“3 Storeys”… A confidently narrated anthology movie where the tale comes before the twist

Posted on March 15, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

Among the many small pleasures of Arjun Mukerjee’s 3 Storeys is the bustling chawl setting. Someone’s always doing something: shelling peas, or rehearsing for a dance, or flirting with the shopkeeper’s son, or staring at a police van hauling away a delinquent even as a wedding is in progress. (The bride and groom seem more interested in this scandal than in their nuptials.) But beneath the easy, I-need-to-borrow-some-sugar camaraderie between neighbours, there are secrets – and that’s the basis of this anthology of three stories involving the chawl’s residents, who are often seen going up and down the stairs. They climb into each other’s stories with a similar nonchalance (like we saw in the recent Kannada anthology film, Dayavittu Gamanisi, though the characters there weren’t as intertwined).

Each story involves parents and children. In the first episode, where Pulkit Samrat plays a small part, Flora (a warm Renuka Shahane, padded out to resemble a middle-aged matron) deals with a son who’s turning into a criminal. In the second story, Varsha (Masumeh Makhija) is trapped in a marriage with an abusive drunk — her young son is the only reason she wakes up every morning. (And it’s her parents who brought about the life she’s leading, because they wouldn’t let her marry the man she loved.) As for lovebirds Suhail (Ankit Rathi) and Malini (Aisha Ahmed), their parents, too, disapprove of their union — though for a different reason. Each of these stories comes with a twist (one of them reminded me of the Dulquer Salmaan-starring Tamil/Malayalam anthology film, Solo), but the twist is also in the telling. The endings sound explosive, but the treatment is refreshingly muted.

Not all stories work, but then, Mukerjee doesn’t seem to be after an OMG! slap on the forehead. The film opens with an unseen narrator talking about how she loves people. “Look close,” she says, “and you see the stories in their eyes.” The camera, accordingly, keeps moving in for close-ups (even during a group dance), and this is complemented by the character close-ups. 3 Storeys is less about the “clue” in shots of coffee being served in the Flory episode than about Varsha drinking the last drops of rum from one of the bottles her husband has strewn around the house. She then stares at a billboard opposite her window, advertising an upscale lifestyle. That life could have been hers.

But this isn’t about Varsha feeling sorry for herself. In a flashback with her ex (Sharman Joshi), we see a brief what-could-have been — a delicate promise on a bridge, and later, an aerial pan that bridges two shattered dreams. But as Flora says, time has a way of healing. In a flashback, when Flora loses her boy, we hear a high-pitched keening, but in the present day, she’s able to talk about him with a smile. So too, Varsha. When she meets her ex, there’s no drama. There are no white knights either. The ex sees the kind of man Varsha is married to. But he does nothing. (Maybe he can do nothing.) Note, also, how confidently Suhail declares at the registrar’s office, “Hum log shaadi karna chahte hain aur yeh Musalmaan banna chahti hai.” (We want to get married and she wants to become a Muslim.) Again, there’s no comment, no judgement, no empowered rush to “save” Malini. This is just how it is, sometimes.

Mukerjee’s empathy for these women is almost Almodóvarian. The Spanish filmmaker once said that he wasn’t all that interested in men, who were the protagonists of epic adventures. He preferred stories that dealt with the everyday, the ordinary — and it’s often women who deal with these everyday, ordinary happenings. With his excellent female cast (Masumeh Makhija is especially good), Mukerjee flattens out what could have been Hitchcockian high drama into a series of micro-portraits of women. Varsha gets a great scene where she talks about her past. She’s quite proud that she had a bank job, though she had to give it up when she got pregnant, and now that her husband has lost his job, she’s begun to work at a hosiery factory. It’s the kind of unfussy character detailing where a line tells us about a life.

There is something of Hitchcock in the Rear Window-like setting of neighbours at close quarters watching each other and inventing stories to “explain” each other’s actions — and also in the misdirection and macabre humour (the hole in the floor is a hoot). But I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, which is another twist — a super-twist that wraps up, in too neat a bow, the sub-twists in the individual stories. But if you think about it, 3 Storeys is really about the power of imagination to make or break lives, where even a wheelchair-bound woman can imagine herself as a powerful sexual being. 3 Storeys is a quiet, confident debut. Watching it, I was reminded of the Doordarshan series, Katha Sagar, where well-known filmmakers took on stories by writers like Tolstoy and De Maupassant. The twist is secondary. The tale comes first.

Copyright ©2018 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi