At one point in this three-storeyed plot, we see a kindly Muslim patriarchal shopkeeper offering verbal comfort to an abused wife. Before we get a chance to suspect his motives the storytelling moves on in search of other manifestations of suppressed pain in an environment that breeds a stagnant disingenuity in anyone who cares to partake of the life on offer in this haven of hopelessness.
That moment comes back to bite the very hand that feeds the plot when we recognize that comforting look in the patriarchal shopkeeper's eyes as the beginning of lust. Yup, no one is what he or she initially promises to be.
3 Storeys tucks away little surprises like notes pinned on the refrigerator, to be pulled out at a later time when we least expect it. This is a film with a strangely unfinished look. Many of the chawl scenes are shot on the studio floor giving the character's resonant wretchedness a precariously stagey look.
But we really don't mind the leeway given to artifice. Even in the most contrived moments, the characters have a way of rising above the artificiality.
There are three stories here, interwoven into a plot by a seductive wet-dream queen of a narrator, played by Richa Chadha with smoking-hot mischief. Early in the narrative, I realized we can't trust Chadha to tell the truth. Just how much of the wool she pulls over our eyes is a surprise that the plot saves up for the last. By then we are beyond caring about the veracity of the goings-on. All we want is to know what happens to the characters.
Every character, big or small, is written into the plot as a vivid entity. This is not to say that they are all satisfying in their dramatic thrusts. Often the people who populate Althea Delmas Kaushal's chawl are chimeric deceptions. They flatter to deceive, as the brutalized wife (Masumeh Makhija trying hard, and succeeding, in fitting into the battered mold) finds her lost beloved (Sharma Josh, characteristically reliable) in the chawl next door.
It is a wildly improbable coincidence and one that could have destroyed our precious belief in the story's power to heal. Miraculously the film tiptoes across the landmines that it suicidally lays out in the plot, like a night-time reveler walking across sleeping figures in his chawl after a night of partying.
This is a film that makes us forget it steep trespasses, and that one shocker which the narrative saves for the last when a Hindu-Muslim alliance must be called off for reasons that have nothing to do with love-jihad is so sickeningly incriminating it makes our blood boil.
Again we don't abandon the plot for crossing limits. This is one audacious game plan to embrace lives in a chaal in a sweeping sighing clutch last seen in Mahesh Manjrekar's Pran Jaye Pal Chawl Na Jaye. Almost every character is tangible and tactile. My favorite is Renuka Shahane's Goan matriarch Mrs Mendonca.
Her coffee conversation with Pulkit Samrat is the film's most lively talk point, brimming over with significances that both the actors savor like pieces of raisin in a fluffy plumcake. Shahane seen after a long time portrays the Goan Catholic woman as a mixture of Jennifer Kapoor's solitary spinsterhood in 36 Chowringhee Lane and Nadira's boisterous rum-swigging iconoclast in Julie. Pulkit Samrat provides Shahane with fine cues. This is one interesting actor waiting for the Big Bang in his career.
There is tenderness and brutality, sometimes in the same frame, as director Arjun Mukherjee tightens the screw on our perceptions of how unhappy people generate their moments of joy. 3 Storeys with its languorous pace doesn't quite have the grip of other segmented films like Crash and Bombay Talkies. But it has something far more valuable than grip. It possesses the wisdom to know what goes down need not necessarily come up. Sometimes we just need to let sleeping dogs lie.