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To be human is also to to be cruel; either deliberate or unthinking. Ajeeb Daastaans shows us how cruelty can lie in a grey area – direct oppression, and that which arises as a response.
Ajeeb Daastaans is similar to the other recent anthology films, Paava Kathaigal and Pitta Kathalu, but what really makes it stand apart from the other two is that it does not allow us even a single fully optimistic ending. In the other two films, there were dark endings, but you could tell when a particular short film was going to have a happy (as possible an) ending. However, in Ajeeb Daastaans while there is empowerment, there is no wholesomeness without severe heartbreak even at the end. And the cruelties inflicted are not always physical.
While this characteristic of the film allows for the exploration of nuances that would otherwise not be possible, one also wonders if this hampers the film’s potential to be empowering.
Every single film in this anthology has messy relationships and not one of the main characters is completely ‘good’. But what does ‘good’ even mean?
It is the film’s strength that we find it impossible to hate any of its protagonists even when they are being cruel.
After all, how do we not sympathise with the heroine of Majnu, a woman stuck in a loveless marriage? But at the same time, we find it hard not to sympathise with the truth of the husband who has married against his will, and we cannot help but feel empathy for the third person in this love triangle – a man who wants revenge.
My favourites in this anthology were the two middle films – Khilauna and Geeli Puchi. And that is because of how complex they were.
Khilauna has a refreshingly sassy lead. She is a domestic helper who is not grateful for the small ‘kindnesses’ that she receives from the lady she works for. In fact, she often criticises her rich employers, and rightly so (her comments directed at a childless woman are problematic though). Indian cinema has the tendency to unnecessarily glorify rich people for any tiny favour they might do to help out the poor, while also stereotyping the poor as being eternally grateful for this.
Meenal is not afraid to manipulate and steal, and she does not think small favours are good enough. We understand her side of the story, and can we really blame her little sister for doing what she does, when she has been told that the baby is really just a toy to the rich (and their actions seem to encourage this narrative)?
Geeli Puchi has its heroine use the patriarchy to her benefit to get the job of her dreams. And to do this, she manipulates another woman who has been given the job because of her caste privilege.
We feel sorry for Priya when she is forced to stay at home to take care of her baby. But how can we blame Bharti when the woman she was in love with and who claimed to love her, betrayed her? Priya is ready to come to terms with her own queer identity but she is casteist. She pulls her hands away from Bharti when she finds out about her caste, and also reveals it to her own family members. Ironically, Bharti ends up using this to her advantage to keep Priya at home.
This brilliant film by the now legendary Neeraj Ghyawan is a direct dig at upper caste feminists and members of the queer community who are not intersectional in terms of caste – something that is not talked about enough in movies.
Ankahi depicts a woman whose husband refuses to learn sign language to communicate with their daughter who is hard of hearing. He is more focused on ‘curing’ her and he does not want to listen to his wife’s pleas. It is impossible not to feel Natasha’s frustration and anger.
So what happens in the story ahead might be ‘wrong’ morally, but can we blame her?
It is amazing to finally have a film that properly shows the nuances in cruelty, as human beings are capable of inflciting on their fellow human beings, often driven by something beyond themselves. There’s no real right or wrong, is there?
Yes, some of the main characters even do horrifying things. But why? It is because of the greater cruelty that is the systemic oppression that surrounds them. That is what is the real culprit.
I am worried that this message will not come through though. Privileged people will jump on any opportunity to blame those oppressed or marginalised in some way.
Being allowed to be morally grey itself is a privilege. Will Ajeeb Daastaans give oppressors an opportunity to justify their oppression? I certainly hope not.
Image source: YouTube
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