JALSA – Powerful and Forthright
“Jalsa”, an Urdu word, is translated into English as “rout” which means “A disorderly and tumultuous crowd; a mob; hence, the rabble; the herd of common people.”
This applies to the film both in its literary essence and in a metaphorical manner as there is really a “tumultuous crowd” celebrating the victory of the local politician who is indirectly linked to the core of the film’s story.
It also refers to the “rabble” that upsets the neatly organized lives of the two protagonists, Maya Menon and her domestic cook Ruksana sourced back to a fateful accident that places the employer and her cook on two opposite sides of the values-fence – as unwitting victimiser and equally unwitting victim.
The film opens on some playful fun between a teenage girl and a young boy on the empty overbridge of a railway station in Mumbai. The overbridge is strangely, entirely devoid of beggars, homeless vagabonds who sleep on these overbridges and not even a passer-by is in sight.
The playful camaraderie changes to an angry exchange leading to the girl running away into the streets with the boy hot on her chase. The girl is suddenly run over by a speeding car and is grievously injured, but not dead. The driver comes close and finds her bathed in blood but breathing, yet drives away, her hands trembling ceaselessly.
The scene shifts to the posh office of Maya Menon (Vidya Balan) who is known for her fierce honesty as a television journalist interviewing a judge notorious for his massive corruption who gets angered with her forthright insistence on sticking to the interview.
Cut to Maya Menon’s home, a very spacious apartment peopled by her cerebral palsy-affected, ten-year-old son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla), her aged mother Rukmini (Rohini Hattangady) and the cook Ruksana (Shefali Shah) who goes home every evening and is very attached to Ayush.
The harmonious rhythm of this ‘happy family’ picture is dangerously fragmented when we discover that the young girl in the accident is Ruksana’s daughter and the person who ran her over is none other than Maya Menon. Ruksana has no clue about this reality which Maya tries her best to brush under the carpet with her influence as a journalist and her money power which includes shifting Alia (Kashish Rizwan) from a public hospital to an expensive nursing home, which Ruksana interprets as her employer’s generosity.
We are left to question this. Is Maya spending on Alia’s expensive medical treatment because she really feels for Ruksana’s critical situation? Or, is she trying to cleanse herself of the guilt of (a) the accident she is responsible for and (b) as a way of diverting the issue from focussing on who is responsible for the accident?
Though Maya and Ruksana represent the two ends of the social ladder, through these two characters, the script, (Prajwal Chandrashekhar and Suresh Triveni) the dialogue and the storyline step into the fragility of human values among everyone ranging from the judge who was interviewed by Maya, through her boss Amar Malhotra (Mohammad Iqbal Khan), the only person she confides in about the accident and who tells her to remain silent and not try to be work on her” honesty” game, to Maya herself.
While Maya is trapped in her honesty as a journalist and her trying to play up to every trick in the book to suppress her accident which will ruin the career of Alia, Ruksana too, is caught between her mental state over her daughter and the police playing middleman to suppress the case in exchange for a hefty sum.
This reveals the rampant corruption in every single field of life – a policeman who is about to retire and is proud about his “spotlessly honest” 30-year-old career, the young policeman who is brazenly corrupt, the politician desperate to cover his son’s guilt, Jalsa stands as a sterling illustration of how values basically, cannot stand the test of the game Life begins to play suddenly without warning.
In this game, the people concerned, such as Maya Menon, her very committed intern from Kerala, Rohini George ((Vidhatri Bandi) who is determined to expose the reality of the “accident” but is stopped at every turn, Ruksana’s husband who is eager to accept the “bribe” offered not to take the case to court and pressurises his wife to accept the bribe and Amar, who, waking up to Maya’s sudden decision to confess to what has happened, promises to cut ties with her if she does this.
The four characters who are completely free of any such toppling of values are – Alia who is completely bedridden and has only gratefulness for Maya, Maya’s mother Rukmini (Rohini Hattangadi), Ruksana’s son and Maya’s cerebral palsy-afflicted son Ayush who actually function as the balancing factors and pleasant points of relief in this otherwise stress-centric film. Ayush, who has cerebral palsy in actual life, is brilliant and invests the film with an air of childish innocence and naivete even when he accuses his mother of being “weird” and she hits back at him cruelly.
The desire in Ruksana to avenge what Maya had done to her daughter does not quite fit into the quiet, reserved dignity she unfolds during the rest of the film. The director takes care not to reduce an emotional enriching experience into melodrama.
One significant touch is the police and a family friend asking Ruksana and her husband what Alia was doing at the overbridge so late in the night. A point driven by our patriarchal mindsets where people are more bothered about the hours kept by a young girl than about the terrible condition she is in. This also suggests the ignorance in the parents about the double lives their growing children lead.
What takes the film to unprecedented heights in the electrically charged performances of Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah in their unspoken silences and wordy exchanges, their subtly changing body language and their facial expressions, not to leave out every other actor in the supporting cast with a pleasant surprise in Surya Kasibhatla who is one of the most happy and cheerful physically challenged characters we have met in recent Indian cinema.
The editing is slick and polished, the cinematography (Saurabh Goswami fits neatly into the dynamically changing rhythms of the script and the production design captures with almost tangible realism, the slum-like home of Ruksana juxtaposed against the very spacious apartment of Maya, and the mechanically designed interiors of the television studio. The background score also fits into the ambience.
The closure of the film is brilliant.