Dharmatic’s latest Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans begins with Khaitan’s Majnu which is dull, at best, and painful and problematic, at worst. The short, set in a rigidly patriarchal rural household of a politically-connected family, shows a striking lack of understanding of its own milieu.
Its characters are inconsistent and incomprehensible — simultaneously deeply entrenched in the social mores of the setting (character-establishing opening dialogues such as ‘live as befits the bride/woman of a respectable house’ or ‘I wasn’t asked whether I wanted to get married’ establish expected gender boundaries between man-woman and the patriarchal social-order where the son must obey the father) and flouting those mores, seemingly for laughs (such as the exchange between the titular Majnu’s parents or the bride Lipakshi’s sexual advances towards strangers that are met with no consequences), without any coherency of either narrative or character design — making the film neither an attempt to reimagine a slightly altered world-order whose characters make tradition-defying choices nor a well-researched and rooted commentary on society as it exists.
What we end up with, instead, is a confused haphazard narrative (if one can call it that) that is difficult to place or buy into and one is left wondering why the filmmaker chose a setting whose intricate social arrangements they are clearly unfamiliar with.
To make matters worse, its plot hinges on the reveal that the central patriarch is a gay man whose lover was murdered by the father and who was then forced into this political marriage, thereby explaining his general conduct and his neglect of the wife for all these years and, possibly, providing the basis for justifying his uncharacteristic generosity/kindness towards his wife at the end of the film.
Babloo, the husband, is written as someone who casually dips naked people into boiling vats of oil for transgressing boundaries and making (from what we can see, consensual and reciprocated, although both the film and the husband treat this with a degree of irrelevance, so we can’t be entirely sure) advances towards his wife, beats up his mentor and closest ally on the suspicion that he’s having relations with this wife and is willing to have same wife murdered for now making far-too-many transgressions and yet we’re to believe that he has a change of heart at the very end (softie deep inside?) when he finds out she’s pregnant and he (and she) have been betrayed by the man he (and she) have come to love.
While it is shameful that we’re still using the look-a-gay-person as a plot device in this day and age, it is unsurprising when one realises that it comes from the same director who took a film about caste and remade it by taking caste out of the narrative (read: Sairat turning into the wasted opportunity that is Dhadak) or who featured a “humorous” sequence of the lead character finding himself in a situation where he feared being sexually assaulted (read: the film Badrinath ki Dulhania).
The film serves to re-emphasise the need to situate our storytelling in an actual understanding, and an empathetic one at that, of the contexts in which these narratives evolve, and to re-examine our gaze, especially now amidst the growing trend of the gory drug-and-other-crime-thrillers that are filling up content-streaming platforms.
It’s more of the same in the short that follows — Khilauna, directed by Raj Mehta — with its caricatured depiction of the cunning-and-seductive househelp and the laughably trite ending with the murder of a child by another child where the filmmaker substitutes shock-and-gore for insight or profundity (mildly reminiscent of the Oscar shorts lineup of 2019, almost all of which featured gory child-deaths in order to qualify as sufficiently grave).
Ghaywan’s film Geeli Pucchi catches you off-guard as you emerge, a little disoriented, from the first two films in this anthology, making it a little difficult to comment on it in isolation, with any amount of objectivity or distance, and it stands out particularly starkly in this otherwise abominable line-up.
The film shows us just how much can be done within a limited setup (the majority of the film takes place in a factory) and timeframe (the usual excuse for badly written shorts is that there is little time to do enough context-setting or write sufficiently nuanced characters) when one has a thorough understanding of the characters one writes.
It packs in a nuanced commentary on the institutionalised privileges and oppressions of gender, caste and sexuality, and the ways in which each of these aspects of identity interact and compound each other, one sometimes more prominent than the other — without taking any time “away” from the story, as is sometimes the lament of the people that get critiqued (“we’re just writing stories, not social commentaries”) — simply by writing characters that are not divorced from their social circumstances/ who reflect the experiences of the identities they inhabit and this only makes the narrative richer.
Konkana is not just a woman in love with another woman, but also the Dalit factory worker being denied a promotion on the basis of caste which the woman she has begun to love receives and neither of these circumstances exist in isolation — she must navigate both these experiences that exist simultaneously for her (this is, of course, a simplification of Ghaywan’s much more nuanced narrative, but I put this here just as an example of the terrain and dynamics explored).
The last film in the anthology Kayoze Irani’s Ankahi features an odd, though not uncommon romanticization of disability that leaves one, or at least me, with a bad taste in the mouth. Perhaps I’m doing it injustice in clubbing it with the rest, and perhaps I’m wrong, but I could not get past what seemed to be an oversimplification , and injustice, that resulted because of the use of Manav’s character Kabir as a prop for Shefali’s Natasha, the role he’s made to occupy in the narrative and the nuances he’s disallowed.