Jalsa movie review: Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah light up a story of class, happenstance and the human conscience

Half the battle for Jalsa was won when Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah were roped in to share screen space.

Anna MM Vetticad March 18, 2022 09:16:29 IST


Language: Hindi  

Maya Menon is a prominent journalist whose public image revolves around her integrity, in writer-director Suresh Triveni’s Jalsa. She is not faking her honesty, but she could perhaps be justifiably accused of what a character in Amit V Masurkar’s Newton observed about that film’s eponymous protagonist in these words: “Do you know what your problem is? … Your problem is your pride in your honesty.” 

What happens when a person who has built a career on her uprightness makes a fatal error? In Maya’s case, a simple twist of fate combined with a momentary lapse of conscience leads to disastrous consequences that threaten to have a domino effect on her life. 

Maya [played by Vidya Balan] is a successful, well-to-do professional and single parent of a child with severe physical challenges. Her son Ayush Menon [Surya Kasibhatla] is surrounded by the love of his busy yet caring mother, his stay-at-home grandmother Rukmini [Rohini Hattangady], their doting domestic help Ruksana Mohammad [Shefali Shah] and a father (Manav Kaul) who, according to Maya’s description of him, occasionally surfaces to be with the boy. Ayush clearly considers Ruksana far more than just an employee. 

To all appearances, the Menons are not as class conscious as most Indians are. Chances are that they would all tell you they consider Ruksana a part of the family. Stress, however, has a tendency to reveal people’s true colours, whether positive or negative, and so it is that Maya, Ayush and Rukmini’s varying responses to a traumatic period for this poor woman expose each one’s actual feelings for her.

Jalsa is not about social disparities and human relationships alone though. It is thematically an unslottable film that is not specifically about anything yet is about everything, ranging from class differences to happenstance and the call of the human conscience – in short, it is about life itself. 

With respect to the latter theme, Jalsa is almost a companion piece to the lovely Malayalam film Kaanekkaane starring Suraj Venjaramoodu, Tovino Thomas and Aishwarya Lekshmi released last year, both showcasing how seemingly good or at least not-terrible human beings are capable of terrible deeds when their scruples betray them momentarily – driven either by shock, panic and fear, rage, a desire for vendetta or even fatigue. 

Blended into this mix in Jalsa is the role of coincidence in our existence and the possibility that there is only a few degrees of separation between us and every other human being. 

Hindi cinema has dealt with quirks of fortune more than once in recent years, arguably most memorably in Sriram Raghavan’s audacious black comedy Andhadhun [2018] and Anurag Kashyap’s unfortunately little-known Ugly  [2014], a heart-rending tragedy. The element of chance in Jalsa makes it intriguing, fleetingly amusing and in totality, both illuminating and sobering.   

The mood in Jalsa is so sombre, the tension so palpable and an intricate chain of circumstances unspool at such a rapid pace that it is hard to believe Suresh Triveni earlier made the sunny, sweetly funny Vidya Balan-starrer Tumhari Sulu [2017, Hindi]. Jalsa is far removed from that film in terms of tone and atmosphere. 

The direction, the story and screenplay by Prajwal Chandrashekar and Triveni himself with dialogues by Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal, and Shiv Kumar Panicker’s editing effectively create a nervous strain in the narrative. The sense of unrelenting disquiet in Jalsa is enhanced by its apparent quietness and Saurabh Goswami’s fly-on-the-wall cinematography – the stark visuals sometimes literally served in CCTV form – with a palette ruled by black and grey. 

Sound designer Anthony B Jayaruban knows the power of silences as much as voices and noise. His clever soundscape along with the use of Gaurav Chatterji’s grim background score make every moment in Jalsa count.  

To some extent, Jalsa is challenging viewing since missing a second, especially in the second half and in the opening scenes, could lead to confusion. I cannot comment on whether the technology available to the Indian police is as advanced as what we are shown here, but it does lead to a string of developments and flukes that illustrate how our most carefully constructed facades, lies and plans are vulnerable to the arbitrariness of the cosmos and the force of the human conscience. 

Having said that, knowing what we do of the way the rich and the mighty behave in real life, one of Maya’s decisions in the climax feels improbable for a woman in her position and even unnecessary for the larger point being made in the film. This is the one place where the writing team of Jalsa seems over-eager to make us believe in the human species. 

Half the battle for Jalsa was won when Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah were roped in to share screen space. Balan has the ability to transport a viewer into the universe of her emotions, but rarely has she done so as thoroughly as in Jalsa, playing off Shah’s completely unself-conscious rendition of the distraught, progressively bitter Ruksana. 

Jalsa movie review Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah light up a story of class happenstance and the human conscience

Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan in Jalsa

It has always been a wonder why the Hindi film industry, headquartered in cosmopolitan Mumbai, has remained so fixated on people of north Indian origin and the majority religious community. Jalsa, with its ensemble of actors and characters, range of Hindi accents and mix of religious identities is a far truer representation of this city’s social composition than most Hindi cinema. That it does so without any drum rolls about each individual’s background, minus caricatures and stereotypes is unexpected and special. 

Balan and Shah have the benefit of being surrounded by talented, precisely chosen artistes. Heaven bless whoever decided that Ayush’s Nani cannot be played by anyone other than Rohini Hattangady. The veteran actor fashions Rukmini into a woman who is impossible to hate even when she betrays a flash of hateful classism, just as she and Ayush find it impossible to hate Balan’s Maya even when she is cruel to them in the way human beings tend to be cruel to those they love most in moments of great anger and/or anxiety. 

Suresh Triveni and his team do not judge – they simply observe and recount [even if Maya, as a woman of privilege, has the impertinence to judge her seemingly diffident young colleague Rohini George].

In a bouquet of talents, the other inspired acting choices are Vidhatri Bandi playing Rohini, with the actor allowing her youthful confusion, her character’s Malayali Hindi and body language to be just so but no more; and Surya Kasibhatla as Ayush. 

On his website, Surya writes that he has “Cerebral Palsy by birth. That has impacted my ability to walk and speak clearly. I have speech impairment, but I can still speak three languages…” He could add: “Critics say I am a brilliant actor.” After the incredible Abuli Mamaji in Nikhil Pherwani’s Ahaan [2021, Hindi], here again is an indicator that Hindi cinema is maturing at a faster pace than its most formulaic producers would have us believe; and a reminder that in the field of acting, there are perhaps few substitutes for the lived experience. 

The casting of Surya is just one of multiple reasons why Jalsa is an unusual Hindi film worth celebrating. 

Jalsa is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

Rating: ****

Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial 

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