Writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor continues a steady artistic climb with the use of canny, if manipulative, commercial sensibility in “3 Walls.” Kukunoor, whose debut “Hyderabad Blues” set him apart from the Bollywood crowd, revisits his interest in the city of Hyderabad in this complex tale of a trio of prisoners on death row and a documaker whose visits prove ripe with hidden agendas. Pic’s showing at the Indian Film Festival in L.A. precedes what should be a potent theatrical stint, given the star power of Naseeruddin Shah, Jackie Shroff and the screen return of Juhi Chawla.
Pic suggests growing B.O. for standard Bollywood fare may be opening new possibilities for nuanced dramas such as Kukunoor’s films. Sure to stir aud interest are talking points in “3 Walls,” from the death penalty to the rampant corruption festering in the courts, law enforcement and political circles.
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Fate is hinted at as the connection between inmates Ishaan (Shah), Nagya (Kukunoor, in front of the camera) and Jaggu (Shroff), all of whom appear to be guilty of their various murders in an opening montage. Ishaan’s ties to the other two grow stronger when he’s transferred to their Hyderabad prison, which warden Mohan (Gulshan Grover) seeks to run as humanely as possible.
Kukunoor’s script economically profiles the prison’s internal caste system, which has Jaggu, a lawyer in his former life, serving as everyone’s favorite chef, while lowly elder Seenu (Nageraj) must till the soil in the prison’s garden while serving as Mohan’s informant. An AIDS-infected prisoner (Bannerjee) who passes on his virus to another is the film’s locus for a welter of themes of social and political malfeasance.
Enter doc filmmaker Chandrika (Chawla), a bit too eager to film and interview Ishaan, Nagya and Jaggu. Though she dives into her work, Chandrika’s home life is a wreck due to an abusive husband. Indeed, “3 Walls” eventually becomes Chandrika’s story, as she carries a past grievance that loads the third act with a set of psychologically explosive charges.
Kukunoor bends and nearly breaks his story with a doozy of a twist (actually, three in one) that is ripe for outright theft by some Yank filmmaking fan of Indian cinema. Though easily accepting viewers will take the final turns in stride, the closure smacks of a desperate, showbiz move to dazzle audiences regardless of how much sense it makes.
Chawla gradually settles into a role that contains at least three different character layers to it, while Shah, in top form, leads the brawny male ensemble with a fascinating portrait of the classic trickster archetype.
The fine filmmaking package is distinguished by Ajayan Vincent’s rich, moody lensing, adding dynamic contrast to Kukunoor’s fairly standard compositions.