Starting with Lust Stories, Netflix has been keenly commissioning anthology films since 2018. Next came Ghost Stories and more recently Paava Kadhaigal (Tamil) and Pitta Kathalu (Telugu). The Hindi language Ajeeb Daastaans is the latest in this collection.
The 142-minute film comprises approximately two minutes of animated opening credits followed by four mini-features. Each story has a different director, unique cast and varied milieu, but they all have one thing in common—they are relationship stories with a twist in the tale.
Writer-director Shashank Khaitan’s Majnu (Lover) is set in the sprawling mansion of Babloo bhai (Jaideep Ahlawat), a wealthy but crooked local businessman from Barabanki. His young wife Lipakshi (Fatima Sana Shaikh) seeks passing pleasures to overcome her ennui with her unconsummated marriage of convenience. Things get exciting with the arrival of Raj (Armaan Ralhan), an ambitious young man who soon earns Babloo’s trust. In this love triangle, two of the characters have a covetous intent while the third is blind-sided by suppressed emotions.
Ahlawat and Ralhan steady a rocky ride that is drenched in a green tint (because green is Lipakshi’s favourite colour and it’s also the colour of envy). The reveal is no shocker. Rather, the story has a been-there-seen-that feel.
Khilauna (Toy) is written by Sumit Saxena and directed by Raj Mehta. Nushrratt Bharuccha and Inayat Khan play Meenal and Binny, two sisters able to sniff out an opportunity to ensure survival, from stolen electricity to lusty employers. Meenal works as a housemaid and the school-going Binny, too young to process right from wrong, hangs around observing and learning from her older sibling and her employers. Words and actions are interpreted as per circumstance. Abhishek Banerjee plays Sushil, the local ironing man and Meenal’s par amour. Through these three characters and their middle class employers Mehta glaringly shows the urban class divide. There are enough crumbs along the way for the curveball ending to be less grizzly than perhaps intended.
Coming in third, but the winner all the way, is Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses). Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari play Bharti Mandla and Priya Sharma respectively. The former is dark, androgynous, ungroomed, battling prejudice. The latter is waif-like, feminine and privileged. They both work in the same factory but the more experienced and competent Bharti, who works as a machine man, is passed up for a desk job. Like Bharti, Priya too is lonely and suppressing her true sexual desires. Ghaywan and Saxena write a complex story that touches on marginalised communities, the caste system, friendship and expectations with characters performed wonderfully by the two lead actresses.
Also read: 'Lust Stories' review
Finally, Kayoze Irani directs Unkahi (Unspoken) a film about a family unravelling under the pressure of transitioning with a child who is slowly losing her hearing. When the fights with her apparently insensitive husband (Tota Roy Chowdhury) get unbearable, Nats (Shefali Shah) finds comfort in the company of a photographer (Manav Kaul). Written by Uzma Khan and Saxena, this is a very chatty film in spite of it largely being about speech-impaired characters using sign language. Fortunately fine actors such as Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul make the most of the limited silences to pull you into their loneliness, joy and fears.
Overall, Ajeeb Daastaans is a satisfying watch and a great showcase for the possibilities within a short narrative format.
Ajeeb Daastaans is streaming on Netflix