‘Ajeeb Dastaans’: A Review by Aishwarya Dasgupta

 

Ajeeb Daastaans' movie review: Good and bad co-exist in this morally  ambiguous anthology- The New Indian Express

 

Four stories, without a proper beginning or a sense of an ending, begin nonetheless, in medias res (if I am allowed to use something which encapsulates or at least attempts to encapsulate this epic that we call life). They begin like all stories do, with an absence, a gap, a curious suspense, and a need to redress a need to address, a need to recover and a need of becoming complete. Whether it attains completion or not is another story, the suspense is pulled to a high pitch and then the denouement approaches, all of a sudden, all at once, shaking our expectations, taking us by surprise, jarring us to the very core, compelling us to confront and acknowledge the crack that we always choose to overlook.

The one image that runs through each of the four narratives is the image of a child- an unborn, a newborn, a teenaged, and a murdered child. In each story the child has a central role to play, acting as a symbolic connotation of the story itself, a metonymic outgrowth of the very fabric with which each tale is woven.

The unborn child brings a new twist in the life of Babloo and Lipakshi; who’ve been living through a wreck of a marriage in a wreck of a kothi whose extravagance only speaks louder about the silence it tries so desperately to hide. Babloo refused to sire a son to avenge his father who’d refused him a life of his own choice to be spent with the partner of his dreams because of his homosexual preferences. Yet, interestingly, it is a child who somewhat saves his wrecked marriage (perhaps?). The same child who was sired by another man, as an act of revenge on Babloo for having wrongfully punished the former’s father, a man with whom he had tripped and fallen in love, once again, a man who had wooed his wife as well, relieving her momentarily and deceptively seducing her to dare to dream again, a woman, whose life had become a tale of sombre sadness. The child is thus, like his biological father, playing many roles and bringing about the plot to its resolution and offering a new possibility which might be better or worse.

The second story entitled “Khilauna” portrays a game, a mind game, which the storyteller plays with the characters, the interrogators, the accused, and everyone in between, including the audience. Everyone appears to be a toy in the hand of everyone else, and each seems to assume that he/she has the upper hand in the mysterious game: like the policewoman quips how the rich and the poor regard each other to be toys in each other’s hands. Yet, the game had serious consequences, any game which takes a foul turn always do. The new players learn to mimick the tricks and in doing so, often outdo the masters, unknowingly. The dead child is a symbol of the fallout of such a game: and a subtle reminder of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. It foregrounds the death of civilized values and bonhomie in the world ridden with economic divide, social difference and an overwhelming urge to satiate one’s greed. The mystery of the death of the child and the ultimate resolution of the plot is ironically or rather purposively brought about by the most imposing leitmotif of the play- a toy.

The third story is like a beautiful flower, a poem, a song which seems perfect from the outside, but then on closer inspection one realizes, it is devoured by worms, it does not feel that pleasant, it strikes a discordant note. It is like life and like life, full of promises, but has the ring of a sad truth, and like life, extremely satisfying even in its bitterness. It begins with a jarring note, calling out the discrimination against Dalits which is still a rampant practice in India displaying the skeletons inside the closet of “equal” and “progressive” India where caste prejudices are claimed to be a thing of the past. Yet, people like Bharti can only be friends with people like Dashrath, people who might assert that society has become modern yet feel uncomfortable in revealing the surname “Mondal”, taking refuge under the shadow of “Banerjee” in making a new possibly promising acquaintance. Although striking quite a few unpleasant notes, the audience is not allowed to pay much heed to these, as the narrative slowly meanders and takes us through sweet twists and sweeter turns with the blossoming of a romantic bonding between Bharti Mondal and Priya Sharma. So far so good, dark clouds seem to gather in the corner of the pale blue sky when the mother-in-law reminds the daughter-in-law to check the circles in which she is socializing, reminding her of her Brahmanical responsibilities. Priya reveals her insecurities and then inspires her friend to do the same. Just when Bharti musters her courage, the sands of promise slips through her fingers. And the black and white story of a typical lesbian relationship is stopped short of reaching its culmination not because of the family’s interruption, or societal prejudices against homosexuality but because of the structured regimentation of casteist outlook of life on the part of Priya. The call from her boss to surprise her takes the plot in a surprisingly new turn and what started off as a romantic narrative, slowly becomes a tale of revenge. Bharti suggests her to try to become a mother and settle down properly if she wants to be truly happy. The new-born child here, is an instrument of revenge and symbol of entrapment.

Brilliantly interweaving the intersectional themes of gender politics, sexuality, and casteism, the plot makes us think hard about issues which exist right in front of us but no one is ready to talk about. Priya’s subtle change of attitude towards Bharti when she refuses to let her enter into the air-conditioned cubicle of her upper-class coterie, reflects a lot about our society where class and caste prejudices still override and dictate our instinctive approach to life. The last sip from the steel cup while spreading her specialized knowledge on taking care of new-born children strongly portray the dictum: revenge is best served cold and Priya’s helplessness and vanquished sigh is symptomatic of the sadness and despair that can only be reserved for the ones who deprive themselves of being happy because of their myopic convictions and majoritarian reservations, things which almost always lead one to a life of enduring pain and hapless disappointment.

 

“Ankahi” is everything it claims to be. It’s unsaid, it is that which is perhaps unutterable, that which can’t be perceived, conveyed and thus never spoken, and yet it is something which remains, something which haunts, it’s an attempt to break free and yet at the same time, it is the rope which ties one down more stubbornly. Here, the story and the larger narrative takes a mature turn, a turn towards silence –- rounded with noise—and acceptance. Perhaps this is why the child in this story is not an infant, however a teenaged one whose life is under the threat of being drowned in silence. Natasha, the protagonist’s life seems to revolve round her family, the centre of which is the daughter. Her endeavour to learn the sign language reflects her dedication and unconditional love for her family. However, it is this same language which becomes the root of an ugly argument with her husband, something which results in a failure of communication. This is the same language which takes her towards a new possibility in her life and makes her fall in love with life just when she had felt to be on the brink. The signs of silent exchanges mediated by the twinkle-eyed laughter and hearty exchanges over hearty meals delivers Natasha from the throes of pain which life has thrown towards her and in turn delivers the audience and makes them bask in the warmth of a truly comfortable companionship vicariously. However, life ensures that happiness is short lived and this tale is true to life and thus an odd turn and the possibility of a perfectly happy ending is shattered and we are confronted with a bitter pain that is overwhelming in its intensity. One cannot decide whether to laud her for taking a stand for protecting her doll’s house and ending the pretentious relationship with “the other man” or to feel a gut-wrenching pain and disappointment for making the man suffer yet again, adding to his scars. The last story is one of revelation and redemption, a tale of suffering which makes us question our own convictions and rethink our choices in a very nuanced sort of a way. It’s a story of each one of our lives. It is in its ordinariness, perhaps, in its failure or rather defiance to engage in a futile exchange of words, that it truly speaks and makes one feel a great deal.

To sum it up, one needs to rewind, to return, to the very beginning, where the audience in led into the world of the narrative through the perspective of the animator, the puppet-master, who brings the diverse threads together, all at once, interweaving the four stories together, creating a world which operates simultaneously, yet differently, a world which comes into being before the tales are told, a world which has always existed even before its conception, with all its various possibilities, just like in life (perhaps?) However, one can’t say for sure whether the beginning is a beginning par se or exists somewhere in between, a point of convergence which exists to offer a cohesive conclusion in the garb of a curious introduction to help the readers achieve a finality, and realise perhaps the sense of an ending.

 

Aishwarya Das Gupta teaches in Calcutta Girls’ College. She is a weaver of words who loves to recede into her bubble of silent dreams. She is an avid reader, lover of cinema and creative arts and if left alone to her own devices, may be found lingering under the shady bough of a lonely tree.

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