The defining factor of any anthology of films is that it can only be as good as its individual stories. This is where many anthologies fail as it is unwise to expect all the individual tales to have an equal potency in terms of drama, thrills, and cinematic finesse. 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 my 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. Yes! You have that option to watch it in parts as it is on OTT and you can stop or pause it at any point in time.
The marauding Babloo Bhaiya (Jaideep Ahlawat) was forced to marry Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Sheikh) even though he was in love with someone else. The union was a result of their parent’s wish to forge their business and political ties into a family relationship that would benefit both the parties and leave no room for betrayals. Babloo confesses to Lipakshi on the very first night of their marriage that he will never be able to love her or consummate their marriage. Lipakshi is devastated at the realization and makes up her mind to seek physical solace elsewhere. Three years after their marriage, Raj (Armaan Ralhan), the charismatic and well-read son of Babloo’s driver walks into their lives and changes everything forever.
I enjoyed Majnu for its performances and the final twist that it has up its sleeve. Jaideep Ahlawat is truly one of the best actors that we have in India today and the man is still not getting his due. Majnu gains more from his heartfelt rendering of Babloo than anything else. It doesn’t have much of a story to tell but how Ahlawat envelops our senses and intrigues us with his rendition of Babloo makes for an absorbing watch. Ahlawat sells Babloo effectively and makes him such a tragic character by the end that we can’t help but feel a misplaced sense of pity for him. Armaan Ralhan looks like the part that he plays and holds his own in the scenes with Jaideep Ahlawat. Fatima Sana Sheikh is wonderful as Lipakshi and gives out the vibes that make her character real and believable.
Meenal (Nushrat Bharucha), a domestic help who is the guardian and best friend of Binny (Inayat Verma). She knows how to use the people around her for her advantage and she does so efficiently. Sushil (Abhishek Banerjee) is a launderer who runs an unauthorized temporary shop in the vicinity of the building where Meenal works. He shares a physical relationship with Meenal. Things take a shocking turn when Meenal takes up a job at the Building’s secretary’s place in the hope of restoring the illegal power supply to her house.
Khilauna is my favourite short out of the four. It is so because of how well it made and the shocking finale that it has in store for its viewers. I enjoyed how Raj Mehta approached the story and laid out the events in parallel timelines. We see Binny getting interrogated at the police station in the beginning and then the story shifts to her life before ending up there. The story keeps hopping between the two timelines informing us that something sinister is about to happen and giving us brief peeks into it but never revealing the shocking finale that is being cooked up. This manner of storytelling makes the proceedings interesting.
Nushrat Bharucha and Abhishek Banerjee are wonderful in their respective essays. Nushrat looks too pretty for the part domestic help but then there can always be exceptions. Abhishek nails his character and is heart-wrenching in a scene where we see him get thrashed by the police. However, the best performance in this portion is by Inayat Verma. She will shock you with her sombre and harrowing performance.
Bharti Mandal (Konkana Sen Sharma), a low caste woman works in a factory in a role that is dominated by men. She is the only woman doing what she is doing there. She desperately wants the role of data entry operator 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 demeanour 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. Konkana 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. Konkana Sen Sharma can beautifully channelize 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. Priya is so fickle-minded, weak, and indecisive that you feel like hating her.
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 Konkana and Aditi that effectively pushes the film forward. Geeli Pucchi feels like a complete film with a beginning, middle, and an end.
Ankahi is the fourth and final short of the anthology and it is also the most mundane of the lot. 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 fast 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. What happens next is what the story is all about.
This felt like the most inane of the stories in the film and was almost as if it didn’t know what it was supposed to be about. While the performances are top-notch once again, the story and the treatment are so shallow and boring that even the best of performances cannot save this bit from slipping into cinematic limbo. I also had concerns with the message that the film was trying to convey and felt that it was half-hearted and devoid of any genuine sense. Ajeeb Daastaans should have ended on a high note but that is not the case and it is because of Netflix’s overwhelming desire to rub their pseudo-wokeness on the faces of unassuming viewers. Ankahi is irrelevant poorly envisioned and forced.
Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)