Director and cinematographer Avinash Arun Dhaware, best known for co-directing Paatal Lok, lovingly lenses the coastal town of Vengurla in Maharashtra, where most of his intimate story of love, loss, grief, reconciliation and resolution is set. Three of Us is principally the story of Shailaja (Shefali Shah), a middle-aged woman who lives in Mumbai with her husband Dipankar (played by Swanand Kirkire). Diagnosed with early-stage dementia, Shailaja is staring down a tunnel that promises only forgetting. She’s holding on to memories, and most urgently she wants to revisit the sleepy coastal hamlet where she spent a few seminal childhood years.
The Hindi language drama (in theatres) has shades of Dhaware’s debut Marathi language feature, Killa (2015), which was also located in a coastal town in Maharashtra. There is a return to classrooms, as seen in both Killa and Dhaware’s recent web series, School of Lies. But tonally, Three of Us is languid, brighter. There’s a childhood crush but also a tinge of bittersweet regret; there’s wonder at a place that has stayed mostly still even as the big city raced ahead; there’s pubescent glee and also trauma.
Shailaja’s primary purpose for returning to the small town is to reconnect with her school crush Pradeep Kamat (Jaideep Ahlawat). A sensitive man who writes poetry, sketches and does embroidery in his spare time, Pradeep unquestioningly becomes Shailaja and Dipankar’s guide, patiently taking them back to her old haunts. Ahlawat plays the part so well that one can overlook his accent which concedes that he’s obviously not a son of the Konkan soil.
Dipankar is the third wheel for a while, and Kirkire blends into the background without protest. Shah opts to play Shailaja with childlike awe and wonder. It’s a curious choice, but the actress owns it. Credit to the director for giving the 99-minute film a lived-in feel—Shailaja’s crumpled saris, the dingy old houses, the neglected backyard, the son who is geographically far from his parents, and drifting further away from his anxious mother.
The writers (Dhaware, Omkar Achyut Barve, Arpita Chatterjee) work in concerns regarding mental illness with restrain and sensitivity, in particular how the couple doesn’t dwell on Shailaja’s condition. There appears to be a juxtaposition between the two couples—Shailaja and Dipankar whose marriage seems to be frayed at the edges; and Pradeep and his self-assured wife Sarika (Kadambari Kadam), who share an easy banter and warm companionship. But the fissure in the former is left unaddressed. The focus is on closure for Shailaja with Pradeep as they are finally able to say things left unsaid for years, and for Shailaja with another part of her past.
Dhaware’s storytelling is unhurried. He holds a shot, frames a moment, lets his characters linger a little longer, to come to terms with loss and to hold on to memories.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She posts @Udita J.