India (2022) Dir. Suresh Triveni
Some things are better left unsaid is an aphorism which carries only a small degree of truth to it. There are situations were not saying anything is only going to make matters worse, although it is why one is keeping quiet which creates the true moral dilemma, lest our true characters are revealed.
18 year-old Aliyah (Kashish Rizwan) sneaks out one night for a ride with Rizwan (Junaid Khan) following a split with her boyfriend. Rizwan has a crush on Aliyah and misreads the signals, causing Aliyah to run away from him and straight into the path of a car. Both Rizwan and the driver flee the scene in panic, leaving Aliyah for dead, but she is found a few hours later and taken to hospital.
Aliyah’s mother Rukhsana (Shefali Shah) works as a cook and housekeeper to TV news journalist Maya Menon (Vidya Balan), and takes care of Maya’s disabled son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla). Rukhsana is devastated to see her daughter in this way and is keen to find out why she was out that night when she should have been studying at home as well as why the driver took off. Unbeknownst to Rukhsana, the answers are right in front of her.
For his second feature film, Hindi filmmaker Suresh Triveni switches lanes from comedy to dark, thoughtful drama set in a world where self-preservation prevails over honesty and responsibility. Jalsa is not your typical Bollywood, aside from the length and pacing issues but these are easily forgiven as the performances, sinuous storytelling and slick production values more than compensate.
It serves as a social drama as much as a moral one, with positions of trust and power are corrupted for selfish reasons, although Triveni and his three co-writers don’t delve as deeply into this as they should. Essentially, we see the dubious acts take place and the emotional drama they create for the perpetrators but not the consequences of their actions due to an opening ending, preceded by an exceptionally prickly build up.
To discuss the plot further I need to drop a huge but congruent spoiler which is revealed early on anyway – Maya was the driver of the car that hit Aliyah. After celebrating with her boss Amar (Iqbal Khan) when an interview goes viral, Maya sends her driver home as it is late. Even though she only had a sip of a drink, Maya was tired and momentarily dozed off at the wheel.
Knowing she hit something, Maya couldn’t see what due to the heavy rain and drove off, only seeing the damage to the car after arriving home. She asks her driver to get it fixed on the quiet, not just to avoid suspicion from the police, Maya is known for being an honest and highly moral journalist, whose show is entitled Face The Truth.
Not particularly subtle but it delineates the key facets of Maya’s character and foretells the internal struggle she will endure when the truth is out. Because Rukhsana and her family are poor, Maya pays for Aliyah’s medical bills, and with her tracks hidden, only Maya’s guilt is a problem. Then, trainee journalist Rohini (Vidhatri Bandi) gets a tip off from a source about a police cover up of the missing CCTV footage of the accident and wants to investigate.
Bollywood films have a problem with being too long and Jalsa finds itself in the unique position of being guilty of this, yet with a rewrite to remove much of the quotidian world building and using this time to explore the moral drama instead, the 126-minutes would be totally justified. As it is, there is 100 minutes of cogent material to digest and enjoy, so the ratio is for once in our favour.
Quite why Triveni isn’t as bold as Maya in confronting such heinous malfeasance in his script and bringing the culprits to justice is only known to him. Not limited to the sheer hypocrisy of Maya’s social image as a robust beacon of truth, there are the police officers whose reasons for hiding the CCTV footage read as petty to non-Indian eyes because of the importance of social standing they hold so dear.
However, by way of a counterbalance we have Rukhsana dutifully playing housemaid to Maya’s family (she doesn’t get time off though) blissfully unaware her stress and worry is caused by her generous employer. One review I read suggests Aliyah should have died to make this deceit even more poignant and I can see why – it would have made the tense preface to the ending even more suspenseful.
Maya and Rukhsana represent opposite ends of the social spectrum, terrifically portrayed by Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah respectively. The story is crying out for a two-hander confrontation scene between them but we are denied; their individual turns are sublime, eschewing usual Bollywood affectation for natural, complex emotions. In a similar vein, the cinematography, composition, and direction are also atypical of Indian cinema, more akin to a European style.
One of many wonderful examples of this comes as Maya is driving home and the camera is positioned from her POV. As she pulls up to a white wall and the headlight beams are now visible, we see the cracks in the windshield where she hit Aliyah, a nicely subtle sign of what Maya missed during her brief blackout. It’s a simple shot but effective for that very reason and Triveni exploits this ideal to its fullest for maximum clout from the merest to the heaviest of scenes.
Problems with the depth of the script’s probing nature, a meandering opening act, and the ambiguous non-explosive ending are standout cavils with Jalsa that prevent this very good film from being a bona fide great one. Fortunately, great acting, strong storytelling, and an immersive visual narrative go a long way to make a film worthy of our time, which Jalsa has going for it. One of the best Bollywood films I have seen.