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Sunday, May 9, 2021

‘Ajeeb Daastaans’ review: Netflix anthology fails to break new ground, but is an earnest attempt

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The Karan Johar-produced film does best when its ensemble cast rises to the occasion, emoting authentically on screen, the frustrations of their characters

For an anthology aiming to juxtapose a series of contrasting stories in a bid to create a thematically cohesive narrative, Netflix’s Ajeeb Daastaans is earnest, if not flawless. Essentially a heady concoction of bizarre tales as told by four different filmmakers, the film blends unique cinematic styles with awkward social scenarios, giving rise to a few genuinely engaging moments.

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With a short feature each from directors Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan and Kayoze Irani, this Karan Johar-backed production meticulously actualises on screen, a world that is similar to our own that is still deceptively surreal, masking the film’s morally-charged rhetoric with authentic cinematic conflict.

Its titular figures, despite hailing from different walks of Indian life, are united by their resentment at having to endure a repressive social order. Subsequently, faced with a complex array of predicaments, they are forced to seek an escape from their miseries, often leading to strange consequences.

Ajeeb Daastaans does best when its ensemble cast, headed by the likes of Konkona Sen Sharma, Nushr at Bharucha and Jaideep Ahlawat among others, rises to the occasion, emoting authentically on screen, the frustrations of their characters.

Fatima Sana Shaikh as the sensuous yet unsatiated Lipakshi, complements adequately the magnetic screen presence of screen veteran Ahlwat. Manav Kaul’s portrayal of a mute man hopelessly in love with Shefali Shah’s Natasha is endearing, laying the groundwork for a proper tear-jerker.

Ajeeb Daastaans

  • Directors: Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan, Kayoze Irani
  • Writers: Neeraj Ghaywan, Shashank Khaitan, Uzma Khan, Sumit Saxena
  • Cast: Jaideep Ahlawat, Konkona Sen Sharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Nushrat Bharucha, Fatima Sana Shaikh
  • Duration: 2 hours 20 mins

Then there is Konkona Sen Sharma, who stamps her authority on-screen with an unconventional yet prolific portrayal of the steadfast Bharti, who urges others to accept their reality while being unable to accept her own. Aditi Rao Hydari delivers an equally spirited performance, carving out a truly relatable character whom you would love to hate.

Separately, Abhishek Banerjee and Nusrat Barucha’s chemistry along with child actor Inayat Verma’s serious acting chops, bring to life one of the most interesting stories of the anthology.

To top it off, the dialogues have been kept crisp and devoid of unnecessary melodrama, aiding the actors to etch out the most authentic versions of their characters, which in turn has also helped the creators to successfully explore the conundrums of regular Indian existence.

Complex themes such as sexuality and casteism are explored quite boldly, with the film trying to actively comment on India’s class divides and the atrocities which stem from them. In doing so, it refrains from being preachy, instead opting for a recreation of its character’s surroundings which is rooted in reality, with the camera as an impartial observer.

And yet, something remains amiss. The screenplay comes across as formulaic, hell-bent on delivering major twists at the end, making the narrative structure too predictable for an anthology film.

Additionally, the music is comically inadequate, trying too hard be to stay abreast with the latest pop culture trends. Instead, it ends up wholeheartedly exposing its inability to build on the stunning visuals on offer.

Also, some stories are presented with more elan than their peers. This results in a contrast in quality, failing to draw in the regular viewer for the finer moments.

Take for instance, Shashank Khaitan’s short Majnu, which is engaging, but is riddled with flaws in its character arcs and plot points. It is in sharp contrast with Raj Mehta’s Khilauna which operates at a brisk pace and concludes on a blood-curdling note.

All in all, Ajeeb Daastaans offers a moderately engaging experience if compared with other shows of a similar ilk. From the successful Lust Stories (2018) to the universally-panned Ghost Stories (2020), Hindi anthology cinema is coming of age, exploring previously taboo subjects and indulging in experimentation like never before.

What essentially started with Bombay Talkies (2013) has evolved into something more adaptable to the present times while still retaining some of its predecessor’s charm. The only thing that is missing is the intent to create something uniquely unconventional, rather than an upgrade on what we have already seen.

Ajeeb Daastaans is currently streaming on Netflix


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