Jalsa Review: Vidya Balan And Shefali Shah Keep The Film On The Boil

Jalsa Review: Discount the overreach and a flaw here and a blemish there and Jalsa works just fine not only because two wonderful actresses are at their very best.

Cast: Vidya Balan, Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul

Director: Suresh Triveni

Rating: Three stars

Director and co-writer Suresh Triveni has a shot at an entire gamut of issues in Jalsa. That would have been a few too many but for the proven abilities of Vidya Balan – the lead actress of Triveni’s first film Tumhari Sulu – and Shefali Shah. The two combine magnificently to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. If some of the efforts shows, it is solely because the material the duo called upon to work with is spread too thin.

Jalsa, an Amazon original movie, is ponderous all right, but it certainly isn’t pointless. The morality versus self-preservation drama has Balan in the role of news anchor Maya Menon who prides herself on her integrity and intrepidity. Shah plays Ruksana, a maid who cooks for the journalist and takes care of the latter’s special-needs son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla, a ten-year-old child actor with cerebral palsy and one of the highlights of the film).

The film opens with a young pair of lovers on a joyride on a two-wheeler. The night ends tragically. On her way back from work in the wee hours of the morning, an exhausted Maya runs over the teenage girl and speeds away, not what one would expect a responsible, “oh-so-ethical” journalist to do.

Turns out that the girl Maya left in a pool of blood is Ruksana’s only daughter. Maya chooses not to reveal the secret to her cook even as the latter continues to be an integral part of the household and a pillar of support for Ayush and Maya’s mom (Rohini Hattangady).

As Ruksana’s daughter Alia (Kashish Rizwan) lies in a hospital battling for her life, Maya takes her boss Amar Malhotra (Mohammad Iqbal Khan) into confidence. He counsels that she let lie low until the storm blows over. But along comes an enthusiastic trainee journalist, Rohini (Vidhatri Bandi), who sets out to expose the cover-up.

The subsequent chain of events tends to take attention away from the drama of two women from two sides of the social divide grappling with conflicting emotions and serious moral questions. One has to reckon with guilt and confusion, the other with grief and helplessness.

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Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah give their roles all they have and that keeps the film on the boil despite the avoidable detours that it makes. The exploration of truth and how it dies at the altar of self-interest and money power does not get the undivided focus it requires. The approach of Jalsa is anything but overly didactic, but the film puts human foibles under the scanner and articulates a few points that make sense.

The film crams too much into its two hours. The screenplay by Prajwal Chandrashekhar and Suresh Triveni touches upon a panoply of refrains – morality, journalistic ethics, police corruption, the class divide, the challenges of being a single mother, the struggle for work-life balance and the dynamics of privilege.

Some of the buttons that the film hits are either not hit with full force or do not stay hit. The result is a palpable and frequent dilution of the film’s principal intent, which is the growing chasm between Maya and Ruksana owing to the former’s inability to come clean.

On the positive side, director Triveni deserves accolades for not succumbing to the lure of overt drama. Yes, the character of Maya Menon does suffer a couple of meltdowns especially when Ruksana is around, but with the actress playing the part being acutely aware of where to draw the line, the scenes stay within the film’s sharply modulated emotional pitch.

Especially noteworthy is the climax, which hinges on a crisis that is precipitated by an innocuous act. It assumes ominous proportions in the light of what has transpired between the journalist and her housemaid and the latter’s firm bonding with the differently-abled boy under her charge. In keeping with the control that runs through the film, the final moments, redolent with genuine emotion and beauty, are served up with remarkable restraint and efficacy.

Female-fronted Hindi films probably do not make instant news anymore because they are no longer as infrequent as they once were. Yet, one cannot but take note of the fact that Jalsa makes it a point to not only place two women at the heart of the plot but also write other significant female roles into the film. Maya’s mother – Rohini Hattangady making the most of limited screen time – registers her presence in no uncertain terms and serves as a voice of prudence even when matters threaten to go out of hand.

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Moreover, the young journalist (played remarkably well by Vidhatri Bandi) who poses a threat to Maya with her youthful earnestness is accorded a fair amount of space in the story. She brings out a dimension of news-gathering that throws light on how the business of truth works in a highly competitive and malleable environment and also underlines the struggles of those who have to travel away from their remote hometowns in search of work in the country’s big cities.

For cinematographer Saurabh Goswami, Jalsa has two distinct spaces to explore. On one hand there are the well-ordered, swanky environs of Maya Menon’s office and home and the bright lights of Mumbai. On the other, are the street-level views and the dark crannies of the city as well as the unvarnished, messy homes of the underclass that serves the city’s middle class and elite.

Overall, Jalsa has things to say and important subjects to probe. It is another matter that it, in the process, somewhat overburdens itself with matters that do not organically belong here.

Discount the overreach and a flaw here and a blemish there and Jalsa works just fine not only because two wonderful actresses are at their very best – if one were to compare, however odious that might be, but Shefali Shah also has her

nose ahead in the race – but also because it opts for and sticks to a storytelling style that steadfastly eschews shrillness notwithstanding the film’s inherently prickly and emotive plot points.

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