It is difficult for a director to create a film that does not toe the commercial line. More difficult if the characters in the film have crossed their youth and are senior citizens.

But director Avinash Arun Dhaware never shies away from hitting on stories, characters and subjects that do not pander to the tastes of popular cinema’s audience. His earlier film ‘Killa’ and the noted OTT series ‘Patal Lok’ and ‘School of Lies’ are examples of his courage. He ventures into unknown worlds and tells his stories structured within a physical ambience that fits into the film beautifully. His command over the craft of film therefore, remains versatile, bold and lyrical.

‘Three of Us’ is a tribute to the elderly, specially those who still try either to go back to their past, or relive their past in the present, in the way they find fulfilment in, even if for a short while. The film opens on a day when Shailaja Desai (Shefali Shah), who works in the divorce office of the local court, is retiring.

Shailaja is a middle-aged woman, shy to an extreme, who talks little. She is married to Dipankar Desai (Swanand Kirkire), an insurance agent, who is not proud of making a living through selling lies to his clients. He is a nice man and they have a comfortable, ‘settled’ life.

Their only son Bharat, is away at IIT. During a small party thrown by Dipankar, we are informed, through suggestion, that Shailaja is slowly drifting into dementia, and her husband and son are genuinely concerned.

One day, Shailaja tells her husband that she wants to visit Vengurla, a small town in Sindhudurg District in Maharashtra, where she studied in a local school for several years when her father was posted there. Dipankar is surprised as he did not know about this part of her life.

The two set off for Vengurla, and Shailaja begins her journey, physical, emotional, nostalgic, into a segment of her girlhood days before she forgets all of this. And also to remember things she thinks she has forgotten.

Shailaja’s return to the small town is something most middle-aged, married women, separated from their childhood homes, will identify with. For Shailaja, it includes the time she spent with Pradip Kamat (Jaideep Ahlawat) , her classmate and girlhood crush, who has sweet memories of.

Kamat is now manager in a local bank and is both surprised and happy to see Shailaja after 28 years. Shailaja appears to have stepped into a new world she had lost within her present world as a working wife and mother, complacent within a marriage with an understanding, low-key, husband.

Shailaja is more than surprised that Kamat is happily married and a father to two growing girls. He is pleasantly surprised to meet Shailaja but feels a bit awkward when she talks about their memories together.

His cheerful and happy wife Sarika Kamat (Kadambari Kadam) is surprised to find him writing poetry, after his first meeting with Shailaja, which he never did in their 17 years of marriage. The chemistry between, and among, Shailaja, Pradip and Dipankar is graceful, delicate and subtle and they get along just fine. But we also see Shailaja wander across the countryside alone, trying to discover the nooks and corners of her girlhood days and draw out memories she is looking for.

There is a touching scene where Shailaja’s Bharat Natyam teacher who still runs her classes urging her to join the students. She does join them but when she sees Kamat resting against a pillar and watching with an amused smile on his face, Shailaja stops dancing and hides shyly behind a pillar.

Similarly touching are the scenes of togetherness between Kamat and his sweet wife who accepts Shailaja’s sudden appearance as a pleasant and welcome intrusion. Only once does one discover that Dipankar is quite peeved about his Shailaja’s sudden cheer and happiness during their visit, which he has never witnessed in Mumbai.

Kamat and her friendship with him in school is Shailaja’s attempt to grasp her sweet memories. There is also a sad memory that took her family away from the small town overnight, and she was not able to bid goodbye to Kamat.

The subtle scene of Shailaja and Kamat on the giant wheel on the beach, which his little daughter and Dipankar do not have the stomach to endure, is beautifully written, enacted and picturised. Kamat is terrified of the ride but joins her just to cheer her up. Shailaja finally says ‘sorry’ for going away without bidding goodbye and he thanks her for coming back to Vengurla again just to show that she remembers.

‘Three of Us’ is the most poignantly real film I have watched in 2023. It may be painful because it is too real. But it is beautiful too because without young romance, or song and dance, or even a villain or a comedian, ‘Three of Us’ is enriched by the powerful yet low-key performance by Shefali Shah who steps out of her ‘strong woman’ image for a change. as Shailaja, she is shy, confused, quiet, also guilty about steadily losing her memory.

The under-utlilised talent of Jaydeep Ahalawat proves once again what a powerful performer he is even in a low-key, soft role. Swanand Kirkire accepts remaining on the sidelines, but suddenly reveals his softness when he gives his wife an oil massage lovingly while talking to their son over the cell phone.

The small interchange between Shailaja and the village ‘witch’ is the only out-of-tune chord that plays a discordant note in this beautiful, orchestral symphony.

The cinematography, production design and setting does more than justice and spontaneously underscores the stark differences between the Mumbai locations where the Desais live, and the Vengurla countryside with its spacious temple grounds with ‘kirtans’ add to the mood. The insights into people who have never stepped away from Vengurla and are in touch with the others, the dance class in a hall, the sinister-looking deep village well which Shailaja visits alone to draw out her hidden ghosts, blend and overlap into one another, as if they are live and natural and spontaneous and not designed specifically for any film.

“Kal tabhi aayega jab aaj ko kheloge” is the last line of the first poem Kamat he creates after meeting Shailaja after decades. Roughly translated, it means “tomorrow will come only when today has been played through.”

‘Three of Us’ reminds us time and again, that the child inside us does not die, and is not forgotten but can surface suddenly taking us by surprise, when we think we are entirely distanced from that slice of life. It is a film that will continue to haunt you much after it is over and you carry it with you outside the theatre.