Maya Menon is a star journalist who builds her professional brand identity in a choreographed portrayal of honesty, a portrayal that isn’t completely false. As tired consumers of corporate media, which repeatedly manufactures truths to reinforce the state narrative, we feel enticed when we see Vidya Balan play the role of an honest journalist with marvellous conviction in Jalsa. Maya’s genuine commitment to journalism in an age where mainstream journalism frequently and increasingly succumbs to controversy and propaganda makes it particularly hard to not support her as she navigates her professional and personal lives.
Our sentiments and loyalty, however, quickly change. One night, Maya accidentally hits Aliya, who, as she later finds out, is her cook Ruksana’s daughter. Ruksana is a working mother like Maya. Unlike her, Ruksana doesn’t head her own digital news portal: her access to financial and social capital is, consequently, vastly different from Maya’s. Despite the seemingly non-hegemonic reality of social exchange at Maya’s house, the two women remain divorced from each other’s social, material, and emotional realities.
In her review, Anupama Chopra writes that Maya’s sprawling house, in addition to the various billboards that feature her face across the city of Mumbai, enforces yet another portrayal of journalism that remains detached from practicalities. Perhaps the extravagant presentation of Maya’s wealth and authority is intentional, even if unrealistic. It is precisely the presence of such visual markers, illustrating the extent of Maya’s influence, which emphasises the contrastive economic positionalities that Maya and Ruksana inhabit. This is central to the film’s negotiation with extant ideas of morality once masked veneers of sociality and respectability get unsettled in the wake of the tragic accident.
Jalsa marks its distinction from typical films on hit-and-run cases when it compels its viewers to acknowledge the degrees of simultaneous conflicts that function together and impact the ‘case.’ The reason why the accident becomes a hit-and-run accident in the first place is because Maya, who prides her professional pursuit of truth, finds herself unwilling to accept the implications that such an accident will have on her personal and, more importantly, professional life. In escaping legal consequences that may permanently mar her career, she loses sight of values that guide her professional integrity.
Initially, even as she overrides carceral penalties by driving away from the accident site to avoid the consequences of her actions, she cannot help but become emotionally agonised with confusion and horror in her desperate attempt to come to terms with herself, knowing that her personal behaviour essentially makes her professional pursuit of truth and justice questionable. We are forced to empathise with the situation. After all, should Maya really sacrifice everything that she has achieved in a space dominated by men and mainstream media, simply because she didn’t stop her vehicle in time? The consequences appear excessive and, to a lesser extent, unfair.
It is Ruksana’s character that urges an inquiry into the circumstances from a different perspective. Her point of view emerges as legitimate as Maya’s, if not more, as she becomes the recipient of injustices in a system that almost promises failure. As we witness the harrowing experiences to which she becomes subjected when the interests of independently functioning stakeholders collide, we unpack the hit-and-run accident from a very different lens. Here is a mother who is asked absurd questions about her daughter’s character for having been outside the house at night; who is offered a “settlement” by policemen, who find in a politician’s son the perfect cover story to yield money for the said settlement; who is failed by an emerging journalist who finds the ‘story’ of her daughter’s accident worth pursuing, but is ironically forced to an abrupt end when she solves the mystery of the crime; and, who is, eventually, subject to an unnecessary but non-optional admonishment by Maya, who struggles with her newfound identity as a culprit.
Since Maya’s money transfers Aliya to a top healthcare facility and pays for all recovery-related expenditure, Ruksana’s sense of obligation becomes a compulsory eventuality. When Ruksana finds out the truth, she is in an obvious dilemma: Maya is not only her employer, but also the provider of her daughter’s hospital bills. By now, she is also aware that seeking support from the police force means wishful thinking, at best.
Deprived of any viable recourse to justice, whatever justice may mean in a hit-and-run accident, Ruksana decides to turn the tables and plots to harm Maya’s son. When she leaves the money, offered to her as a price for staying silent, in Maya’s kitchen, she intends to reverse the circumstances and extend her emotional trauma to Maya, offering in the process the same price for Maya’s son as was offered for her daughter. Although the ending guides us in a different direction, this moment enables Ruksana to take the risk of standing up to the ‘oppressor’ to communicate that her daughter’s life is not a disposable commodity that can be paid for and done away with.
Maya’s decision to confess her crime in a video recording, meant for circulation in the public, may be understandable, given her consistently visible inability to move past the truth. The scene is, however, organised in a way that appears rushed and flouts verity. It becomes a convenient organising principle to expedite Maya’s redemption. Besides, it isn’t her confession that absolves her.
What begins the process of reparation is the formation of a new register of thought and epistemology in Ruksana and Maya’s final encounter, where the uncertain silence between the two protagonists signals a common recognition of what happened. Here, Maya is propelled to imagine and partly experience the conditions of despair that inform Ruksana’s experience as a mother after the accident. Transcending the markers of class, the commonality of motherhood brings the two women to a shared understanding, though we are not told if the initiation of reparation translates into a positive outcome.
In a way, we almost feel thankful for the open ending because we get to imagine possibilities and contemplate the translation of imagined possibilities to reflect on measures of locating and seeking justice beyond problematic and failing legal systems. As Jalsa exposes unpopular but realistic challenges in the pursuit of legal justice, it uncovers the failures of institutionalised justice mechanisms and guides us, rather unintentionally, to make a case for the urgency of alternatives.