Anthology films — especially these recent ones on Netflix India — have always been plagued by an unevenness. But Ajeeb Daastaans is so inconsistent that it borders on self-sabotage.
Watch the trailer of Ajeeb Daastaans here
In both Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, it was Karan Johar's short that stuck out like a sore thumb. Johar sits this one out as director, having restricted himself to producing duties. In Ajeeb Daastaans, the uncle pushing his way into an already-full elevator is one of his many proteges, Shashank Khaitan. His film is the weakest of the four, and I'm not sure how wise it was to have the anthology open with it.
Starring Jaideep Ahlawat and Fatima Sana Shaikh as a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, Majnu is a largely incoherent story that is concerned more with pulling the rug from under your feet than crafting compelling characters or a plausible plot. Khaitan, seemingly bitten by the auteur bug, has not only written and directed the short, but also co-composed music and penned the lyrics to a song. He builds towards a twist that comes across as trite, and potentially problematic.
It's the sort of film in which a man's genitals are deep-fried as punishment 10 minutes in. And things get consistently more improbable with every passing minute. So potent is its sourness that the aftertaste can be felt well into the second short, directed by another graduate from the Dharma school of storytelling, Raj Mehta.
He uses a similar plot-driven approach in his Big Little Lies-inspired film, Khilauna, starring Nushrratt Bharuccha and Abhishek Banerjee. They're both very good, but once again, all nuance has been erased from the story by the heavy-handed direction, and a seemingly tacked-on twist at the end.
Unlike most anthology films, Ajeeb Daastaans isn't bound by thematic tissue, beyond, of course, a vague idea of 'weirdness'. Each of the four shorts ends in a shock reveal, but only two of them feel earned.
Neeraj Ghaywan's film, starring Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari, is astonishingly good. Unlike the first two shorts, Geeli Pucchi is driven by its characters, not by its plot. And yet, it might be the most densely structured film of the lot.
In the span of roughly 40 minutes, Ghaywan addresses caste and gender politics; patriarchy and privilege. And he does this with an intense empathy for his characters, both of whom display morally questionable behaviour. It's remarkable how Ghaywan has been able to craft such a distinctly lyrical style, before having even directed his second feature film.
Notice how he captures the emotional isolation of Sensharma's character, Bharti. Here's a person who belongs to a minority within a minority within a minority. We meet her when she finally decides, not unlike Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character in Serious Men, or Song Kang-ho's character in Parasite, that it is time for the gloves to come off. Ghaywan's a real filmmaker.
Surprisingly, Kayoze Irani appears to be quite gifted as well. In the final short, the sheer magnificence of the two central performances — by Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul — overpowers all else. Set in a romantically lit and whimsically scored Mumbai, Ankahi is a tonal juggling act — Irani balances the harsh, Malcolm & Marie-like disintegration of a marriage with an almost La La Land-esque tale of new romance.
This is by no means an easy task, and as terrific as the actors are — Shah's final shot is as good as any piece of acting you're likely to see — it takes a skilled director to maintain such tonal consistency. As has been evidenced in Ajeeb Daastaans alone, not everyone is up to the task.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Irani being equally adept at making Nancy Meyers-style romantic dramas — the spectacular production design is a dead giveaway — or playful character studies like Sujoy Ghosh. It's fortunate that Ajeeb Daastaans ends on such a strong note, because for more than an hour, it seemed like it was beyond redemption.