When I walked out of the theatre after watching 3 Storeys, I was convinced it had been made by a woman. So, I felt a really satisfying thrill when I was reminded that it was not, in fact, the product of a female director, but Arjun Mukherjee’s directorial debut.
3 Storeys tells, ahem, three stories that take place in and around a Mumbai chawl built in 1924. We meet Renuka Shahane, making her comeback after 15 years away from the screen, in the form of Mrs Flory Mendonca, an older woman who has been trying for years to sell her flat at an exorbitant price for a complicated secret reason. On another floor lives Varsha (the delightful Masumeh Makhija), a woman married to an abusive alcoholic, who has deep feelings for her former lover, the embroidery master, Shankar (Sharman Joshi). There’s Malini (Aisha Ahmed) and Suhail (Ankit Rathi), a young interfaith couple battling all kinds of parental and societal opposition in order be together, and of course, the super sexy, mysterious and up-beat narrator, played by the navel-bearing, flower-in-hair-wearing, cham-chamming Richa Chadha.
The wonderful part of 3 Storeys, beyond the plot twists you’re expecting up ahead that keep you constantly guessing, is how it’s firmly anchored around its women. While it’s very likely that this movie may actually fail the Bechdel Test (I’m not sure if two women in the movie had a conversation with each other about a subject that didn’t involve a man), it does remarkably well in terms of the screen time and space it gave its women and their characters.
Because while all of the three main plots or stories involve men and the women’s relationships with them, it’s the women who move the story along, and their scenes and interactions that give you the most emotional and cinematic satisfaction. In what feels like a complete reversal of gender norms in mainstream Bollywood cinema, the men in this movie seem like sidekicks to the women in their stories, or like devices held in place to allow women characters to develop themselves more fully. This is truly what it means to make a woman-led movie.
Surprisingly, nowhere is this more evident than in the story of Varsha, Shankar and Rajesh. There’s so much satisfaction in the little details of this story, like the glances Suhana, a neighbour, and Varsha exchange when the drunken Rajesh speaks to her rudely in public, or the rather chilling shot in which Varsha resigns herself to marital rape at his hands and unpins her saree with grim purpose. Or when we get demonetisation flashbacks as she slumps to the floor sobbing “par mera paisa” after Shankar discovers the stash of hidden notes she’d saved over the years and makes off with them. So even tropes that you wish movies in 2018 were avoiding — the alcoholic husband, abused wife — are explored rather differently, devoid of the romanticisation of physical violence that one often sees in films (no black eyes, artfully cut lower lips and delicately bruised forearms here). This allows for a much more emotional and intriguing exploration of the experience of abuse than we’re used to seeing in Bollywood movies.
It’s also the first time I can remember appreciating a plot that involved an abusive couple getting back together. The epilogue of the movie, in which everything goes crazy in a bid to tell the viewer that life is unpredictable, actually does a good job of what it set out to do. You walk away nodding wisely, remembering all the weird relationships you know in life that either worked themselves out or saw massive overhauls or even role reversals. And you don’t at all feel like the filmmakers did this to make an anti-feminist point. On the contrary, what the film says about life’s, people’s and circumstances’ refusal to stay stagnant, the uniqueness of different individuals (and of course, the actual behaviour of Varsha and Rajesh in the epilogue) somehow feels very feminist or, at least, very satisfying.
Of the three stories, the first, involving Mrs Flory, her house and her potential buyer (Pulkit Sharma), is certainly the most fresh and captivating. It can be ascribed both to the excitement of the role and the storyline (it’s based on the short story The Right Kind of House by Henry Slaser, adapted for television in 1958 by Alfred Hitchcock), and Shahane’s prodigious talent. She’s already being called the most exciting part of the movie, and with good reason—her role and story are complex, interesting and intriguing, and her performance clean, neat and efficient.
The last, involving what you think is a love-jihad situation, is possibly the weakest story of the three, but even this has its memorable moments. The painful conversation between Malini and her mother upon discovery of Malini’s relationship with Suhail; a conversation between the mothers of Suhail and Malini in which they decide which of the chawl’s resident men to tell about the elopement; a shot in which Suhail’s mother stands in front of her daughters and braces herself for a slap from her husband that never comes. It was somehow simultaneously a bit surprising and exciting that a man-made movie delved into these complex, emotive moments so successfully.
But I think it’s an inevitable function of giving women characters meaningful roles while acknowledging, respecting and really making the most of their talent. When we’re used to seeing women stuck in the same roles and tropes in movie after movie, and continually forced to decorate the corner of the screen with no useful lines, it’s bound to be surprising and significant when they are suddenly brought to the centre with no warning in the form of the usual nauseating PR that precedes a “woman-centric” film. And when you bring women to the centre of the story, creating meaningful woman-led movies, perhaps there’s no way you can miss all the emotional complexities and nuances that come with being a woman in a misogynist world.
Co-published with Firstpost.