Jalsa: A good film that could’ve been great if they’d just had the courage to kill the girl

Even the most seasoned cinephiles would agree, Suresh Triveni’s Jalsa is an uncommonly well-made film for mainstream Bollywood. It’s slickly directed, impeccably designed, and thematically ambitious. But it makes every point that it wants to by the end of its first act.

With a bit of a shrug, it spends the next 45 minutes taking the audience on a convoluted tour inside the minds of its increasingly detestable characters. And then, having made little headway beyond what it had already uncovered about them half-an-hour in, the film simply decides to end—concluding with a whimper instead of a wallop. You don’t know what to make of it. If you have not watched the film yet, consider this a spoiler alert.

One minor adjustment to the story could’ve made Jalsa an infinitely more compelling experience, more relevant not just emotionally, but also psychologically and sociologically. Not only would this alteration have made for a bolder, riskier movie, but it could’ve magically erased some of the logical inconsistencies of the plot. For Jalsa to be a better film, the girl had to die.

In fact, that’s what it implies in its opening scene, which cuts on a rather gruesome shot of the girl in question being rammed by a speeding car in the dead of the night. We’re told some minutes later that the car was being driven by Maya Menon, a prominent journalist played by Vidya Balan. Maya’s introductory scene establishes her as a woke-minded voice of righteousness. She corners a judge on a live interview with her hardline questioning, and would rather watch him squirm than compromise on her ethics.

Exhausted after a hard day’s work and having dismissed her chauffeur early, Maya decides to drive herself back home. She struggles to stay awake; even her favourite metal song—what a fun character quirk, by the way—doesn’t help. And before we know it, the scene collides head first with the opening moments of the movie, as we watch the car ram into the girl again. But this time, we cut to a shot of her lying on the edge of the secluded street, her head twisted at an impossible angle on the pavement, and her body twitching involuntarily as Maya drives off in panic. “Oh, she’s not coming back from that one,” I remember thinking.

An unwritten law dictates that it is safe to assume that a movie character has died only when you see a sliver of blood trickle down the side of their mouth. Because, as we know, movie characters have a way of resurrecting themselves, even if the last time we saw them alive was when they slipped and fell off the roof of a tall building, or just as they were about to be swallowed by flames, or immediately after they’d been shot at point-blank range by a rogue assassin. In the language of cinema, none of these situations equals death. And I should’ve known better, because even though the girl’s entire face was drenched in blood and she was literally emitting a death rattle, she was alive.

It is revealed some minutes later that the girl that Maya had hit is the daughter of her house help Ruksana, played by a cast-against-type Shefali Shah. Maya, wracked with fear, sets into motion a massive cover-up to protect her image, paying off cops, reporters, and anybody else that comes in her way. With that, Jalsa efficiently illustrates just how morally fragile and easily corruptible human beings are. Point made, roll credits.

Having happily assumed that the girl, Alia, was dead, I expected the film to spend the next hour or so examining themes that it had briefly touched upon already—themes of class and power, of privilege and pride. Like The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Jalsa draws deeply from. A part of me even anticipated insightful commentary on the weaponisation of religion—in addition to being subservient to Maya, you see, Ruksana is also a Muslim. But alas, Jalsa jams on the brakes at around the 45-minute mark, when both Maya and the audience are told that Alia survived.

But imagine, for a moment, if she hadn’t. How would the rest of the movie have played out? Would Ruksana, for instance, have been as graceful about the whole thing if she was dealing not with a potentially maimed-for-life daughter but with a dead one? Not that an act of revenge would’ve made sense either, at least not in the relatively realistic world of this movie; Gehraiyaan told us exactly how misguided this approach could be. But it would’ve totally made sense for Ruksana to contemplate some form of vengeance. The fact that the movie implies that she is about to murder Maya’s differently abled son is just ridiculous.

Jalsa could’ve ended on exactly the same note that it does—a shot of Ruksana and Maya’s sons playing under the moonlit sky—but this would’ve been a monumentally more impactful visual had Ruksana been dealing with a child’s death. Who knows, it might have even made a larger point about interfaith unity. But by letting Alia live, not only does the movie rob Maya of any real reason to feel the level of guilt that she does, it also minimises Ruksana’s magnanimity.

It would’ve also made the subplots about the bent cop, the weaselly driver and the dogged reporter more convincing, because we all know that a hit-and-run by itself isn’t newsworthy. Stories such as this make national headlines only when someone loses their life. But for me, Jalsa being slightly more courageous would’ve made Triveni’s glorious, glorious decision to unleash the film’s title card at the two-hour mark the stuff of legend. As it stands, however, that bit of directorial flamboyance, like the rest, deserves a better movie

Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.

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