‘Vidya can elevate any script’

‘You write stories about the world you live in.’
‘The day I try to write a film with agendas in mind, I will be a fake.’

IMAGE: Rohini Hattangady and Vidya Balan in Jalsa.

Suresh Triveni‘s directorial acumen was first highlighted in Tumhari Sulu, which told the story of a housewife who becomes a successful professional.

His next film, also starring Vidya Balan, is very different.

Jalsa is a gritty tale about a hit-and-run accident that pits Vidya and Shefali Shah against each other.

Suresh tells Subhash K Jha, “I am more of a viewer than a director, so I like watching happy films like Tumhari Sulu and I like watching the genre where Jalsa lies. That’s how I arrived at it because this genre was something I was very keen on.”

The world of Jalsa is far removed from the world of Tumhari Sulu. How did you arrive from the grin to grim so fluently?

I enjoyed making Tumhari Sulu. It was just that sunshine feel all through while making it.

After the success of Tumhari Sulu, I kind of became a bit lost in the film.

I became aware of what people would think of me and my work.


IMAGE: Shefali Shah with Suresh Triveni. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shefali Shah/Instagram

How did you avoid that ruinous self-awareness?

I decided to undo myself and thought to reboot because when you get aware of your craft, it’s the worst phase you can get into.

So I took five years to arrive at something else.

Apart from that, it was not a much of a choice moving into a grim world.

I am more of a viewer than a director, so I like watching happy films like Tumhari Sulu and I like watching the genre where Jalsa lies.

I like watching action and comedy.

So when you like something, you want to make it.

That’s how I arrived at it because this genre was something I was very keen on.

Luckily, it fell in place because of a one-line story that came into my head.

Jalsa is about many things, including media ethics and the class difference. Neither of the issues reaches a satisfying conclusion in your film. Are these issues so tangled that you chose to leave them unresolved?

I have taken an observer’s perspective on this.

I was very conscious that I was not going to pass any judgment, that I won’t go into resolving things.

It was a very conscious decision that I didn’t want to give a conclusive opinion on anything.

I wanted it to be open because my job is to tell the story.

My politics or worldviews should not come into my work. It is not important.

What is important is my take on it.

It’s purely an observer perspective and hence, I felt my characters should come to a certain closure.

That does not mean that the world they live in has to have a certain closing.

IMAGE: Vidya Balan and Surya Kasibhatla in Jalsa.

Vidya Balan, I suppose, was a given in the cast. How did Shefali Shah happen?

Vidya and I were constantly chatting post Tumhari Sulu.

I took a writing break for some time, but then, of course, I wanted to go back to her.

It was a treat working with her and I wanted more of it because of the kind of stature she has. She can elevate any script.

So Vidya was the obvious choice for me.

Regarding Shefali Shah, who wouldn’t want to work with her?

Of late, the way she was nailing role after role.

It was basically my greed that gravitated me towards her because I am also an audience. I have seen her work for such a long time.

As a film-maker, you want to write for her, you want to have the pride of directing her.

The fact that I was doing something after five years, it should be worth my experience and everyone else’s.

IMAGE: Cinematographer Saurabh Goswami, Vidya Balan, Rohini Hattangady, Shefali Shah, Suresh Triveni and Producer Vikram Malhotra celebrate Jalsa‘s success. Photograph: Kind courtesy Abundantia Entertainment/Instagram

The casting of Rohini Hattangadyji and Vidhatri Bandi was also very fascinating. How did you convince the former and where did you find the latter?

After I cast Vidya and Shefali, the project got the green light.

The usual process of casting started.

I have to go back to the fact that I am more of an audience than a filmmaker. So I got greedy about what if I get Rohini Hattangady also in this project?

I loved her in Saaransh.

I have grown up on Chaalbaaz, and, of course, Gandhi.

As a film-maker, you are constantly imagining what if these three actresses came together?

How about a confrontation?

How about doing something with this terrific trio?

Jalsa allowed that possibility and hence, we approached Rohini Hattangady and she was gracious enough to accept it.

And what an experience I had shooting with her.

IMAGE: Vidhatri Bandi’s performance in Jalsa is making waves.

Regarding Vidhatri Bandi?

We did a lot of auditions.

I wanted a journalist who breaks certain stereotypes of being over-confident and having an opinion.

I wanted someone who is low on confidence, someone who is new to this city, who is coming to terms with Bombay and trying to fit in.

Because I am a Malayali too, the choice came very naturally to me saying what if I get someone from Kerala?

What if Rohini George, the character, comes from Kerala?

That’s how the process started.

We auditioned a lot of people and it was all good, but there was something about Vidhatri Bandi.

When I saw her audition, I knew she is brilliant.

She worked on her accent; she is not a Malayali.

She has been born and bought up in Bombay and the only South Indian connection that she has is that she is from Andhra Pradesh.

But she worked really hard.

There is a certain livewire effect about her on screen, especially she speaks to the camera.

So she fitted in beautifully.

I am very happy that we could discover someone like Vidhatri Bandi through Jalsa.

IMAGE: Vidya Balan plays hotshot journalist Maya Menon in Jalsa.

The dynamics of characterisation display a duality. For example, Vidya and Shefali, their respective sons are also pitched against one another, as are Vidya and Vidhatri. Do you see the Indian class structure as a world divided by invisible walls?

You write stories about the world you live in.

Sometimes you are not aware when you are putting these worlds together, these characters together.

I think we are constantly ruminating on our experiences and observations because the day I try to write a film with these agendas in mind, I think I will be a fake.

I will be someone who would be writing for the sake of looking and sounding intelligent.

I am glad that people are observing those nuances but it was not a conscious effort.

Is Jalsa based on a true incident? What triggered off this cinematic journey?

I wouldn’t say one or two incidents, but I was fascinated with the idea that… what if?

It started with a hit-and-run idea and I wanted to understand the psyche of a person, who runs away and the fear that looms large.

It was another idea initially, and then it took its own shape.

I think these are the borrowed incidents, be it the cop story, be it the negotiations, the hit and run.

I think it’s the inspiration you get from all that you read, all that you listen to… the story is lying out there.

I would say it was an amalgamation of a lot of real events with a binding force called coincidence.

How difficult was it directing all these fiery temperamental women? Did they gang up against you on the sets?

I have no hair left on my head, but that has got nothing to do with Jalsa.

I love working with my actors.

I feel you can have the best production design, the best cameraman, the best colour pallet, everything, but if your actors are not good, it is of no point.

I thrive on them.

I love exploring what I can get out of them.

So yes, it’s demanding in a way because people have bigger expectations from them.

Finally, what are you planning to make next? Sulu hires Ruksana after Maya fires her?

That’s a very interesting idea!

Maybe I can bring this whole idea together, but then I would need a double role.

But no, nothing like that as of now.

I am very keen to do an action film or a comedy.

I have an idea that I am working with Vikram Malhotra and Abundantia. Hopefully, you will hear about it soon and not wait another five years.

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