3 Storeys: How to Break the Bollymom Stereotype

Pop Culture

3 Storeys: How to Break the Bollymom Stereotype

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the one defining trait of Nandini Raichand (Jaya Bachchan) that remained indelibly etched in our collective memory was her ability to invoke her superpowers as the matriarch, and correctly deduce the arrival time of her elder son, mid-festivities. Nandini’s existence revolves around being utterly devoted to her sons and being willingly shackled by tradition to hold her husband and his egotistical decisions as absolute.

Similarly in Om Shanti Om, Bela Makhija (Kirron Kher), the OTT mother of a lowly extra Om Prakash Makhija (Shah Rukh Khan) vehemently believes that her son is destined to be the next superstar. Like Nandini, Bela, and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s Lajjo (Farida Jalal), mothers in Bollywood over the decades have come bearing precise duties.

They’re supposed to be the cloying purveyors of ghar ka khana and sanskaar, the ones who stand quietly in the background while their husbands yell, before smoothing things over with a timely cup of chai. Or, they’re the white sari-clad widows who spend decades in mourning, bereft of any identity without their spouse. Forget the Bechdel Test – which all these women are primed to fail – they don’t even have an identity beyond, say, “Mrs Kapoor” or “Rohan ki maa”.

This is precisely where Arjun Mukherjee’s impressive debut, 3 Storeys, breaks new ground by highlighting the burden of mothers who have been conditioned to sacrifice and be silenced, intertwining it with the disastrous results it has on their kids. Set in a claustrophobic Mumbai chawl, the film offers us a peek into lives of residents who live on the different floors of the Mayanagar chawl unravelling the secrets that they’ve kept hidden for years. All the three stories are tied by a common thread: They all centre the messy complexities of the mothers who make up the beating heart of the chawl.

We first meet Flory Mendonca (Renuka Shahane), an eccentric widowed landlady, who after years of trying to rent her overpriced flat, finally finds a tenant in a polished yuppie migrant. What makes Auntie Flory’s arc all the more arresting is her tragic past, a result of her own doing. Introduced as an outspoken nightie-clad Goan woman, she lives independently and deals in business, often with sharp-tongued competence.

All the three stories are tied by a common thread: They all centre the messy complexities of the mothers who make up the beating heart of the chawl.

But as the flashback soon attests, Flory, like many Bollywood moms, was a staunch defender of her son’s many transgressions at school, within the chawl, and later, in his adult life. Anton was the typical maa da laadla, a trope usually easily associated with a tearful Kirron Kher rather than Shahane in a grey bob. Although Flory’s flashback is ostensibly about Anton, what makes her mom act stand out in the sea of Bollymoms, is the fact that her past is also a portrait of her own journey of delusion and disillusionment, laying bare the sins of the son and the mother blending together like their shared DNA. Despite his transgressions, Flory is forced by her unconditional love for her son to not school him, and instead protect him even after his death at the cost of committing a crime.

In becoming a creepy caricature of the doting motherhood gone too far, Mukherjee presents the ills of conditioning mothers to assume the role of silent spectators.

In the second tale, we meet Masumeh Makhija’s Varsha, a young mother trapped in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic husband and a young son. She is the KJo princess who had her fairytale ending snatched from her, owing to a misunderstanding with her boyfriend and the parental pressure of settling down. Trouble ensues when her past lover resurfaces in the same chawl, and as they reconnect, it becomes apparent that her sacrifice of giving in to an arranged marriage will be her undoing.

On the surface, the final story plays out like yet another ill-fated romance between young lovers of different religion, but it soon becomes clear that the main conflict is really between the teenage runaways’ mothers. Contrary to the assumptions of both their children and the audience, their objection to the union had nothing to do with an interfaith marriage. The underlying reason is much more sinister. In an attempt to save her dying husband many years ago, the girl’s mother had been forced to make a decision whose repercussions would echo for decades – linking the young couple’s destinies – while the boy’s mother stood by in silence. Both women enact a funhouse-mirror form of wifely diligence that only serves to burden their children.

Just like Karma Devi, the matriarch of the Singh family in Gurgaon who chose a drastic step to let out her repressed anger after years of deafening obedience, the three mothers of 3 Storeys, become an unflinching portrait of the perils of tradition that keeps a leash on their survival. These mothers live within the cracks that remain oft-hidden, crawling into light to expose the reality of Indian motherhood, in all its damaged glory.