Jalsa means well. Tumhari Sulu director Suresh Triveni’s new film is sensitive about its subject – the unequal power dynamic between a journalist and her maid that is revealed after a hit-and-run accident. A key character is played by a boy with cerebral palsy who is treated no differently from the rest of the cast. The Amazon Prime Video release is rigorously crafted, using its visual and sound design to excellent effect in many scenes.

Perhaps Jalsa means too well. The screenplay, by Triveni and Prajwal Chandrashekar, stands a few respectable feet away from the edge of an ethical quagmire but doesn’t move forward. The dilemma that confronts Maya (Vidya Balan), who gets sleepy at the wheel and runs over a teenager, has escape routes and extenuating circumstances.

As an affluent divorcee living in Mumbai with her son Ayush (Surya Kasibhatla) and mother (Rohini Hattangadi), Maya depends on her maid Ruksana (Shefali Shah) to share the load. The accident victim is Ruksana’s daughter – an unhappy coincidence for Maya and happy happenstance for Jalsa’s makers.

Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan in Jalsa. Courtesy T-Series/Abundantia Entertainment/Suresh Triveni.

Furtive moves and panic attacks ensue as Maya tries to cover her tracks with the help of her colleague Amar (Iqbal Khan). More trouble arrives in the form of over-enthusiastic reporter Rohini (Vidhatri Bandi), who idolises Maya but threatens to expose her by following Alia’s story.

The 130-minute narrative takes some convincing, never easy when you consider the actor playing Maya. Vidya Balan’s innate warmth and immense likeability result in a sympathy-for-the-devil portrayal that undercuts the film’s attempt to introduce nuance and complexity.

In a sequence in which Maya lashes out at her defenceless son, the dialogue is replaced with background music. Had we heard Maya’s unfiltered thoughts, we might not necessarily have judged her, as the film is keen to avoid. Rather, we might have better understood Maya’s fractured emotional state.

In other places, sound plays a crucial role in ratcheting up Maya’s crisis. Sound designer Anthony B Jayaruban meshes the background score with the harrowing hum of juddering coffee machines and construction machines thundering into the earth.

Jalsa. Courtesy T-Series/Abundantia Entertainment/Suresh Triveni.

The nerve-shredding feeling of being in a disaster film or a horror movie is enhanced by Maya’s recurring nightmares. One of these nightmares, if we have understood it correctly, is among Jalsa’s best scenes – a chilling moment of reckoning for an avoidable tragedy.

Even as the contrivances stack up, Jalsa rarely loses its poise. Saurabh Goswami’s tonally rich camerawork and the solid performances set up a narrative that doesn’t ultimately have the stomach to confront and embrace its ambiguities.

Shefali Shah’s intense portrayal of Ruksana is perfectly complemented by Surya Kasibhatla’s affecting purity as Ayush. In a film that leaves its themes hanging like incomplete sentences, Ayush’s ability to say what needs to be said is among Jalsa’s most rounded moments.

Jalsa (2022).

Also read:

Why the road ahead looks ‘black, white and grey’ for Shefali Shah