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'I don't want to show abject villainy'

By Bedika
April 16, 2021 13:09 IST
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IMAGE: Konkona Sen Sharma and Aditi Rao Hydari in Ajeeb Daastaans.

Indian cinema often fails in capturing the overlapping of social identities, be it caste, class, gender or sexuality, giving characters a single-dimensional treatment, says Masaan Director Neeraj Ghaywan, who uses his cinema to take forward the concept of "fused identities".

"Our identities are intersectional in nature but I don't know why we see these things in isolation in our movies," says Ghaywan, who has directed the Geeli Pucchi segment in Netflix's upcoming anthology, Ajeeb Daastaans.

Intersectionality of identities is at the very centre of his latest work, which stars Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari. It revolves around two women, one upper caste, newly married and hired to do a desk job and the other, a factory hand denied the same job because she belongs to a lower caste.

As the only women in a factory full of men, they end up being close but their bond is tested by their surroundings and the background they come from.

"The way we approach movies and things in India is that we always see them in silos, in isolation... Subalterns are also seen as a whole, but they are always intersectional in nature. That's what I wanted to do in this film. Intersectionality is the theme of this film," says Ghaywan in a Zoom interview from Mumbai.

IMAGE: Shefali Shah and Manav Kaul in Ajeeb Daastaans.

The director says he had thought of the story as one of the sub-plots for his critically acclaimed debut, Masaan, but felt the idea was too radical at the time.

Ajeeb Daastaans -- a compilation of four stories from four different directors, produced by Karan Johar's Dharmatic -- seemed like the perfect platform, he adds.

Ghaywan cites Abhishek Chaubey's dacoit drama, Sonchiriya, to illustrate his point.

The discussion between characters in the film about Phoolan Devi surprised Ghaywan since it was a conversation about intersectionality, so rare for Hindi cinema.

"I have not seen that kind of thing again, how each of your identities kind of rubs into another. What privilege you derive from one identity may be a deterrent for another identity that you live with."

IMAGE: Fatima Sana Shaikh in Ajeeb Daastaans.

Ghaywan says he has always tried to break away from the notion of good and evil in his cinema as he believes everyone has a context and their identities are fused together.

"I don't want to show abject villainy. I want to contextualise each individual's surroundings, how they end up taking certain decisions and how they go with certain moral conflicts and dilemmas. It is all about your conditioning and surroundings, how you examine and see it in your personal life and how it changes your expression in the world."

In Geeli Pucchi, he says, the women may come from a different class and reality but they have one thing that puts them on the same platform and that's patriarchy.

"Aditi's character Priya is being told at home about how to behave or who to mingle with, while Konkona's Bharti has seen all these realities and is hardened. They are not right or wrong. They are victims of their circumstances."

Women asserting their agency and identity through their jobs and career can be a point of conflict in a story, he says.

In Ghaywan's view, the absence of a career is not just limited to women in Hindi cinema, where the conflict is mostly restricted to the love story of the characters.

"Women express their aspirations via their careers because it's the one thing that can insulate them from their marginalised background, be it patriarchy or class or caste conflict. So I always think about it," he says.

"We are what we are because of how we see the world and how we see our partner but also because of how we want to be seen in the world. I don't know why our career aspirations are ignored in our films. I have always tried to bring that in and sometimes, you can also make it the central conflict."

Another subversion that Ghaywan was keen to explore in the short movie was the idea of the manic pixie girl, a character that often exits in cinema to forward the story arc of the male protagonist.

She is there in the film to look pretty, is naive and full of hope.

"The idea of Priya's (Aditi's) character is sort of the manic pixie girl which has been explored in many Hindi films, which I'm not very happy with. It completely comes from the male gaze... This is a subversion of that.

"Here we fix a female gaze on a manic pixie girl, how she still expresses her agency by wanting a job. Manic pixie girls are not supposed to have their opinions or thoughts, they are not supposed to have careers so this is a subversion of that," he says.

Ajeeb Daastaans brings together four unusual stories that explore human emotions such as jealousy, entitlement, prejudices and toxicity. Directed by Ghaywan, Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta and Kayoze Irani, it is set to stream on Netflix on April 16.

Besides Sensharma and Hydari, the ensemble cast also includes Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Abhishek Banerjee, Inayat Verma, Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul and Tota Roy Chowdhury.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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