Ankahi Kahaniya movie review: Abhishek Chaubey is a genius; he shouldn't have to put up with Netflix anthologies anymore

  • Ankahi Kahaniya movie review: Abhishek Chaubey needs to get out of director jail ASAP; his short film in the new Netflix anthology is head and shoulders above the rest.
Ankahi Kahaniya movie review: Rinku Rajguru in a still from Abhishek Chaubey's Madhyantar, one-third of Netflix's new anthology film.
Ankahi Kahaniya movie review: Rinku Rajguru in a still from Abhishek Chaubey's Madhyantar, one-third of Netflix's new anthology film.
Published on Sep 17, 2021 12:33 PM IST
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Ankahi Kahaniya
Directors - Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Abhishek Chaubey, Saket Chaudhary
Cast - Kunal Kapoor, Zoya Hussain, Rinku Rajguru, Delzad Hiwale, Abhishek Banerjee, Nikhil Dwivedi, Palomi

The point of these Netflix anthologies is getting flimsier by the day. There used to be a time when the streamer would green-light packaged content, give the collection an on-the-nose title, and attract name talent to participate. These stories would have at least a slight thematic connection; the project would give filmmakers in between jobs something to do, and viewers would invariably get at least one worthwhile short film out of it. But gone are the days of Lust Stories. Ankahi Kahaniya, the latest product of this anthology assembly line, makes perhaps the strongest case yet for why getting into the short film business might be a better alternative for Netflix.

For starters, the first and third chapters in this ‘film’ would be killed at the script stage. And as a result, instead of spending close to two hours being mildly disappointed by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and Saket Chaudhary’s movies, viewers would spend 30 minutes in stunned silence at Abhishek Chaubey’s genius.

Watch the Ankahi Kahaniya trailer here:

The director’s Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, from Ray, was so good that pooling it together with Srijit Mukherji’s two films came across as vaguely disrespectful. Sandwiching his near-silent Ankahi Kahaniya short between two instantly forgettable films is positively offensive. Chaubey is in a class of his own here, and I don’t know why they insist on packaging his work with stuff that is clearly inferior — it’s like one of those flea market stores that sells books by the kilo; where an O Henry jostles for space with the latest Chetan Bhagat on the same ‘tarazoo’.

Starring Rinku Rajguru and Delzad Hiwale, Chaubey’s Madhyantar is the shortest of the bunch, and he makes such effective use of the format; a single insert shot of a wooden ice cream spoon in his film communicates more than the entirety of the other two shorts put together. The stillness of his frames, the quietude of the performances, and the undefined period settling that makes the whole thing look like a Sooni Taraporevala photograph — it’s all delightfully melancholic, like a wistful half-remembered dream.

Madhyantar is a story about young love, and big city loneliness. Two characters are drawn to each other in a Mumbai movie hall, as they make a weekly pilgrimage to colourful fantasy lands in the hope of escaping their realities for a few hours. Every Friday, they exchange stolen glances with each other as Manjari comes to watch the latest potboiler, and Nandu serves her hot samosas during the interval. One day, he summons the courage to ask her out on a date. It’s the most thrilling moment of their lives, and you can feel it.

Chaubey juxtaposes the dreariness of their existence with moments of magic realism. Nandu turns into a movie hero, flicking his cigarette to the curb as a sari-clad Manjari looks on in awe. Smoke billows around them; a spotlight shines on their faces, and for a few seconds, the two feel special. But they aren’t really; they're the forgotten ones, the sort people who exist at the fringes of society, ignored yet living rich lives. 

Despite its unbearably romantic soul, Madhyantar is secretly more pragmatic than you’d expect. It ends with a scene that made me wonder why the film wasn’t moved to the number three slot in the lineup. Not only would it have been easier to scroll to, it would’ve given you the necessary time to reflect on what you just saw.

Zoya Hussain and Nikhil Dwivedi in a still from Netflix's Ankahi Kahaniya.
Zoya Hussain and Nikhil Dwivedi in a still from Netflix's Ankahi Kahaniya.

But instead, mere moments after the screen cuts to black on Chaubey’s film, Saket Chaudhary’s grating 40-minute short begins. To describe it kindly, it’s like if a Karan Johar AD watched In the Mood for Love and thought to himself, “I could do this.” Zoya Hussain and Kunal Kapoor’s characters suspect their spouses of cheating on them with each other, and for some reason, they decide to psychologically analyse their behaviour over brunch meetings at the Taj Mahal Tea House.

These meet-ups are filmed in the most bizarre shot-reverse shot you’ll ever see, and the direction, overall, is aggressively strange. You can almost sense the actors trying to overcompensate for the lacklustre writing, which requires them to launch into blunt monologues about their feelings at the drop of a hat. Everything that was so admirable about Chaubey’s short — genuine human emotion, a lived-in sense of place, and characters you could empathise with – is replaced by artifice, insincerity and truly unlikeable protagonists here.

Abhishek Banerjee in a still from Netflix's Ankahi Kahaniya.
Abhishek Banerjee in a still from Netflix's Ankahi Kahaniya.

But if you've ever wondered what a desi Lars and the Real Girl would look like, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has made. Starring Abhishek Banerjee as a salesman at a ladies' boutique, Tiwari’s film is so breathtakingly misguided that it makes you wonder how the same person who directed the beautiful Bareilly Ki Barfi could’ve had anything to do with it.

All alone in Mumbai, Banerjee’s village bumpkin Pradeep falls in love with a mannequin. He dresses ‘her’ in the most fashionable clothes, whispers sweet nothings into her ear when the boss isn’t looking, and at night, after the shutters go down, makes her dance to Bollywood songs with him. It’s all very weird, made weirder still by the film’s disinterest in investigating the ‘why’ of it all.

Tiwari makes the movie-breaking mistake of playing it completely straight, with zero subtext. Unlike Lars and the Real Girl, whose protagonist was mentally ill, Tiwari’s film doesn’t allude to undiagnosed mental illness at all, despite the fact that Banerjee’s character is described, on more than one occasion, as ‘paagal’. Director Spike Jonze evaded such scrutiny by giving the AI in his film Her a personality. The mannequin in Tiwari’s movie, as Pradeep’s boss rightly points out, has neither a ‘dil’ nor a ‘dimaag’. Neither does the film.

Also read: Ghost Stories movie review: Janhvi Kapoor and Sobhita Dhulipala impress, Netflix’s lacklustre Lust Stories follow-up doesn’t

Save yourself the annoyance, skip to the 37 minute-mark and watch Madhyantar. It is to Ankahi Kahaniya what Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi was to Ajeeb Daastaans.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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