what Ajeeb Daastaans and the four filmmakers manage to do, help you relate. Directed by Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Kayoze Irani, this anthology talks about humans, relationships, and the baggage that organically comes with it.
Ajeeb Daastaans eventually falls into the same ditch even though at least two of its stories have the power to move and shock. I feel it is wisest to review the films individually than provide an overall review of Ajeeb Daastaans as that would give our readers the chance to take a more conscious and informed decision on whether or not to go for this film and which parts of it to go for.
Geeli Pucchi – Neeraj Ghaywan
Bharti Mandal (Konkona Sen Sharma), a low caste woman works in a factory in a role that is dominated by men. She is the only woman in the entire factory. She desperately wants the role of data entry operator for which she is well-qualified but she is denied that by the management who instead brings in Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) for the job. Priya is incompetent and the only reason she got the job seems to be for her higher caste and good looks. Bharti is at first flabbergasted with her but Priya’s sweet demeanor and repeated approaches to forging a friendship make her give their friendship a chance.
This is the longest and the most thought-provoking film of the anthology. It deals with a plethora of issues like the caste divide, male-female discrimination at the workplace, and troubles faced in lesbian relationships. Konkona Sen Sharma single-handedly elevates the bit from ordinary to exceptional with her awe-inspiring performance that makes the audience feel every ounce of the pain and dejection that Bharti Mandal has lived with. We see flashes of hope in her life and that only makes her sufferings worse as the glimmer of hope fades away at unthinkable moments landing her in worse pain than she was in before. Konkona Sen Sharma can beautifully channelise the pain, suffering, gusto, and never say die attitude of Bharti through her expressions. I loved how she so effectively slipped behind the skin of the character and hit the right notes with her physicality. Aditi Rao Hydari is equally potent in her essay.
Neeraj Ghaywan masterfully integrates a plethora of social evils plaguing our society into the story using just two characters and their interactions. This portion does get stretched a bit more than was needed but one has to give it to Neeraj Ghaywan for being able to sustain the interest using the performances and how well he executes the interactions between Konkona and Aditi that effectively pushes the film forward. Geeli Pucchi feels like a complete film with a beginning, middle, and an end.
Ankahi - Kayoze Irani
The final short, Ankahi, is the most uncomplicated of the four. It is the story of a mother Natasha (Shefali Shah) and her inability to convince her husband to learn sign language to communicate with their daughter who is becoming deaf. Her husband spends most of his time earning big bucks and uses WhatsApp to communicate with their daughter. Frustrated, Natasha looks for solace in the companionship of Kabir (Manav Kaul) who is also deaf and their relationship soon spirals into physical intimacy.
I like that the film is composed around the prospect of deafness, and by extension, the visual language of hand gestures and muted expressions. Romance is inherently ingrained into its form. The quintessential Indian love story is founded on the amplification of this precise language – emoting with the eyes, the mouth, the 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 unlikely chemistry between the two characters very believable.
The conflict of the marriage at the core reflects there is a push-and-pull between two disability ideologies – the homemaking parent learns sign language to immerse herself into the world of her daughter, the working parent is saving up for a cochlear implant to keep his daughter in his ‘normal’ world. Irani shows a fair bit of directorial flair especially in an early scene that syncs the disharmony of a marital spat with the silence of the child watching it and there are some beautiful scenes between Shah and Kaul that encourage a smile, especially the one filmed in Kabir’s art gallery. Like always Shefali stands out, but if there was an award for best actor in the entire anthology, then Manav Kaul definitely takes the trophy home.
To sum it up, Ajeeb Daastaans is a must-watch, which definitely deserves a mention. If you are looking for happy endings then this one is not for you, but if you have a taste for hard-hitting narratives then you should give this a watch on Netflix.