Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan
Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan Image Credit: Instagram/VidyaBalan

There was a time when women-led films in Bollywood weren’t the norm, but a glorious exception.

But National Award-winning Indian actors Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan, who join forces for their new film ‘Jalsa’, are convinced that the tide is slowly changing in Bollywood.

“Strangely, the men do not have as rich and fleshed-out characters being offered to sink their teeth into as much as we women do now. The men are being put in these very comfortable boxes. But with women, it’s just exploding,” said Shah over a Zoom interview with Gulf News ahead of the release of their film on Amazon Prime Video.

Her peer Balan agreed and said she dreams of a time when Hindi cinema becomes gender-agnostic.

“But it’s going to take a little more time before we reach there because the ratio of male hero films versus the female hero films is still skewed. So when we start doing more and more female or women-centric films, then we balance it out,” said Balan.

Their latest Hindi-language drama in which Shah plays Balan’s reliable and sturdy house-help Ruksana Mohammad is a step in that right direction. Balan plays a scrupulous and fierce journalist Maya Menon who lives with her differently abled son and her mother (Rohini Hattangadi) in Mumbai. Their peaceful existence gets shattered when Ruksana’s teenage daughter becomes a victim of a hit-and-run accident, and they watch their worlds unravel. Their contrasting lives collide when the particular event has deep-seated ramifications on all of them. But it’s not a commentary on social and class divides, warn the leading ladies.

“I don’t think it’s so much about the class divide. It’s about two people whose worlds are very different … but their worlds still collide. They are somehow intertwined. It’s a tale of how one event impacts the lives of a whole lot of people … In an accident, there’s the person who’s driving and then there’s the person who goes under the car. But here, there’s a ripple effect where a lot of lives are at risk of changing forever after this particular incident,” said Balan.

Jalsa Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

The somber but riveting drama shines the spotlight on two women who have to deal with life and tragedy.

“While the film is not trying to make any social or moral commentary, there’s definite power play between the two women. By the end of it, their equation tilts … The film is also about internal conflicts and how one incident has this domino effect,” said Shah.

In the film, Balan — who takes pride in her integrity and honest work culture — experiences a momentary lapse in judgement during an accident. Those few seconds lead to an irrevocable tragedy that changes her life and those around her forever.

“We hope your heart goes out to both of us women,” said Balan.

She need not worry. In the superbly acted film, directed by Suresh Triveni of ‘Tumhari Sulu’ fame, Shah and Balan are in searing top form as two women who are trying to gain closure when life deals an unfair hand.

Shefali Shah as Ruksana in 'Jalsa' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

Calling it a women-centric drama is reductive, believe the actors.

“It is easy to consider this a woman centric film, but I look at it as a human centric film. Even if it had two men grappling with the same issues, it would still be an effective film. But I am just happy that Suresh Triveni chose two women” said Shah.

Both Shah and Balan are two of Bollywood’s most reliable talents. If Shah played a fierce cop in ‘Delhi Crime’ to perfection, then Balan is known for her incredible acting prowess and emotional heft that she brings to every scene. Balan’s turn in ‘The Dirty Picture’ as a temperamental risqué actress and her housewife act in ‘Tumhari Sulu’ gave fans an idea of her ample talent. They are collectively versatile and are known to blend in with their chosen roles with ease and admirable dexterity. But unlike two talented actors with almost the same range and depth, there’s no hint of rivalry between them. They turn cheerleaders for each other and their camaraderie was there to see during this interview.

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Vidya Balan and Naseeruddin Shah in 'The Dirty Picture'

“I have truly loved Shefali as an actor forever. I never imagined I’d get to work with her … Ever since I started doing the so-called female-led film in 2008, no story barring ‘No One Killed Jessica’ had two women leading it. Writers are vaguely cagey about it because two female actors will rarely work together. In fact, no two big male actors will together either … I had never thought of this as a remote possibility … I genuinely admire her work,” said Balan.

Bollywood is notorious for their male hero-driven narratives and having two men have equal footage and clout is an anomaly. Fragile egos and general insecurity dictate that stories with solo leading roles are easier to make. But ‘Jalsa’ has broken those traditions.

“Every scene we’ve done together is so powerful. And so just to be facing the camera with Shefali and to be feeding off each other was an experience that I will cherish forever,” said Balan.

Shah claims she had somersaults in her stomach when she realised that she would be sharing screen space with Balan.

Shefali Shah and Vidya Balan in 'Jalsa' Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

“Every character is so well-etched out and has such a strong part to play … If you have seen films like ‘Babel’, ‘Traffic’, or ‘Magnolia’, you will know when I say everything’s interconnected … This is a full package,” said Shah.

The film also treads delicately on subjects like safe spaces for females and the tendency to blame a women if anything tragic happens to her after sunset. In one of the telling scenes in the trailer [SPOILER], Shah’s character defiantly asks whether her daughter being out at night is deserving of being run over by a car and left to die?

“In real life, it’s absolutely a very important conversation to have … It’s a pit that we even need to have this conversation …It’s not some statement we are trying to make here. It’s simply a mother’s reaction when she learns her child was left to die out in the middle of the night. Even if it was her son, her reaction would be the same,” said Shah.

Balan also cautions us that their reaction what the teenager was doing out in Mumbai at 3am wasn’t alluding to a sexual assault of any kind. In India, the tendency to blame women, their clothes or their hard partying lifestyle are strong when a sexual assault takes place. But the conversations and dialogues around this film aren’t triggered by any such incident, says Balan.

A still from Jalsa Image Credit: Amazon Prime Video

“Why was she out so late, is a question that’s even natural. But here the context is completely different. Here, a mother is questioning whether being out late means she should be run over by a car … As a society, we need to stop perpetuating this. We must all take the blame for doing that from time to time,” said Balan.

The film, which underlines the fleeting nature of life and how it plays out in the most crudest and rudest manner, compels you to ask a few difficult questions such as owning up to your own mistakes and whom to assign the blame on. Redemption and forgiving yourself even when the casualty is grim forms a strong spine in this dark drama that plays out like thriller.

“We expended all our rage on set … But it was a good kind of exhaustion when we flopped onto my bed. The film gave us satisfying exhaustion,” said Balan.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Jalsa’ is out on Amazon Prime Now