By Pankaj Sachdeva
In Three of Us, Avinash Arun takes us on a journey to contemplate the realm of memories. Do our memories define us? Do we cease to exist if we forget our memories? Do we eternally remember some of our memories? He tells the beautiful story of Shailaja (Shefali Shah), who is on the cusp of losing her memories due to dementia. Before she forgets everything, she takes a trip with her husband, Dipankar (Swanand Kirkire), to the quaint hamlet of Vengurla. She seeks rediscovery of the girl she was before age caught up with her. She seeks forgiveness from her childhood lover, Pradeep (Jaideep Ahlawat), when she left him abruptly. She seeks healing from the wounds of her traumatic past when she lost someone special.
In Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan, a septuagenarian named Daya (Lalit Behl) believes his time of death has come. Therefore, he travels with his son (who coincidentally, like Dipankar, is an insurance agent) to a place called Mukti Bhawan, a hotel for people who are waiting for their deaths. Daya lets go of past resentments during his stay, forms new bonds, and finds salvation before leaving the world. Daya’s pilgrimage to Mukti Bhavan parallels Shailaja’s odyssey to her childhood home. While one seeks closure before they leave the world, the other seeks closure before their memories leave them. In the film’s final moments, Shailaja and Pradeep ride on a Ferris wheel. They get stuck mid-air when things take a pause. These moments allow them the serenity to relinquish any past resentments and reconcile their niggling issues. They talk about forgiving and remembering. And then, the Ferris wheel starts spinning again. It is a poignant moment representing the start and stop of their relationship and the circle of life itself.
Memories are the leitmotif in Three of Us. Characters keep evoking memories in their conversations. Early in the film, a few men talk about the emotional attachments of memories. “Kahin un yaadon ke bhoj me woh building hi na gir jaaye,” he chortles. Shailaja’s friends joke about her forgetting things and then realizing the unsuitability of the joke. Pradeep’s daughter talks about feeling scared when she forgets her crayons in art class. Shailaja’s biggest fear is she may forget her son Bharat, who remains unseen throughout the film. Shailaja and Dipankar use their cell phones to record events as they might help her remember events later. They talk about storing memories in the cloud. In another wonderful moment, Shailaja’s old teacher says that she sensed the essence of her dead husband in the photographs he clicked long after he passed away; after all, photographs are nothing but another device used to capture memories.
Three of Us also uses the present events to manifest and evoke past memories. Its narrative commences with Shailaja immersed in her work at a family court, presiding over a couple seeking separation. The man in the relationship wants to extend the time of counseling, while the woman wants to leave. It mirrors Shailaja’s own past when she chose to depart from Pradeep’s life during their youth. On the train to Vengurla, Shailaja seems enamored of the two sisters playing, echoing her history with her deceased sister. Pradeep, too, grapples with the reflections of the past, witnessing his elder daughter’s conflicts with another boy reminiscent of the dynamics he and Shailaja once shared. He observes children—a girl and a boy—cycling, evoking memories of his own childhood. Early in the film, an old lady starts saying something to Shailaja. This moment is repeated later when she meets another old lady in Vengurla. Shailaja tells the old lady that everyone told her that she would have died and that she would have forgotten her. But the lady replies that she is alive precisely because Shailaja remembered her. The old lady, unseen by others, symbolizes Shailaja’s personal memory. The old lady has not aged as she continues to live on in Shailaja’s mind. She is not seen by anyone as she is only Shailaja’s personal memory. Three of Us underscores memories’ non-linearity and inherently personal nature and explores how they can resurface at any moment.
In the journey of Three of Us, Shailaja’s two companions are her husband, Dipankar, and her old lover, Pradeep. Both these men in Three of Us are caring, considerate, and creative. Dipankar works as an insurance agent. He does not feel good about it, though, as he has to make people scared about worst-case scenarios to sell insurance policies. Early in the film, when drinking with his male friends, he brings cocktails to the women in the kitchen. It is a counterpoint to the situation in Neeraj Ghaywan’s short film Juice (which also starred Shefali Shah), where the men simply gave orders to the women. Dipankar is preparing for the unknown future, where he will have to be his wife’s primary caregiver, perhaps like the aged couple in Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani. At one point, he oils his wife’s hair. We don’t see such scenes in films where a man cares for a woman who is not yet sick. When he first meets Pradeep, his wife’s childhood lover, he has the sense to excuse himself and let them talk privately. At another point, he sits in the backseat of the car while Shailaja sits in the front with Pradeep. He is an art appreciator and can understand the depth of someone’s art, whether singing or poetry. He sings for his wife.
On the other hand, Pradeep is a banker who is interested in writing. Shailaja’s return reignites his old passion for poetry. He also does embroidery for his wife. Again, I don’t recall any film where a man has done something like this as a hobby. Pradeep is intuitive and can sense that something is not right with Shailaja. He is shy and keeps his eyes low. There is a scene at the restaurant where he tells Shailaja about his father, who disappeared from home. He is left heartbroken by the lack of closure. It made me wonder if this was also how he would have felt when Shailaja left him. After all, she also did not say anything to him before leaving.
The dynamics between the three characters in Three of Us are reminiscent of Celine Song’s Past Lives, which also deals with a similar theme where a woman’s old lover visits her. In fact, at one stage, Pradeep says, “Pichle janam ki baat lagti hai.” It seems like a past life. Like it was in Past Lives, the husband’s character here is mature and understanding; however, his envy and insecurity overtake him for a fleeting moment. Dipankar feels he does not know this new Shailaja. Pradeep seems to know her better than he knows her. He asks Shailaja if she was ever happy with him, the way she is after meeting Pradeep, as he cannot remember their happy times. Not being happy does not mean that she is sad, she tells him. With the rigmarole of daily life, they all change gradually. Like how she prefers coffee while he prefers tea. There is a fourth wheel to the dynamics—Pradeep’s wife, Sarika (Kadambari Kadam). The relationship between Pradeep and Sarika is also honest and transparent, and they do not try to hide anything from each other. Sarika is lovely and has a mind of her own. She says that she found it weird that Shailaja has come to visit Pradeep, but a nice kind of weird.
Three of Us has some thoughtful dialogue. For instance, when the three of them visit the school, Dipankar says childhood spaces look smaller when you grow up. Pradeep replies that kids have bigger hearts; therefore, everything looks big in childhood. At another stage, Shailaja laughs when she reads in Pradeep’s book that the number nineteen in Hindi looks like two people upset with one another. I was reminded of the idiom ‘36 ka aankra‘, using the same analogy. When written in the Devanagari script, the numbers three and six are mirror images. This idiom is used to refer to people who don’t get along. There are other little touches. In another moment related to the film’s sensitive portrayal of men, there is a male Bharatnatyam dancer when Shailaja visits her school. When I put this on social media, one of the filmmakers mentioned that the director specifically asked for a male dancer to be included in the scene. Also, it is not mentioned, but I suspect that the reason Shailaja became an atheist was related to the death of her sister.
All three lead characters deliver great performances. After giving a memorable performance as the teacher in Jaane Jaan, Jaideep Ahlawat is yet again splendid in his role as Pradeep. Shefali Shah is, as always, wonderful, but there is a certain consciousness in her facial expressions and dialogue delivery, which sometimes feels more like a theatrical performance. Kadambari Kadam also manages to steal her scenes. The film also has a beautiful score. There are two tributes to Kumar Gandharva. His two songs—Saware Aai Jaiyo and Nain Ghat Ghatatan Ek Ghari—are played in the film. At another point, Dipankar sings Surmai Shaam from Lekin. Shailaja’s teacher describes her relationship with Pradeep as similar to that of Teja and Daga from Mr. India, which is a lovely way to describe a romantic relationship.
In Vengurla, Shailaja visits her old home where she used to stay as a girl. She takes a walk in the backyard, where lies a well. When she sees it, something traumatizes her, and she runs away. The well brings back tragic memories as her sister died at the same spot. In the end, she takes the last steps and reaches the well. She looks towards the sky, finding solace in the vast expanse above, remembering her sister. She returns to her udgam—the origin—and embraces her past, acknowledging its scars on her soul. She takes those last steps, not to forget, but to find closure and peace, leaving behind the shadows that once haunted her and preparing for her tomorrow. Because as Pradeep said, “Kal toh tabhi aayega, jab aaj khela jayega.”
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