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Ajeeb Dastaans reaffirms the complex state of being human at the intersection of multiple identities, and treats it with the honesty and non-reductivity it deserves.
*FEW SPOILERS ALERT
Ajeeb Dastaans, a set of four independent short films, now playing on Netflix, weaves stories that depict several of the entire spectrum of emotions and motivations that define the human condition. I have reviewed each separately, to do justice to the narratives.
‘Majnu’ opens with a predictable scene. We are invited into the Hindi heartland, as we witness a man from a local zamindar/liquor baron family tell his spouse on the night of their wedding that he loved someone else and won’t be able to feel that with her. The marriage is to be a social sham. When she asks what is expected of her, the tired trope of a woman being the ‘ghar ki maryaada’ is trotted out. In what is our first indication that this isn’t a typical narrative, she tells him exactly what she thinks of him and all men in our country, and, as a parting shot, demands that he meet her eye.
In 34 brisk minutes, this dark film, superbly shot and edited, takes us from the familiar to the unfamiliar, toward a surprise ending, but not without first shining dual spotlights on the topics of female desire (and its consequences), and the deeply damaging effect that a culture of toxic masculinity has on men.
As masks fall and vulnerabilities are revealed, the gritty, ugly side of the protagonists gives way to a smidge of sympathy for those who use brute force and bullying as foghorns for their gender– to their own detriment. If there is a narrative that shows us how feminism can change men’s lives, it is this: if the scaffolding that is patriarchy and toxic masculinity was dismantled, how many men would be free to show their true desires and inner selves in a gentler, more authentic world? How then would they refrain from ricocheting their pain and trauma on the most vulnerable around them (women, employees, anybody at a perceived disadvantage) and stop perpetuating a cycle of abuse and brutality?
This short from Ajeeb Dastaans shows that redemption is possible, and with a twist in the tale, flips our sympathies and nudges us to question the tormentors– what made them like this, what drove them to harden their facade, how does patriarchy simultaneously crush those it ostensibly benefits– and examine our own drivers in maintaining the status quo as women.
Even as the ending has all the flavors of a potboiler (not revealed for spoiler reasons) the short closes with the glimpse that a new story is possible, and some cinematic hope amid the tragedy and pain. Jaideep Ahlawat shines in an authentic and restrained performance as Bablu Bhaiyya, as this feminist story centers a man, and our collective need for a radically different social structure.
In this unsettling film set in Lucknow, gender, class and sexual tension collide to create a perfect maelstrom. The lens settles on a female domestic worker with a young sister in her care, who aspires for a better life with a basic amenity like reliable electricity. As her resentment toward the class she works for simmers, and she uses her position for small benefits, she comes up against class privilege, an assumed lack of agency over her own body, the endless demands of patriarchy, and the many ways women across class divisions are expected to barter their bodies for survival.
So deeply entrenched are class and gender expectations, that women turn against each other in the struggle for power, and violence is but an ‘inappropriate’ look in the eye away. Resentment and shame in this story stem from lack: whether that be electricity, economic power, social currency, or a child.
There are moments of agency, such as who the protagonist (Nushrat Bharucha) chooses to be with, and how she deploys her position as the helper of a vulnerable new mother to her own benefit, but those are few and far between in this somber tale, with an ominous background score to match. There is an undercurrent of schadenfreude at women who are unapologetic and unabashed about the way they carry themselves, because ‘good’ women must do everything in their power to not be noticed by half the world already high on testosterone.
The gruesome ending, quite unlikely to have been shown on screen before, is left open-ended, with the audience grappling with horror, sadness and a certain hopelessness that overflows from this particular setting to flood our fractured, casteist and classist society as a whole. Hard-hitting and perturbing as it is, we have the luxury of looking away from our screens, but are left wondering about those for whom these scenarios are a lived experience until the end of their days.
As the third film from Ajeeb Dastaans opens, we see the camera follow Bharti (Konkona Sen Sharma), an assertive factory worker and the only woman on the floor, advocating for herself. She is questioning not getting a promotion she deserves. We root for her until a character points out her last name. Mondal. And in the speaking of that name, viewers are invited to imagine the bearer’s world– who they are, what their background is, what their family looks like, what generations of ancestors did for a living. She is firmly and terminally slotted as Dalit. Even as we root for her harder, we begin to deflate. Until she tells her Doubting Thomas co-worker to shove it. Shortly after. emerges one more identity. Bharti is gay. There was a woman in her life, and a lone tear at the corner of her eye confirms she is still upset.
Enter Priya (Aditi Rao Hydari), the person who has been hired for the job Bharti wanted, and everything she is not: upper caste, married, sheltered and respected for all of the above. It is clear she has the job because of what she is, not who she is. As Priya reaches out to an initially brusque Bharti, their stories starkly remind us of how society lays its boundaries for women. At any given time, there is: a lakshman rekha around what women must be, an even tighter noose around what married women must be, and then, when you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the absurdity of it all, the prescribed ways of how a married vegetarian woman must be.
Even as Priya wonders why she can’t love her socially appropriate spouse and still hankers after a college friend, she is drowning in self-doubt. The rules of heteronormative patriarchy are so rigid and watertight that women question their own sanity before it even occurs to them that it may be the system. Many never make it that far.
The film deploys heartbreaking subtleties that reach a crescendo in a hand hurriedly withdrawn, in a glance of recognition thrown, in the lines read between name and caste and history and identity. As Bharti looks into Priya’s birthday celebration through a wall of office glass, you realize she’s always on the outside, looking in, never really invited in spaces inhabited by the ‘respectable’, always having to exist on the periphery. As she is rendered thanks for supporting Priya and her family, Bharti is offered tea in a separate cup (metal for her, pretty floral cups for everyone else) as a constant reminder of the barrier she cannot, must not, will not ever breach.
The film takes a twist, as, instead of suffering as a victim, we witness Bharti expertly execute a coup. Calmly and calculatingly, she chooses herself and her dreams, and takes back from Priya what she wouldn’t have valued anyway. While both actors shine in their roles, Konkona Sen Sharma inhabits Bharti so completely, she dazzles. Aditi Rao Hydari brilliantly portrays a naive vulnerability that is endearing and aggravating in equal measure. This short places women front and center, in both – the spaces created for them, and the ones they wish to re-imagine for themselves.
In a continued exploration of the ways we can inflict violence on each other, this film steps into the universe of disability, expression, loss of voice, being unseen, and words, both said and unsaid.
The scene opens on two of my favourite actors– Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul– in prone position. It is the morning after. From thereon, every frame they inhabit is suffused with a magic few can bring with no spoken words and only their eyes. This sensitively and beautifully shot film, with the backdrop of South Mumbai’s colonial architecture as sheer poetry, takes our hand and draws us into the world of the hearing challenged, emotionally challenged and those who, despite functional eyes, simply cannot see.
It shares the unique and yet commonplace struggles in long-term marriages, and how communication is so much more than speech. The script breaks our heart in all the best ways, and ironically, for a story centered on sign language, has the best dialogues. Firmly centered is the emotional experience of the female protagonist (Shefali Shah). Her cumulative emotional neglect, rage at being dismissed, and the unfurling of a gentle, then excited spark of hope is the inner world of so many of our gender.
At the intersection of an attuned script, brilliant actors and sensitive direction stands this memorable story of a woman as a whole, fallible, unapologetic person. A person first, before her gender. The chemistry between Shah and Kaul is a joy to behold, and the camera soaks up their combined truckloads of talent.
Ajeeb Dastaans. This collection of stories reaffirms the complex state of being human at the intersection of multiple identities, and treats it with the honesty and non-reductivity it deserves. Watch Ajeeb Dastaans. Somewhere in that web of stories, you are bound to spot yourself. And perhaps acknowledge that being human is messy, painful, heartbreaking, angst-ridden, hopeful, and filled with joy—many, many things, but none of them necessarily ‘ajeeb’.
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