Director: Suresh Triveni
Writer: Prajwal Chandrashekar, Suresh Triveni, Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal
Cast: Vidya Balan, Shefali Shah, Rohini Hattangadi, Surya Kasibhatla, Manav Kaul, Kashish Rizwan, Shafeen Patel, Vidhatri Bandi, Mohammad Iqbal Khan, Ghanshyam Lalsa, Shrikant Mohan Yadav, Junaid Khan
Cinematographer: Saurabh Goswami
Editor: Shivkumar V. Panicker
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Irrespective of the identity of those involved, a hit-and-run is defined by a skewed power dynamic. It's not just that a vehicle is bigger and faster than a human. The driver causes the accident, but chooses to be irresponsible about it. The victim is left for dead. In that isolated moment, the driver becomes the oppressor and the victim, the marginalized. The moment is completed by one choosing to unsee the other – and escape. In Suresh Triveni's Jalsa, the names are an extension of this dynamic. The woman behind the wheel is Maya Menon; the girl she hits is Alia Mohammed. Alia, as it turns out, is the 18-year-old daughter of Maya's long-time cook, Ruksana. They might be one big family in Maya's posh apartment, but blood tends to be thicker than the water under secular bridges.
Yet, the film isn't blatant about its social commentary. There's a matter-of-factness about the whole thing. The chasm in class is inherent to the world we see. But there's no denying that faith – cultural, political – determines the fate of its people. Maya uses her privilege to cover up her tracks; her guilt, however, has no religion. Maya also uses that privilege to assuage her guilt by getting Alia the best medical care; her conscience, however, has no price. As a result, Jalsa resists the temptation of turning the narrative into a battle of wits and India(s). I can imagine a more mainstream film framing Maya's conflict as more of an external one – versus underdog Ruksana – for the sake of stylish feminist thrills.
Instead, Jalsa stays rooted in the trials and tribulations of civic structure. On its surface, it's designed as a tense anti-procedural. You root for truth and justice, only to realize that it's never as clean-cut as that. The beauty of the film lies in its shedding of the binary. A city like Mumbai doesn't allow for an arc of unfiltered idealism or opportunism. There is no strong and weak, good and bad; every person exists somewhere in between. The fringe characters – an intrepid young reporter, two cops trying to quash the case, a company driver, a mechanic – are torn between morality and survival. The reporter, especially, starts out as a potential hero, but slowly seeps into the big-city walls. In most other films, she would have been the game changer. But Jalsa does not pretend to treat its people as isolated movie characters; each of them is a cumulative consequence of hope, need and desperation. Even the primary faces are products of their immediate environment. Maya (Vidya Balan) is a leader among liberals: a single mother, an ethical voice, a celebrated video journalist. In her first scene, she puts the retired Chief Justice on the spot in a live interview that goes viral. She speaks truth to power – the film reveals her struggle to speak the truth about her own power. (The tagline of her channel: "Face the truth"). Ruksana (Shefali Shah) is not just a cook and helper; she's also the unofficial nanny to Maya's son, Ayush, who has cerebral palsy. Her job requires endless reserves of motherhood. She is a hired caretaker – the film reveals her struggle to be a natural one.
Given the role of CCTV footage in this story, it's fitting that a camera also connects both mothers to their children in disparate ways. Maya's absence as a mother isn't absolute; she visually monitors her house on her office laptop. But the security software, one suspects, is simply an excuse to watch Ayush grow. In between her hectic work schedule, she smiles at the sight of him playing with his grandmother. Ruksana's absence as a mother, though, can only afford to be a compromise. She has absolutely no idea where Alia was – or who she was – on the night of the tragedy. Only when Alia is comatose in the hospital does Ruksana notice the teenager's popular Instagram reels. This is what it takes to know her own daughter better.
At first, the coincidences in this premise feel a bit too convenient. What are the odds that the stranger mowed down by Maya in the middle of the night is Ruksana's daughter? What are the chances that the reporter, Rohini, is actually a trainee in Maya's own company? What are the odds that everyone is vaguely connected in some way or the other? But perhaps another way to look at this is as a leveler: Just as the system is rigged against those like Ruksana and Alia, Maya's own destiny is rigged against her. The coincidences imply that Maya – not unlike Alisha in Gehraiyaan – is not supposed to get away with her mistake. At some level, it suggests that the universe is conspiring to restore balance when a good person strays from order. This may sound like karmic mumbo-jumbo, but the more discerning movies weave a sense of spirituality into their stories in the form of narrative allegory. A political hoarding, for instance, is the reason behind the film's title (Jalsa, meaning celebratory gathering, is also a play on the non-celebratory events of the film). But the poster is also a major plot point in terms of the hit-and-run case itself. It's a nice little riff on the perception that politics is all about concealing the truth rather than selling a lie.
The performances go a long way in shaping the pressure-cooker tone of the film. They allow the story to convert its loopholes into loops of internalized strife. Apart from a needlessly funny scene (featuring a politician and his son) that punctures the gravity, there's no false note in the secondary cast – Surya Kasibhatla, in particular, is wonderfully present as Ayush. It's one thing to assemble the dream team of Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah, it's another to have them play characters that rarely occupy the same frame – of both living and suffering. They are bound by physical circumstances, but their being belongs to two parallel films – one where Maya probably tracks down the victim's family to help them, and another where Ruksana is hurled into a crisis created by a faceless stranger. That they're linked is both incidental and decisive at once.
Balan plays Maya with a mix of instinct and understanding. The toll of guilt is twofold on her face; it's rooted in not just what she's done but also how she's handled the nurturing of a son with special needs – through surrogates like her own mother (Rohini Hattangadi) and Ruksana. By not silencing a reporter like Rohini, you sense that Maya is subconsciously hoping to sabotage herself. Balan's depiction of emotional continuity – where one moment is never detached from the next, where her soul is rotting with every decision – is exemplary in this film. Shah's Ruksana is very different from the portraits of upper-class angst she usually owns, but she uses her face to reveal the spaces of language. She plays Ruksana as a passenger on a journey that's not hers, and also as a reluctant seeker of a truth she cannot afford. It's a vivid and understated turn at once, lending the film the luxury to chase Maya on her behalf.
What I appreciate the most about Jalsa, though, is the way its craft reflects its subtext. Its use of sight and sound determines the fabric of the setting. For example, the invisibilization of someone like Alia Mohammed is expressed in how the film opens with just the sounds of her commute – the road, the railway station, the local train ride, a motorbike – over the credits on a black screen. We don't see her till she's well into the night. The accident, too, is based on Maya not "seeing" her dash across the street. When her mother, Ruksana, violently breaks down at one point in the film, the shot cuts to the exterior of her house; we only hear her agony, which is the equivalent of society turning a blind eye to her plight.
In contrast, when Maya breaks down early on in her parking lot, we see and hear her crumple in a heap of shock. Her pain is visible because of who she is – a wealthy, upper-class citizen. But her bitterness is considered inaudible. When Maya loses her cool with Ayush, her voice fades out and the score takes over. The implication is that her words are so cruel that even the film-making feels obliged to shield her from scrutiny. It doesn't want us to hear Maya blaming her son for her broken moral compass. It mutes her outburst that if not for him – his condition, his fragility, his future – she might have turned herself in. And it censors her claim that if not for love, Jalsa might have been about historical retribution rather than personal reckoning.