Director: Avinash Arun Dhaware
Writers: Avinash Arun Dhaware, Omkar Achyut Barve, Arpita Chatterjee
Cast: Shefali Shah, Swanand Kirkire, Jaideep Ahlawat
Duration: 98 mins
Available in: Theatres
Some way into Three of Us, a few childhood friends revisit an old classroom in which they’d once studied. One of them remarks about how cramped it feels. She is surprised by the physical discord between the school and her recollections of it; between time and the actual passing of it. Another muses that perhaps childhood spaces look smaller when we grow up because kids have big hearts and therefore see the world as a bigger place. It’s one of many lyrical ruminations in this seemingly plain movie. But more importantly, it speaks to the blood bond shared by director Avinash Arun Dhaware’s stories.
Schools played a starring role in his first feature Killa (2015) as well as the recent series, School of Lies. Both were filmed to refract the wonder of a child’s eye – the spaces looked big, bright, dark, deep, inviting, intimidating. There was too much room with nowhere to hide. Killa in particular unfolded like the future memories of an adult, where beaches and yards and forts almost resemble oceans and galaxies and castles.
It’s these adults that shape Three of Us, a film whose simplicity reflects the optical illusions of remembrance. The grown-ups in this moment are like humans walking through a dusty dollhouse, a tone that reveals the disorienting phrases of adulthood. Every narrative gesture looks ordinary. The dryness is there to fathom. Every scene feels a little less striking than we expect it to be – and every place, a little less dramatic – because it mirrors the perspective of characters who’re confronting the smallness of memory lanes. This dichotomy of nostalgia is embedded into the premise: Shailaja Patankar (Shefali Shah), a middle-aged woman at the onset of dementia, is overcome by the urge to revisit a small Konkan town from her past. Shailaja’s husband (Swanand Kirkire) accompanies her on this week-long trip – a return to her beginning, but also a pilgrimage to a time she worked hard to forget. She seeks out her old school, home, friends, food and feelings before it's too 'late'. She seeks out a man named Pradeep Kamat (Jaideep Ahlawat) – once an incomplete childhood love – who becomes her tour guide through the chiselled remains of their history. He shows the couple around, follows her, watches her, and sees his hometown through her last-ditch gaze. There is no resistance at any corner. Shailaja is welcomed with open arms, almost as if everyone is conspiring to grant her this wish.
The title refers to these three people, but it mainly alludes to the three identities of a protagonist with a perishing perception of herself: Shailaja was someone, she is somewhere, and she soon will be nowhere. However, the condition of dementia isn't staged as an impending tragedy. It is, in this context, also a licence to break free from the shackles of service. A woman who has spent decades as an associative noun – mother, wife, daughter and worker – is now on the cusp of a dissociative verb. So she looks for the Shailaja that was still an individual, almost as if she were manipulating her fractured memory back to the time she felt most alive. Shefali Shah somehow manages to embody a tricky phase between being lost and found, between forgetting and forsaking. When she listens, for instance, her face suggests that she's pretending to understand. You can tell that she is battling to preserve her intellectual agency. When she smiles, she is only imitating an expression of familiarity.
The fear of not knowing is evident, and it's to the screenplay's credit that Shailaja and her husband strive to hide her condition during the trip. As a result, for the others, she is only someone who's had the courage to follow her instincts and turn back time. They aren't treating her specially; this is just who they are. What this detail also does is allow Pradeep to be a former flame who gets inspired by Shailaja’s sudden appearance. A bank manager moonlighting as a writer, he starts composing poetry again, unaware that her presence isn’t some romantic bolt from the blue; she is only there before she isn’t. There’s no such thing as an average Jaideep Ahlawat performance, and Pradeep is another example of how the actor blends into an environment rather than a role. Even though Pradeep is moved by Shailaja’s return after 28 years, his soul is rooted in the gentle attachment with his wife. It’s the kind of companionship that’s secure enough to withstand the possibility of an old story and a new ending.
Ahlawat infuses Pradeep with a subtle femininity, too, which doesn’t come across as a trait so much as a brave consequence of boyhood trauma. Swanand Kirkire, as Shailaja's husband, plays the ‘third wheel’ in an unobtrusive manner that brings to mind John Magaro’s Past Lives turn. Kirkire ensures that the only false note of the film – a disruptive scene of conflict in the husband-wife journey – is actually an exhalation of his beta-masculinity. The diffidence morphs into maturity. It takes him a while to realise that, for better or worse, their marriage is her default mindset; it’s the rest that she is worried about forgetting.
The design of the story evokes several facets of this theme. At one point in their homestay, Shailaja tries to free the ‘memory’ of her phone so that there’s enough space to save photographs. A storage cloud is mentioned. The technological terms are linked to the emotional core of the premise. At another point, Shailaja’s former teacher prompts her to reveal that a photograph means the “drawing of light” – which, in this case, is a sweet parable for the sunshine she summons before a future of fractured darkness. Her journey in this town is her final picture; her chemistry with Sandeep is her final shot at fullness. She retires from her job in a Mumbai family court, where she’s spent years formalising the separation of couples that are stuck in societal limbo; consequently, she is desensitised to the bland goodness of her own marriage. Her son is studying in another city, so Shailaja’s anxiety also revolves around the probability of being unable to recognize him in a few months. Some of the dialogue might be too self-aware and flowery —I like the phrase “ajeeb, lekin pyaara sa ajeeb” (strange, but a wonderful strange) — but it ties into the characters’ desperate grasp of words across a week of unspoken goodbyes.
Ultimately, Three of Us plays out like a no-frills funeral conducted by a person who is about to die. It isn't a narrative of memory, but the cinema of life itself. It’s a story of reclaiming and letting go at once. This is not the director’s most bottomless work, but it doesn’t need to be. The film represents the sobering classroom that grown-ups learn to accept. It is an ode to the anticlimactic grammar of living. After all, adult spaces are defined by the breaking – rather than the making – of a spell. And the act of reminiscence need not define the desire to remember.