Tumhari Sulu  director reunites with Balan to dole out another emotionally gripping story.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
For a cinema that largely thrives on escapism, often gloating about leaving-your-brain-behind, Indian films will odd titles can get to the no-brainer audience’s goat. 18 March saw two marquee Hindi film releases. One theatrical, the other on a premier video streaming platform. They are titled Bachchhan Paandey  and Jalsa , respectively. But neither of them has anything to do with the legend Amitabh Bachchan or his residence, named Jalsa. The former is for the masses, while the latter is looking to catch the imagination of the sophisticated OTT audience. Director Suresh Triveni reunites with his Tumhari Sulu actor Vidya Balan to produce another emotionally gripping film.
Gulabo Sitabo , Super Deluxe  are some recent examples of odd titles. Much like the latter, Jalsa, too, takes its time to justify its title. This title (meaning celebration) is perhaps odd for a film that drives around a hit-and-run case. Talk of hit-and-run and the infamous 2002 case of superstar Salman Khan springs to mind. However, in this fictitious drama, the person behind the wheel is no allegedly drunk superstar, but a popular digital media journalist Maya Menon [Vidya Balan]. Salman Khan, his fans and social media army needn’t see any red. The hit-and-run drama in Jalsa  bypasses the moral speed brake. It would be appropriate to tag this film into the moral drama genre, which is barely seen in Hindi films.
In 1999, when yours truly was undergoing driving class, he was posed a hypothetical question by the instructor, “What will you do, if you mow down someone?” I paused for a moment before replying, “What else, report to the police and quickly take the victim to the hospital”. I thought I gave the morally correct answer but to my shock, the instructor chided, “Are you mad? If ever this happens you simply run away from the accident scene. Leave the dying to die, but save the life [driver] that can be saved”. I was confused by this talk, but the instructor pointed out how legal system in this country will screw both the victim and the offender. I could never really master driving. Thankfully, Mumbai roads are safe with one less driver, but the pedestrian in me is still vulnerable. All it takes is one moment of rash driving or callous commuter etiquettes.
Jalsa throws up the moral argument leaving the viewers to decide on the choice that the protagonist Maya Menon makes. It gets complicated once Menon discovers the identity of the victim that makes it more personal for the popular journalist.
Writer Prajwal Chandrashekhar’s story also whips up the class divide, sense of entitlement. No matter how much they care, but the gulf between the haves and have-nots only gets wider. The class divide, elitism was ripped open from its flesh in Academy Award winning film Parasite . That bloodied scene is still fresh in our minds. There’s the rich man screaming at his driver to hurry up and take his little daughter who has just suffered a seizure to hospital but the elite Korean is least bothered about the bleeding, dying daughter of his driver. One of the defining moments of Jalsa is when Rukhsana Mohammad [Shefali Shah], the household cook-maid, scolds her own son for being disrespectful to her employer’s disabled child Ayush Menon [Surya Kasibhatla]. It proves her unflinching loyalty to her employer. But is such loyalty often rewarded, reciprocated? Not quite in Jalsa!
The class entitlement aside, Jalsa also turns the table on the news breakers. We live in times of partisan media where some shamelessly run an ideological narrative in the garb of fourth estate. How do they react when the newsmaker become the news? Maya Menon is no hyper nationalist editor-in-chief but prior to this accident, she was near perfectionist both at work and home, where she is more like a helicopter single mother. She can be harsh with her words, not afraid to offend bigwigs but also her family. Maya shares a bittersweet relationship with her mother Rukmini [Rohini Hattangady]. This accident has turned Maya into this vulnerable, fearful, spiteful woman. The angry outbursts, nervous energy threaten to turn her into a villain in this story. All these emotions though break that invincibility, infallible shield that many editor-in-chiefs believe comes with their brand, authority. Balan aces the vulnerability, various emotions of Maya to a nicety.
That intensity is matched, in fact bettered by Shefali Shah. Rukhsana is a shining example of loyalty. A servant who will stick by her master through every thick and thin, and not seeking any reciprocity. She perhaps cares for the wellbeing of Ayush more than her own children. Slavery is long abolished, but class divide is such where often employee loyalty is not reciprocated. What kind of saint beings are those who wouldn’t mind placing their life and the lives of their beloved below that of their employer and his/her family? Is this modern-day slavery?
Jalsa exposes the hypocrisy of the media, but it doesn’t resort to any media bashing. In fact, the film draws a certain empathy for the media. This empathy stems from the young journalist Rohini George [Vidhatri Bandi], who is shaken by the truth of this accident but is shackled by economic constraint and idol worship. It’s surprising that a new comer to the organization takes it upon herself to investigate the accident when her employer Maya hasn’t even given her approval. Insubordination or plain hunger for journalism? Rohini though largely bears a pensive look on her face. There is no thought given on who are her sources. Director Triveni follows the age-old journalistic principle – source is sacrosanct. Jitteriness is not a trait that one would associate with a young journalist covering general or crime beat. Rohini looks weary all the time making you question her efficiency. Maybe, she is poker-faced.
The search for truth is often a lone battle, but suppression of justice requires many hands. As often, the role of the police, the initial investigation plays a vital part. Triveni’s investigating cops Pradeep K [Ghanshyam Lalsa] and More [Shrikant Mohan Yadav] are no corrupt cops per se, but suppressing the truth here will also save them the blushes. Their reason though is not strong enough, unless it is pure greed. It’s their actions that brings a local corporator Ramnik Bhai [Vijay Nikam] into the picture, and it his upcoming birthday that justifies the film’s title. While Nikam is always a quality actor, maybe Triveni has overstretched his trail.
What’s consistent though is the intense, gripping performances by most of the cast. Balan, Shah lead the way but child artiste Surya Kasibhatla impresses as the disabled child of Maya. Not just the stress but Kasibhatla emotes the feisty jovial spirit of his disabled character very finely.
Jalsa shines for its engaging screenplay, astute direction, fine dialogues [Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal], and intense performances. The climax is tension filled, leaving you fearing for the worst. In the end, it’s not the have but the have-not that takes the moral stand.
Co-produced by Abundantia Entertainment, T-Series, Jalsa is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer below.