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When two talented actresses come together in a film, you can expect sparks to fly on screen. Off-the-set camaraderie, however, is not that common or evident so we were pleasantly surprised at the great rapport Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah seemed to share, when we caught up with them over Zoom during their promotional blitz for the new Amazon Prime Video thriller Jalsa.
Both Shefali and Vidya have proved themselves as thespians to be reckoned with, time and again, in impactful OTT and Bollywood projects like Delhi Crime, Dil Dhadakne Do, Kahaani and The Dirty Picture, among many others.
They team up for the first time in Jalsa, tagged as a “highly engaging tale of conflict narrated through the life of a top journalist and her cook.” In a riveting trailer where the female actors take centerstage, we see how a hit-and-run case and its ensuing investigation has a disturbing fallout on the household of news anchor Maya Menon (Vidya). Secrets will come to the fore, moralities will be tested as Maya and her house help Ruksana, a raging, brilliant Shefali, are almost constantly at loggerheads.
Excerpts from our interaction with Vidya and Shefali:
We’ve watched the trailer of Jalsa and it obviously has a suspense element but does it go deeper than that? Is it a kind of character study, in a way?
Vidya: I think we would like to call it a drama with lots of elements of thrill, but primarily a human story, a human drama.
What can you tell us about your roles?
Vidya: Not much actually (laughs), which has been a struggle through this promotional schedule because we don’t want to give away too much. Maya Menon is a journalist. She runs her own digital news portal and is someone who prides herself on delivering the truth to people.
But this accident turns her life upside down. Not just hers; while there is only one who comes under the car there are many who metaphorically come under that car. She’s always seen herself as a purveyor of truth, but when the lens is turned on her, what is she going to do? This is how much I want to say about Maya.
Shefali: So Ruksana works in Maya’s house as a domestic help. She’s a cook. She is aspirational, she looks up to Maya, and her daughter looks up to Maya. She wants her daughter to grow up and be somebody like Maya.
In spite of where she comes from or in spite of having little, she has self-respect. She’s not arrogant or egoistic but she has a very strong sense of pride and she is a fiercely protective mother. That one incident changes everyone’s lives. It’s like a dominoes effect. I think the film also pushes you to question your sense of morality, because that changes with situations.
Vidya: And both Rukhsana and Maya see themselves a certain way until they are confronted with this situation. And then everything they believe in and believed to be true about themselves, is questioned. It’s really put to the test.
Vidya you had mentioned in an earlier interview that you initially rejected this role as it had shades of grey. Do you both feel audiences are more willing to accept flawed characters now as opposed to earlier?
Vidya: For sure. I’ve played flawed characters in the past but I think here it became personal for me. I was quick to judge Maya, when I first read the story. I think because I was maybe a different person, pre pandemic, which means for most of my life (laughs).
But one year into the pandemic, and a lot changed, right? We began to view life as we knew it differently. And therefore, have more empathy for people and the choices they make. And that’s what suddenly changed my decision! I wanted to play Maya now because I wanted to explore that side of me as an individual, as a woman, as an actor most importantly - I was willing to embrace the grey.
Shefali: Yes, the audience has become more accepting but it’s really sad to say that we need to be accepted for our flaws, because that is only human. There is no one perfect. Being faulty is a part of who we are in a very big way.
But yes, there are a lot of films and shows now where people have embraced women in their true form. Not viewing them just through the lens of ‘right’. They are probably more understanding that women are not just ‘sati savitri’ - goody two shoes kind of people. They are human and they make mistakes. And you may not even call it a mistake! They make choices, and I’m glad no one is judging them for it, at least that’s what I think.
Vidya: I wanted to add about Maya that she is a self-righteous woman until this happens and she’s not so sure anymore!
Jalsa director Suresh Triveni recently spoke about how amazing it was to bring two powerful actresses like yourselves together on screen. What was the experience of shooting like and did you have many scenes together?
Vidya: Unfortunately we don’t have many scenes together but I think the beauty is that the scenes we do have together are very powerful and special, because I got to share screen space with an actor I admire deeply, whose work I have loved over the years.
So yes, I would have liked to do more scenes with her because there was such a natural give and take between us, but maybe in another film! Jalsa was fulfilling nonetheless, despite the fact that we had few scenes together.
Shefali: I completely agree with Vidya - I adore, admire and respect her tremendously. And when I got to know that we’d be doing this together, I was over the moon. I can’t imagine anyone else (in the role) and I can comfortably say that since the last four days of promotions, it’s been established that we have great chemistry!
Vidya: We didn’t get to explore that side in a very obvious way on screen, though I have people tell me about a scene in the trailer when we look at each other, ‘oh my God, it was magnetic’! So I think that’s a lovely compliment.
OTT has seen a huge boom since the pandemic. Vidya this is your third OTT project after Sherni and yours as well, Shefali, after Delhi Crime and Human. What is the best thing about working on projects for streaming platforms?
Shefali: One is that it’s not burdened by commercial box office requirements, of being a hit on a weekend! Unfortunately a lot of good films, if they do not get the collections on a Friday-Saturday, could be lost by Monday.
But a film on OTT is going to stay there forever. It’s going to be watched over time. Also OTT did not push the requirement of a ‘star’ person, and that opened horizons for actors.
And when you’re doing something for an OTT platform, it drops across the globe. So what a reach that is. It’s amazing! And even as an audience, I love the fact that I can sit at home and watch world cinema or shows in different languages, different forms of filmmaking, storytelling and narratives. If we were restricted to just having the theatre, how many of them we would have just missed.
Vidya: I think it’s just a fantastic time for the entertainment industry, and for storytellers of all kinds; writers, directors, actors, artists working in this business. There is no formula anymore, there are no restrictions on the kinds of stories, on who you must have to back a story, for it to get made, or the tropes that you need for it to be commercially successful; there’s none of that, like Shefali said. So OTT has really democratised the process.
Both of you started your careers with television, then went on to films and OTT. Do you think there are better parts being written now for women - roles that satisfy you personally?
Vidya: I feel that in the past fourteen years I’ve seen the growth and evolution in female roles get stronger. And while they were few and far between previously, now there are that many more stories people are telling (even for theatrical releases before the pandemic). And there’s that much more today, thanks to OTT.
Shefali: I agree. There are very powerful, very nuanced roles that are being written for women. And like Vidya said, they were few and far between in cinema but there is no formula that OTT has to follow. I genuinely feel that these platforms give an opportunity to explore, experiment and express. And that’s where all these interesting, rich characters come from, and they are not afraid to tell stories even if they are not always painting a pretty picture.
The pandemic has hit the entertainment industry hard, but it’s in a better place now, hopefully. What are your hopes for 2022?
Vidya: It has impacted the theatrical business for sure and therefore so many other allied businesses, but actually I think it’s been a great time for the entertainment industry in a lot of ways. Because of the existence of OTT platforms we could still be working; we’ve all worked through the pandemic - so also for technicians, unit hands…
But we are hoping that now that theatres have reopened, people will be able to release their films in theatres and we will be able to bring back audiences. Because so many theatres have also had to shut down and that’s very painful. Where we were hoping to have more theatres all over the country, I think the ratio is actually gone down now, which is unfortunate. But hopefully in a year or two, maybe, we will be thriving.
Jalsa releases March 18 on Amazon Prime Video.
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