On Friday, Netflix released Ajeeb Daastaans, an anthology film consisting of four short stories directed by Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Kayoze Irani. Produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment, the short films have a common theme of portraying characters from marginalised communities struggling within different social hierarchies.
While each short film tries its best to inculcate shock value, it’s Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi that raises several uncomfortable questions. Starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari in lead roles, the short film is an intriguing and intersectional tale of caste, class, and sexuality.
Sen Sharma plays the role of Bharti Mandal, a Dalit factory worker who finds an unlikely friend in her Brahmin white collar colleague Priya Sharma (Rao Hydari). While the competent Bharti struggles to find acceptance and acknowledgement at her workplace, Priya is showered with accolades despite being inadequately qualified for her job. In spite of their differences, the two bond over their identity as lesbian women, a reality that the duo have to keep hidden from a homophobic and patriarchal society.
The chemistry between Bharti and Priya is palpable as they find their little oasis in an oppressive world. However, what makes the characters interesting is that they aren’t portrayed as saints. Oppression, inherent casteism, and patriarchy are at the core of their weaknesses, which makes for a nuanced narrative. Rao Hydari’s Priya is a caste-blind woman who is oblivious to the harm she’s causing because of deep-rooted conditioning. Sen Sharma is especially brilliant in her subtle yet impactful portrayal of the inner struggles of Bharti, a Dalit woman who has to fight for her place in a world that constantly shuns and others her.
Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi comes at a time when there’s significant discourse about caste bias in the Indian society, and yet, it’s not broached in mainstream cinema. Shashank Khaitan’s Dhadak (produced by Karan Johar), a remake of the Marathi movie Sairat, was criticised for completely eliminating caste from its storytelling when the original’s central theme was caste-based oppression. Ghaywan weaves intersectionality into Geeli Pucchi, making it a more adequate representation of the real world.
While everything works in Geeli Pucchi’s favour, it has its weak moment in Sen Sharma’s casting. Sen Sharma, who belong to an upper caste community, plays the role of a Dalit queer woman. When we’re talking about intersectionality and representation, it can’t be denied that the role should have ideally gone to a Dalit queer woman. Ghaywan, a Dalit filmmaker, acknowledges the criticism. In an interview with the Film Companion, he said, “Why don’t you cast a Dalit to play a Dalit character?” is a very valid argument. But the question is too early to ask, because right now we don’t even have people. Also, let’s say if I want to cast someone, how do you want an approach? A) You have to find a person not scared enough to acknowledge it, B) you have to find a person who fits the bill, fits the brief, looks the part. There are so many ifs. Though it is righteous, it’s not operationally easy to execute that.”
As we hope for a time in the future where roles about the marginalised are played by the marginalised, we can still appreciate Geeli Pucchi for its courage, empathy, and honesty.
Have you watched Ajeeb Daastaans on Netflix? Which one’s your favourite short film? Let us know in the comments!