Dir. Naganesh Kukunoor
Maybe it's just the character that Naseeruddin Shah plays – the charming criminal with a penchant for poetry and philosophical ponderings – that gives 3 Deewarein the feel of Ishqiya if Isqhiya were not a comedy. It starts off as a sensitive story about the soft, chewy center of hardened criminals. Then, it takes a rather masala turn and becomes an entertaining sort of thriller.
3 Deewarein is composed of disparate elements that hang together as the movie takes you down the garden path. It focuses on three men, all convicted of murder, from different strata of life. The three men are interviewed by Chandrika (Juhi Chawla), a reporter making a documentary film about the experience of facing execution. Chandrika seems to approach these men with naïve sensitivity and a great deal of affection. Jaggu (Jackie Shroff) is wealthy, cosmopolitan, suave and poetic, but resigned to his capital sentence, and remorseful. He is accused of stabbing his knife upon suspicion she was having an affair. Nagya (Nagesh Kukunoor), a middle-class man, is slight and sullen, vehement in his belief in the system and in his own innocence. He is presumed to have pushed his nagging wife into oncoming traffic.
The third man, Ishaan (Naseeruddin Shah), is the most breezy and fatalistic of the three. Ishaan shot and killed a bank clerk during a robbery gone wrong. He doesn't acknowledge any remorse, perhaps doesn't even acknowledge any responsibility for the killing. He is, while affable, thoroughly detached. This utter absence of connection doesn't stop Chandrika from apparently falling for him, and she helps him plan and pull off an escape from the prison on the eve of his execution.
I say “apparently” because Chandrika is not what she seems; 3 Deewarein's most interesting aspect is the shifting layers of deception between Chandrika and the rest of the world, as she perpetrates the falsehood of the documentary project and tries to convince her friends - perhaps even herself, for a while - that her marriage is happy. The movie's change of tone comes with the revelation of her true motivations, with respect to both the documentary and the marriage. Even in the shift from arty psychological study to gritty thriller, though, 3 Deewarein retains a focus on performance. There is a limit to how consistent the characters can remain through such a transition. Chandrika's reaction to her husband's emotional abuse – a long-delayed reaction, a pressure-cooker release after what seems to be years of submissive toleration – is the first sign of what lies beneath the surface of this mild, seemingly unsophisticated woman. It is also a disproportionate reaction, hinting that Chandrika is not merely savvier than she seems, but possibly also unhinged.
That is a lot of range to demand out of an actor, and Juhi Chawla is up to the task, adding a touch of masala in the film's final third that contributes to the tonal transition. Though she comes right up to the ledge, Chawla never completely goes over the top, and this touch of restraint even when the script, and her character, come unglued is what makes the film hers; the mild, deferential version of Chandrika risks getting lost in the drama of the murderers' stories. The other actors are mostly understated and less rangy; Nagesh Kukunoor focuses his own character in the space of sullen defiance, and Jackie Shroff carries his remorse very effectively in his heavy body, in drooped shoulders and a faraway gaze. Only Naseeruddin Shah seems to have phoned it in, rendering the same charming rogue he has offered so frequently of late, in the Ishqiya films and Nagesh Kukunoor's Iqbal and even in 7 Khoon Maaf. That it isn't Shah's rangiest or most challenging performance, however, doesn't make it less entertaining to watch; the charm of that character works just as well on the audience as it does on those around him. And the film's climax shows that while that kind of charisma can help a man like Ishaan talk himself out of scrapes, it doesn't provide more than a superficial shield from the terrible consequences of his bad actions.