Arjun Mukerjee’s debut film is a collection of three stories featuring the residents of a chawl in Mumbai – the building is three storeys high too, hence the film title. Each tale is primarily based on one of the occupants, although the same people are involved in each story as the various residents dip in and out of each other’s lives. The chawl is the common thread that runs through each narrative as writer Althea Kaushal explores the premise that every face in the crowd has a story to tell.
The film starts with a young man trying to buy somewhere central and relatively inexpensive to live in Mumbai. His agent takes him to see Flora Mendonca’s apartment despite the exorbitant price she has put on the property. ‘Aunty’ Flora (Renuka Shahane) as she is known by everyone has lived in the chawl for most of her life since moving from Goa after her marriage. As ‘Aunty’ to everyone she is approached for advice, but her relaxed attitude and support of the other residents hides a tragic tale that Vilas Naik (Pulkit Samrat) entices from her over a cup of coffee. The events of the past are shown in flashback as Flora explains why she now lives alone and wants to sell her house for such a large sum of money. Renuka Shahane is convincingly made up to play an older woman, and she does an excellent job with her role – never dropping the ‘aunty’ persona despite the chilling twists to her story. This is my favourite of the three tales, and it’s probably the most successful as it mixes together drama and suspense in a plausible tale of sweet revenge.
The second story follows a battered housewife Varsha (Masumeh Makhija) as she deals with her abusive and alcoholic husband. Her friendship with a neighbour inadvertently leads to Varsha remembering her failed romance with Shankar (Sharman Joshi) that ended when her family objected to his job and status. While this starts well, the pace and tone are quite different from the first story, which makes this second tale drag a little, until the flashbacks start to instil some warmth into the romance. Masumeh Makhija is good as the woman who acceded to her families wishes, giving up the man she loves for their choice of husband, who turned out to be a very poor alternative. However, this story has been told many times before, and there isn’t quite enough in the twist to make part of the film as immediately engaging as the first. Still, the performances are good, and there is enough detail to ensure that the story is still entertaining despite the lack of novelty. What does work well are the emotion filled scenes between Varsha and Shankar after they meet again, where Masumeh Makhija manages to say everything necessary with her eyes and expressions and without saying a word.
The final story follows another well-trodden path, but the final twist here is better delivered and fits more easily with the flavour of the first tale. This is the story of teenagers Malini (Aisha Amhed) and Suhail (Ankit Rathi) who fall in love against the wishes of their parents. What initially seems to be religious objections from Suhail’s father and Malini’s mother turns out to be more complex and disturbing. One of the best performances here is from the actor playing Suhail’s mother, who is fantastic as she visits Malini’s mother and tries to keep her son’s whereabouts hidden from his father. It’s the actors who bring much of the spark into this story, and the reveal at the end is perhaps a little too contrived, although again it’s Suhail’s mother who makes the most impact here too.
Throughout the three stories there are glimpses of the other chawl residents, including the glamorous widow Leela (Richa Chadda) who also acts as narrator and her admirer Ganpat (Himanshu Malik). However, the film never develops a real sense of place despite all three stories being set in the chawl, and a number of shots moving from balcony to balcony as the story shifts protagonist. Disappointingly, more isn’t made of the location or the close-knit community, although when Althea Kaushal does on occasion introduce the neighbours into the stories, they add instant colour and depth to the film.
While the overall concept that every face has a story to tell sounds like a good idea, the problem is that not all stories are equally interesting. The three stories here are all quite different and don’t link particularly well, despite the best efforts of Arjun Mukerjee to connect them via their living space. This may be partly because the building seems so sanitised and not the typical crowded living space that I expect to see in Mumbai, meaning that the characters can live quite separate and segregated lives. But mainly the three stories don’t align due to differences in the pacing and mood, particularly with the second vignette that slows everything down rather too much. Some more integration between all the characters would have helped, including adding some of Leela’s final commentary earlier. For me that would have clarified expectations and made the film flow more smoothly. However, what makes 3 Storeys worth watching are the actors, particularly Renuka Shahane, while Ankit Rathi and Aisha Amhed do a good job for two newcomers. Despite the inconsistency of the screenplay, there is still a lot to like about each individual story and some of the character interactions are excellent. Worth watching for Renuka’s turn as a older Christian widow, glimpses into each character’s past and a couple of surprising relationships.