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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Jalsa, Review: The feisty anchor, their devoted maid, her teenaged daughter and a ghastly accident

Jalsa, Review: The feisty anchor, their devoted maid, her teenaged daughter and a ghastly accident

If there was a contest for the most misleading film names, Jalsa (celebration) would stand a good chance of making it to the top, with the title emanating from the last few minutes, having no connection to the two hours that have gone before it. And though the film is being touted as an Amazon Prime Original Film, with T-Series and Abundantia as production partners, why did I get the feel throughout the ‘film’ that it is episodic and familiar? Part of the ambience it exudes is due to the facts that it is directed by Suresh Triveni, who previously worked with Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul on Tumhari Sulu, and Abundantia previously produced the Amazon series Breathe, and films Sherni and Shakuntala Devi, both of which starred Balan, and premièred directly on Amazon. The episodic feeling is also partly due to the treatment, which brings up a new angle every 30 minutes or so.

After working late one night, Maya Menon, a top news anchor with the WRD channel, is driving home, around 3 am. She’s had a little drink, and is cruising along, when a girl appears from nowhere and gets knocked down by her car. She deliberates for a moment, and then drives on, afraid to own-up the accident. Guilt-ridden, she covers her car, because there is a crack on the windshield and possibly blood on her bonnet. Making a great effort, she manages to conceal the incident from her mother. Maya has an partially paralysed young son, suffering from cerebral palsy and/or autism, named Ayush, who is generally looked after by her maid, Ruksana (wrong spelling; should be Rukhsana or Ruqhsana, but never mind). Maya is separated and is having an affair with her boss, Amar Malhotra. She later asks her driver to take care about the tell-tale signs on the car, and is now satisfied that the accident is behind her.

Far from it. The girl who was knocked down is her maid’s daughter, Alia, and she has barely survived the accident. She visits the girl in hospital, and pays for her entire treatment. Meanwhile, an apprentice reporter from Kerala comes to Mumbai, joins WRD, and begins to investigate the accident, on her own, without taking permission from either Maya or Amar. Even after she is told to keep off the case, she continues to pursue it, hoping that a breakthrough will win her appreciation, fame and a promotion. When the victim girl’s father goes to the police to file a complaint, he is asked what his teenage daughter was doing at 3 am, at the accident spot? Soon, there appears to be an attempt on the part of the police to hush-up the case.

There is no denying that Jalsa has at its core a solid premise, and that is what keeps it afloat. What if your hit-and-run victim turns out to be someone closely known to you? What if you also happen to be a news anchor who claims to present the truths behind falsehoods, on your shows? Prajwal Chandrashekar and Suresh Triveni, as the story and screenplay writers, were on to something here, but then they tried to get clever, and wove in several side-tracks, apparently in an attempt to delay the climax. They lead to a climax which is known only to them, perhaps because the film is more of an emotional thriller than a whodunit. There are several angles to the crime, and, unlike a Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, Japanese masterpiece), they are not at variance with each other, but are all valid, as parts of a jigsaw puzzle. The way the girl’s family haggles for compensation, from Rs.5 lakh to Rs. 35 lakh, is far from convincing. The manner in which the driver demands Rs. 5 lakh to keep mum is illogical. Like-wise the persistence of the cub reporter in chasing the story - and her obtaining CCTV footage, without the knowledge of the police, is incredible. In fact, the entire CCTV matter looks convoluted.

I know we are in an age where the mobile phone has become indispensable, but having somebody call/receive a call/send a text message/receive a text message every minute begins to annoy after the first ten minutes. Maya’s affair with her boss is as predictable as it gets, and not giving it any meat (no pun intended) results in it being interpreted as an affair on the rebound. Two scenes featuring the retired judge are empty of content, and used only as props to further the story. As audiences, we are not fed the complete picture at most plot points, but, instead, led to play the Jalsa Jigsaw game, at Level 1, then Level 2, and so on, in the suspense genre, which is not the at the heart of Jalsa.

Dialogue writers Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal, much in demand these days, provide acceptably functional dialogue, which range from the crisp structured sentences of Maya to the laid-back but solid persona of Amar, to the slum-dwelling lingo of its inhabitants, like Ruksana and her family and the Jalsa-vaalaas, to the stereo-typical Maharashtrian police language, to the indistinct mumbles of Ayush. There is, however, no relief, in terms of light moments, though I recall chuckling on one piece of dialogue.

Tumhari Sulu, in spite of some wasted opportunities, worked well, even marginally better. Jalsa is too thin a story as it stands, and is an even bigger example of wasted opportunities. VFX, like the trembling stroboscopic shots of Maya, especially her hands (à la Lady Macbeth, are used once too often. Why is she called Maya Menon, when she speaks only fluent Hindi and English, without even the faintest trace of any accent? Then again, why does the apprentice reporter from Kerala, speak Hindi/English with the Keralite accent? Why is there no real scene about her marital status and her husband, except the couple of peek-a-boo shots? The role of Amar is not allowed to develop at all. All his scenes appear to have been shot within a couple of days, at the same interiors, with little or no change in get-up. It is unclear what Triveni wants to establish with the running sound-track as the titles roll and a few visuals after they have finished. It only consists of ambient sounds. He gets into his tale a few shots later. Almost none of the dialogue between the girl and the boy who takes her for a spin are comprehensible, though what little I could hear was crucial to the story.

Now let us give Triveni credit where it is due. Firstly, reactions of Maya on realising that she could have killed the girl are completely logical. A couple of looks of Ruksana, thrown at Maya, speak volumes, without a word being said. He largely keeps the patented nuances of Shefali Shah under check. Technically, he seems to be in control, and the film has a fresh, 2022 look about it. The stretching of the entire police track notwithstanding, they come out as real characters, perhaps a shade too real. He is solidly behind his leading lady, and Maya Menon is almost entirely acceptable as a slice-of-life. While he imparts sheer sophistication to Maya and her world, he simultaneously brings out the insecurities and lower class mores when dealing with Ruksana’s family. There is no skin show or use of cuss words, and if there was any, the censors have deleted such content. This is commendable, since there were fertile grounds for adding the stuff, what with a teenage girl out on a late-night spin, at 3 am, and a woman having an affair with her boss, at work, the two of them often drinking together in the office till the wee hours. And his tour de force is the discovery and casting of the boy playing Ayush, and then extracting a carefully honed performance from him.

As the woman on a professional mission who has to deal with a tragedy and cowardice, Vidya Balan (Kahaani) is compelling. Right from her dresses to her gestures to her dialogue delivery and her expressions, she proves again that she is a highly dependable actress. Shefali Shah (Delhi Crime—which got her noticed by Triveni, Darlings, Doctor G; an actress with whom this writer had occasion to act in a TV serial called V3, in the good old days) is a good foil for Balan, yet, perhaps, a shade too polished for the role of a maid. Her trade-mark shutting of eyes, while looking at the camera or co-actor, and then nodding her head slightly, at an angle, is nowhere in evidence. Her ambivalence, surfacing in many scenes, like when it comes to the tragedy that she faces, with her daughter barely alive and in the ICU, and in hushing up the case at the behest of the police, though forceful, is not written well enough to convince. The two have, most probably, worked together for the first time. Manav Kaul plays Maya’s boss, with a beard and darker shades of clothes. He is both her shoulder to lean on and the man who gives her a wake-up call whenever she is lost or dazed. Cryptic in his speech, he imparts a quiet dignity to Amar Malhotra, without being distinguished. His participation is billed as a special appearance, so one need not dwell on it any longer.

Veteran Rohini Hattangadi (Gandhi, Jalwa, Munnabhai M.B.B.S., David), an alumna of the National School of Drama, now 67, could sleepwalk into the kind of role she is given here, that of Maya’s mother. Realising her potential, the script has done justice to her, and vice versa. Surya Kasibhatla, as Ayush, is due for an award. You can be completely forgiven for believing that Surya is a differently abled boy in real life. Jalsa’s supporting cast consists of, among others, Iqbal Khan (seen in Crackdown), Vidhatri Bandi (Shiddat), Srikant Mohan Yadav (Inside Edge), Sofiya Khan (cast as Broker Ruby), Abbas Dalal (the man himself, as Javed Bhai), Mangesh Desai (as Sub-Inspector Poddar), Gurpal Singh (as Judge Gulati), Junaid Khan (as Rizwan, the boy who takes the girl for a ride), Shrikant Yadav (as a policeman, More), Shafeen Patel, Sahil Brown (as Alam), Vijay Nigam (as Ramnikbhai, alias Daddy), Trushant Ingle (as Ramnik's son), Uday Vir Singh Yadav (as Vinodji), Monu Gurjar (as Rafique), Archana Patel (as   Khadija), Sharad as Salim Mohammed (Alia’s father), Mohammed Iqbal Khan, Ghanshyam Lalsa and Kashish Rizwan (as Alia Mohammad) the accident victim.

On the technical side, we have cinematographer Saurabh Goswami, playing ably with colours and shades. Editor Shivkumar V. Panicker has sacrificed logical progression in favour of blurring and fleeting shots. Although the film is 129 minutes long, a few minutes more of explanatory shots, or extended shots, would have only added to its appeal. Crisp and frenetic cutting makes a great show-reel, though not necessarily understandable cinema. Music by Gaurav Chatterji (the song, ‘Thehar’) comes on while the end credit titles are rolling, and nobody is left in the auditorium to enjoy it. VFX stand-out. I think I heard Alia’s father Salim tell the police that he is a spot boy, and earns Rs. 1,800 a day. That’s not bad at all. Time was when they earned in two figures.

Jalsa is an impressive film where the impression does not last. It is a mystery film, where the clues and pointers are not placed in the right spots. It is a multi-track film where, just when one begins to engage with one track, another offshoot emerges. It is an emotional film, where the craft supersedes the art. It is still watchable, and Surya Kasibhatla, as bonus, makes sure you get just about your money’s worth.

Rating: ** ½



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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