Vidya Balan (“Kahaani”) and Shefali Shah (“Delhi Crime”), two of India’s finest actors, worked together for the first time in Suresh Triveni’s Amazon Prime Video India original “Jalsa,” and the result is electrifying.
The film is a tense social thriller where the lives of Balan’s Maya, a top journalist and her Shah’s Rukhsana, Maya’s housekeeper, become inextricably linked together after a horrific incident.
Balan’s morally upright journalist wrestles with an ethical dilemma through the film. The actor initially turned down the film because she did not want to play someone who seemed morally ambiguous, but isn’t, and eventually the role’s challenges changed her decision.
“Maya is successful and she’s in a position of power and there is a certain aloofness to her demeanor,” Balan tells Variety. Balan worked on this aspect and how the character would react in different situations with Triveni. “It gave me a sense of the person, and then that body language became natural for me — and also the thought process — how does such a person think? Because it’s very far removed from who I am as a person,” Balan said.
“She is complex, not complicated, and she’s a ferociously and fiercely protective mother,” Shah told Variety about Ruskhsana. “And she has pride, not ego, not arrogance, but pride, and self-respect. All these emotions lie within me. They lie in every person. They might be dormant, but they come out as when it’s required for and Rukhsana had that calling for these characteristics.”
The film was shot after India’s second COVID lockdown with the cast and crew necessarily having to observe social distancing. This served to work in the film’s favor, vis-a-vis the relationship between Balan’s and Shah’s characters.
“We were all maintaining distance from each other and I think that’s also translated into the scenes, because that’s what the scenes required, that’s what the characters required, given the predicament they’re in,” says Balan.
“We kept that strange space that was created between both of us and I think it also helped because it helped the scenes, and whatever scenes we had together were very, very intense,” adds Shah.
“Jalsa” also features Ayush, a character with cerebral palsy, unusually for Indian cinema, played by 14-year-old Texas-based debutant Surya Kasibhatla who has the condition in real life. Kasibhatla, whose favorite actors include Balan, Shah, Akshay Kumar, Mahesh Babu, Rana Daggubati, Sai Pallavi and Tom Hanks, aspired to be an actor since the age of three. One of his passions is computer programming and he brought that rigor, which includes the four steps of ‘Learn, Practice, Implement, and Improvise’ to bear on his role.
Workshops and rehearsals helped Kasibhatla unleash his creativity. “I believe that in order to churn out the best performance in any scene we generally have to be a little creative so that we can leave a great impact on the audience,” says Kasibhatla. “So, that’s what I tried to do.”
While the cast and crew were protective of Kasibhatla, Triveni was clear that everyone on set needed to be normal around him without any of the overcompensation that comes from lack of awareness, says Balan.
One of the film’s watershed moments is when Balan’s character loses her temper with Kasibhatla’s and has to say some hurtful words to him. Balan worked with a coach to prepare for the scene. “All my preparation was geared towards that one scene, towards understanding cerebral palsy, speaking to the mothers and understanding their fears, their frustrations and all of it, because it’s real,” said Balan. “They deal with it on a day-to-day basis and they’re human beings and they could have a bad day. Or they could go through a frustrating moment.”
Guided by the coach, Balan and Kasibhatla performed trust exercises with each other, where before the shoot, they would put their hands on each other’s hearts and breathe together. “That really helped us, it did away with any discomfort or awkwardness,” says Balan.
Balan’s “Shakuntala Devi,” “Sherni” and “Jalsa” all debuted directly on Amazon and she is looking forward to some theatrical releases as well. Next up for her is debutant Shirsha Guha Thakurta’s as-yet-untitled film alongside Sendhil Ramamurthy, Ileana D’Cruz and Pratik Gandhi and another untitled film that reunites her with her “Shakuntala Devi” director Anu Menon, which starts shooting in London imminently.
Shah has two films — “Darlings,” a dark comedy alongside Alia Bhatt, and social drama “Doctor G” with Ayushmann Khurrana — and season two of “Delhi Crime” coming up.
“Jalsa” is streaming now.
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