Suresh Triveni’s ‘Jalsa’ has Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah in a solid thriller that’s more existential than explosive

Posted on March 27, 2022

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Spoilers ahead…

The director’s most brilliant touch is in keeping the film and its characters at a distance. Despite the occasional rays of warmth, the narrative stays icy.

jalsa

In Jalsa, Suresh Triveni takes the most explosive material – material that’s readymade for a dan-dan-dan score – and does two things: he takes out most of the material that could cause the explosion, and to whatever’s left, he puts in a long fuse, a really really long fuse. The story begins with an accident and already the explosiveness of the incident has been replaced with a dash of existentialism. Whose fault is it? The girl who lied to her mother? The boy who tried to feel her up, and is later framed by a shaking camera that completes the what-the-hell-just-happened feel of the situation? The driver of the car who hit the victim? Or the fear that makes us mere mortals? The driver of the car unbuckles the seatbelt to get out and help the victim and a thought-process later, drives away.

Jalsa is a film about many things, and one of them is class: it subverts the easy notion that all rich people are “bad” and the rest are “good”. Money is everything, the film says at times – anyone can be bought. Note how the victim’s mother presses her husband to negotiate a better deal as a “settlement”. It’s not that she doesn’t love her child, now in a hospital. It’s just that an opportunity has presented itself, and she thinks: Why the fuck should I be a “noble” Hindi-film mother, hung up on conscience and principles? Why the fuck should I not make use of this opportunity? This is terrific writing. You don’t have to apologise for your grey shades. A moneyed woman takes a long (and spectacularly staged) walk through the corridors of a government hospital – it’s one of the best depictions of class I’ve seen in the movies. Not a word is spoken, yet so much is said.

It’s hard to say anything more concrete about the story, so let’s take a look at the characters. Vidya Balan – in a brilliantly internalised performance – is the anchor of a television show that’s all about exposing the truth. Her name is Maya. The name usually connotes something illusory (like in Maya Memsaab, or the Nadira character in Shree 420), but here, it’s a hundred percent reality. It’s the reality of – among other things – having a showdown with your mother (a magnificent Rohini Hattangady) because you need to scream like the hard rock you listen to, and let it all out.

Jalsa, thus, is actually a character study. At one point (Maya is as shocked by the accident as we are), she looks like she is going to maybe embrace the victim’s mother. (They have a long history.) But she just presses the woman’s shoulder and walks out. Is she a cold person? Or is she processing something and therefore shutting everything and everyone out, so she can give herself the time to process that something? There are children in this film (one of them a developmentally challenged boy), and their mothers worry about their studies, about school. These aspects cut across class, as does the rationale that real life is more complicated than in the movies. A cop’s daughter’s wedding, a junior reporter’s house-hunt, the person who discovers the accident- causing car –all these seeds are planted early and grow into money-bearing trees. Doing the right thing is not as lucrative as doing the thing that is right for you.

The other major character, Rukhsana, is played by Shefali Shah. It took me a while to buy her as a lower-middle-class woman. There’s an inborn imperiousness on her face and she says words like “insurance” with a convent accent. But as the film goes by, she worms her way into your heart with some spectacular scenes. At several moments, the film reminded me of Parasite, another genre take on class. Slowly, the arcs of the two women change: the cold one becomes warm, the warm one turns cold. Truth has a way of changing how you look at life. Jalsa is a fine film… till the last few scenes. I wish they had been crueller. That would have gone better with the cynical nature of the screenplay. The reality we have seen so far turns into a bit of a fantasy. Maybe the director said, After all, no one is fully guilty nor fully innocent? So why not go with this ending? And yet, I found it too… easy.

But Jalsa shows how difficult it is to be a working mother, and at the end, the mothers are still working – they are working out their feelings, their emotions. The lack of closure feels just right, because who knows how long these mothers will have to keep working out their emotions. Suresh Triveni’s most brilliant touch is in keeping the film and its characters at a distance. Despite the occasional rays of warmth, the narrative stays icy. We don’t exactly embrace these characters. We stand back and observe them, like specimens under a microscope. Like I said, this could have been an explosive thriller. But by tamping down the thrills, we get a story that reflects the many complexities of life – at least, as much as possible in a genre movie. The film invites you to put yourself in the shoes of any or all of its characters and ask: What would I do?

Copyright ©2022 Baradwaj Rangan.