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Jalsa movie review: Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah are terrific in this edgy thriller on morality and motherhood

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Jalsa movie review: Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah are terrific in this edgy thriller on morality and motherhood


Jalsa is director Suresh Triveni’s second film with Vidya Balan. The two previously worked together on the 2017 hit Tumhari Sulu. The film premieres on Amazon Prime today in India and 240 other countries and territories across the world.

Jalsa movie review: Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah are terrific in this edgy thriller on morality and motherhood
Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah’s Jalsa is the kind of rare thriller in which the most pivotal event happens within the first 25 minutes. However, unlike Sriram Raghavan’s 2015 film Badlapur, it is a lot more than a philosophical revenge drama. The hit-and-run accident is just the starting point, the opening of a can so full of worms that they continue to spill even onto the last frame.
Jalsa is Suresh Triveni’s second Bollywood feature film. His first, the much-loved 2017 domestic drama Tumhari Sulu, was also headlined by Balan. However, Jalsa has a lot more in common with Balan’s other memorable outing, the sleek 2013 crime thriller No One Killed Jessica than it does with Tumhari Sulu. But this time around, the tables have turned. Balan is the journalist. She is the one wielding power. The kind that makes retired justices with dubious credentials nervous during live television interviews, makes her hoardings feature prominently in public spaces, and makes trainee journalists look up to her with stars in their eyes.
Her Maya Menon is the star—of her life and her channel WRD. She calls the shots both at work and at home which she shares with her mother and her 10-year-old son Ayush, a child with cerebral palsy. However, as hard as she may try, within the first 30 minutes, her life, much like a pack of cards, begins to come undone.
Jalsa is also a rare film in the way it juxtaposes two starkly different worlds through its two central women. One that’s rich, affluent, and powerful through Balan’s Maya. The other with all the grime, sweat, and toil through her cook, Shah’s Ruksana. As disparate as their worlds might be, the two women invariably share a lot in common. They are both proud working mothers, both stubborn, opaque, and both groping, trying to find some sense of semblance somewhere between black and white.
Both Balan and Shah are terrific as Maya and Ruksana, respectively. They hardly have any scenes together in the film but the two that they do are so brilliant, they make you question why it took so long to bring together actors as transcendental as them. The first happens around half-time. Set inside Maya’s kitchen, it’s so fraught with tension, you worry something or someone might explode. They are both hiding their truths and yet each wants to know what the other does. They are looking to vent out but they don’t know how to and so the gas stove becomes the excuse. Watch out for this scene. It’s arguably one of the most well-done—written, staged, choreographed, and performed—in recent memory.
The closing sequence is the second. The build-up to it is so intense, you wonder if you’d get a satisfactory release. The chances look grim. You can feel your breath, the time passing, your hold on your seat getting tighter. Shot in the dark, it has no dialogues. Just Maya calling out hopelessly as an impassive Ruksana sits on a rock at the beach, looking at the black sea.
Life is a lot about what happens to us but it is more about what we do with all that comes our way. It’s about conflicts we are faced with and the choices we make. Jalsa deftly treads the thin line between the two, blurring it all along. Triveni also deserves a special shout-out for not being lazy or unthinking about his portrayal of the sharp class divide. Ruksana’s son doesn’t use the same bed as Ayush during a sleepover, but he doesn’t sleep on the floor either. The two boys play video games together as equals. Ruksana is offered tea in the same mug as everyone else. Ayush even picks up a fight with his mother when she unfairly accuses Ruksana. Triveni’s gaze is full of dignity and the kind of sensitivity that includes, not others.
Jalsa is also rare in the way R Balki’s 2009 comedy-drama Paa was not. As much as I love the film and as much of a “casting coup” it was, it had Amitabh Bachchan play a child afflicted with progeria. Mercifully, Triveni makes no such mistake. Instead of hiring an able-bodied actor to play Ayush, Triveni has cast Surya Kasibhatla, a 10-year-old Indian-American from Texas who has cerebral palsy since birth. Now that’s a casting coup we’ve been long waiting for. Kasibhatla is delightful as Ayush.
Triveni’s Jalsa is as much about motherhood as it is about morality. Much like Tumhari Sulu, it brilliantly taps into the gamut of emotions that working mothers feel every day—guilt at their child’s slightest inconvenience in their absence, for not being around, insecurity when they get closer to their regular caregivers, and always trying to make up for the lost time.
As much as we may plan and organize, we can never anticipate how a jalsa would pan out, even if we are the ones hosting it. So many independent, unconnected elements are at play, each with their own story, shortcomings, and agendas that things often spiral out of control. Triveni’s Jalsa is just the same. At no point, you can tell with any surety what would happen next. Moreover, at no jalsa is everyone celebrating. This is the story of the ones who are not.
Read other movie reviews by Sneha Bengani here
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