That chawl in the movie 3 Storeys, the one that is tucked away from the world and has a neat layout and nicely appointed houses? It doesn’t exist.

Arjun Mukerjee’s debut movie, which was released on March 9, consists of three storylines that are set in the Mayanagar chawl, which appears to be somewhere in south-central Mumbai. City residents who may have reached for their phones to call their real estate brokers after watching the movie will be disappointed to learn that Mayanagar is actually a huge set that was built from scratch in northeast Mumbai, producer Priya Sreedharan revealed.

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3 Storeys.

“We looked for more than six months for a chawl, and we went through 130 chawls all over Bombay,” Sreedharan said. “We were looking for something that wasn’t too modern, and that had old-style features, such as wooden railings. But those chawls are nearly extinct. Arjun did a lot of research, but we could not find the chawls we wanted.”

There was one that made the grade in Matunga, near the railway station. It had wooden railings and old-style arches. But setting up a shoot that would last many days and involve the cast and crew weaving in and out of a settled establishment would have been difficult.

“We ultimately decided not to shoot there, since we needed complete access to the chawl for at least a month,” Sreedharan said. “We were willing to move the families staying in the five houses that we wanted to use to a hotel, and we looked for empty rooms, but we realised that we would not get 24x7 access to the chawl.”

The better solution, and the one that was ultimately adopted, was to build a chawl that would not restrict the director, the crew, and the ensemble cast, which included at least a dozen main actors.

“I felt that the best thing to do would be to build a chawl, and that turned out to be best decision we took,” Sreedharan said.

The Mayanagar chawl in 3 Storeys. Image credit: Open Air Films and Excel Entertainment.
The Mayanagar chawl in 3 Storeys. Image credit: Open Air Films and Excel Entertainment.

The chawl was built at Essel Studio in Trombay, a popular location for film and television commercial crews. “We needed the right environment around the chawl, since viewers would be looking through windows and corridors,” Sreedharan said. “We wanted to get the feeling that there is this chawl and a massive city around it.” The city backdrops were filled in through visual effects.

The set took about five weeks to build. “I wanted to be sure that it was very strong – strong enough for a hundred people to be walking up and down every day and carrying tonnes of equipment,” Sreedharan said. “We had to get the electricals working. We even consulted structural engineers to make sure it was safe.”

Production designer Meenal Agarwal’s efforts extended to creating a fake ground around which the chawl’s wings are arranged. Agarwal created the interiors for seven rooms. Extra rooms were built to store equipment and house the cast and crew members between takes over the duration of the 45-day shoot.

“It really came together between Arjun, Meenal, and the cinematographer, Will Humphris,” Sreedharan said. “They were very aware that it should not look fake.”

The set had to be torn down at the end of the shoot. It took four days, and it was “heartbreaking”, Sreedharan said. “We were in tears. It had been like a home for us. We had been practically living there for a month. People had their favourite corners to go and snooze after lunch.”

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Raasleela, 3 Storeys.