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Jalsa Powerful, Probing  Look At  Suburban Class Structure




Jalsa (Amazon Prime  Video)

Starring Vidya  Balan, Shefali Shah, Vidhatri Bandi

Directed  by Suresh  Triveni

Rating: ****

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…Except that Maya Menon herself ends up committing a  crime that has her …well…wetting   her underwear.

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.


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