Much as one might like to assume, menage a trois in cinema has not quite inspired Shlok Sharma in his latest outing, a film that flaunts its three lead players in the title itself—Two Sisters and a Husband. When I draw his attention to Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona, Sharma confesses that he doesn’t watch too many films. He likes to find his stories in life and has learnt the art and craft of narrating them while on the sets, honing his skills as an assistant director with Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap as his mentors.

He swerves the conversation to the real, pointing out that his work so far has drawn from people, relationships, situations, and incidents that he has himself been witness to. So does Two Sisters and a Husband that will have its world premiere in the international narrative competition at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in June. The film has a tangled situation at its core—a woman bearing the child of a man who is married to her own sister. The human toll is undoubtedly immense. The irrepressible Amrita (Manya Grover) who has been in love with Rajat (Dinker Sharma) turns bitter, resentful, and enraged when he is driven into marrying her own elder sister Tara (Avani Rai). Things come to a head when she gets pregnant, and the trio move to the mountains to set base for their unusual familial arrangement. Rajat gets a job in a local hotel owned by a royal heir Bhed Singh (Himanshu Kohli) with a Norman Bates like attachment to his dead mother. Despite ten months into the pregnancy, Amrita can’t seem to deliver the baby, Tara gets more and more withdrawn and misinterprets her own growing bond with her therapist.

In his childhood Sharma had known such a family at close hand—two sisters married in the same household, one of them with a young son. He didn’t understand much about the complicated situation back then. “Later, when I grew up, I looked back and tried to join the dots. I wondered how they would be living together. Would he be staying with one sister one day and the other the next?” says Sharma.

He wrote the first draft of the story back in 2013, immediately after shooting Haraamkhor. He had titled it Ijaazat back then. The perennially excitable Sharma had been much celebrated for having written Haraamkhor in merely three days and having shot it in 16. But he decided to take his own good time on Two Sisters and a Husband. “I would have written a minimum of five to six drafts along with my writer Shilpa Srivastava. I gave myself time. We decided to tell the story well and not do it in a hurry,” says Sharma. Once the film was complete, he even showed it to many directors, including Abhishek Chaubey and Suresh Triveni to get their inputs. “It always helps improve, especially with the future films,” he says.

The film was originally meant to have been shot in March 2020, just as COVID 19 had begun to spread across the world. It was finally wrapped up in the same year in October in Roorkee and Nainital. The novelty of the film lies in the new faces in the lead. Amrita’s role was offered to two other actors who couldn’t commit to it. “In hindsight it proved to be for the best. Manya (Grover) has performed very well in the film,” says Sharma, of the actor who he had worked with earlier for a montage in an ad. “She has an innocence and a genuineness about her,” he adds.

The casting of photographer-filmmaker Avani Rai as Tara was a brainchild of the co-writer Srivastava. “As a documentary filmmaker Avani is someone who has travelled so much, she has always been very close to reality. I knew she would be able to understand Tara very well. Someone like her would respond very differently to the situation [than a professional actor],” says Sharma. When he had written the film in 2013, he had thought of Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rajat, a role which has now been played by Dinker Sharma, previously seen in Guilty Minds and 83.

He thinks that the expressive Amrita is like his writer Srivastava, whereas the silent, reclusive but responsible Tara, who has seen her father’s loneliness and pain and fears being lonely herself, is someone that he himself feels one with. Rajat is an escapist, running away from situations in life. Amrita even asks him how long they can keep running away, when will they find their own route and a balance in life.

It’s this twistedness in the human condition that appears to reach out to Sharma far more compellingly than the straight and the regular. One of his early shorts Sujata in the anthology Shorts (2013) was all about a girl driven to the extreme because of an abusive cousin. Haraamkhor (2017) went into a taboo zone—a middle-aged teacher’s romance with his underaged teen student. Zoo, India’s first feature shot entirely with iPhone 6s was about interlinked stories set in varied spaces and segments of society in Mumbai. Quite ironic that these off-kilter ideas should be coming from someone who is regarded in the industry as a “soft-spoken, decent, cultured”, in other words a “regular” guy.

Sharma thinks that even a mainstream film like Hum Aapke Hain Kaun deals with something unusual—the younger sister marrying (almost) her brother-in-law on her sister’s death, though she is in love with his brother. HAHK sees it with a normal lens, frames love within the ideas of duty and sacrifice. “But it can’t be so normal. Such stories really attract me. I like to go deep into them. I enjoy telling these tales,” he says.

Sharma thinks that as a society we are very judgmental. His aim is to avoid that pitfall. “I like observing the behaviour of people, but I don’t like to judge them. It’s the same with the characters in my film,” he says. They might take a wrong stand on many things, but you are still able to relate to them. Creating such personae is his perpetual quest as a filmmaker, he asserts, as he begins working on his next—pivoting on a mother-daughter relationship—while looking forward to how the world would greet Amrita, Tara and Rajat when Two Sisters and a Husband gets unveiled in New York.

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By akagami