When you have two powerhouse actresses piloting a plot that leans toward a treatise on class-difference in a language that we’ve seen in Bong Joon-Ho’s overrated Parasite, you know you are in for something out of the ordinary.
Jalsa is a special film. It is more layered, provocative and evocative then the outer skin of the product would suggest. There is much going on beneath the surface than outwardly visibly. And how intellectually equipped are the two female heroes Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan to address the rush-hour traffic that the plot’s emotional velocity thrusts on them!
Balan and Shah are the kind of actors who always let us know the storms that hide their characters’ calm. I see Balan’s Maya Menon as much more messed up than she wants the world to see. Maya is a Barkha Dutta clone: an aggressive truth-sniffing star journalist grilling a supreme court judge until he pees in his pants. Well, okay. Not quite. But if Ms Menon(is she from Kerala,nothing in her accent betrays her antecedents) had her way she would make the judge wet his pants…
It’s a grim impossibly tangled situation where the well-to-do single mother and her househelp Ruksana are locked in a fight to the finish even before they know they are on opposite sides.
The conflict is bloody. The cut runs so deep you don’t see the bloodstains. As levels of class discrimination come out into the open, Jalsa becomes a celebration of a progressive nation’s lip service to class equality , not quite what the Constitution promised and certainly not what any self-respecting disempowered Muslim woman would want her life be be defined by.
Shefali Shah, is an impossibly skilled actress. Of late I had seen a smudge of smugness seep into her performance. Here in Jalsa she pulls out all stops, to give her character of the househelp Ruksana the thankless inner life that embitters her from within but nonetheless licenses her to have fun with destiny. There is a raging self-mockery in Ruksana’s attitude that is frightening and fascinating.
Ruksana’s rapport with her employee Maya Menon’s autistic son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla) is so adroitly projected, you immediately feel the boy leans more on Ruksana than on his own mom, though this is not a line of thought that director Triveni and his co-writers Prajwa Chandrashekar, Abbas Dalal and Hussain Dalal pursue too closely.
Very often in the househelp’s equation with her employers there is that patronizing democratic you-are-one-of-us attitude. Yet the househelp is never ‘one of them’. This line is sharply drawn in the scene where Maya’s mother Rukmini(Rohini Hattangadi making a charming comeback) thrusts a cuppa in Ruksana’s hands (“Maine apne haathon se banaya hai”) and “lovingly” orders her to return to work after a painful layoff.
This is the problem with Jalsa. It doesn’t push too much into the dynamics of the relationships that it so splendidly charts out. I would have liked to see more on-screen dramatic conflict between Balan and Shah, for no other reason except the selfish one to see two crafty actresses being pitched against one another. The few times when they collide the consequences are combustive.
There is a stunning sequence where the two women confront their inner demons in the kitchen, a domain that belongs to Maya but Ruksana owns by right. In this powerful sequence Ruksana has the last word.
The men, as expected are sketchy, though blessedly not hazy. Ghanshyam Lalsa as Ruksana’s husband, Mohammed Iqbal Khan as Maya’s immediate boss(and a lot more), Shrikant Mohan Yadav as a havaldar caught between his conscience and retirement plans, and the little Shafin Patel as Ruksana’s sly son leave a lasting impression.
Oh yes, newcomer Vidhatri Bandi as a young wide-eyed rookie journalist from Kerala who chances one some sticky skeletons in her boss’ closet , is so vivid in her moral confusion that it’s scary.
Jalsa is a film that shakes you. But it doesn’t go far enough. Or maybe it goes way too far for a film that aims itself at a mass audience on the streaming platform. The whole ‘Jalsa’ metaphor at the end , with the film’s title showing up 15 minutes before closing time (a homage to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese film Drive My Car) is out of league.
But before that there is much to chew on. So much to carry with us long after the end titles, which are played at the beginning. But that’s another story.