The theme of ‘Jalsa’ looks to be about accidents, discovery and emotional conflicts. It’s almost like every character is trying to hide something. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation in real life, where you can’t really tell the truth and therefore the situation has become an emotional challenge?
Shefali Shah: Lying doesn’t come easily to me. It takes too much effort, trying to maintain it and then to maintain a façade. But that doesn’t mean I have never hidden something. I am sure, I can’t pinpoint an incident, but I am sure I have gone through the dilemma of, ‘how do I hold this within?’
Vidya Balan: I can’t keep anything within. I can lie, but I am terrible at even planning surprises. One day I just decided to surprise Siddharth (Roy Kapur, Vidya’s husband) by visiting him at the office. Mid-way I just called him and told him, ‘What are you doing? I am coming to the office’. He said, ‘Okay’ and then I said, ‘Oh! I wanted to surprise you’. But I have lied, but only to people who don’t really matter to me. Like you don’t want to go somewhere, so you lie.
Shefali: Those are excuses, not lies. The way I would view lies is that if there’s deceit or maybe I’m just mixing things up too much. I can keep a surprise, but my closest friends and people will always know what’s on my mind.
Vidya: My 10-year-old niece comes up to me and tells me, ‘I have a surprise! I have a surprise! Can I tell you?’ That’s exactly how I am. She’s 10 and I am 43, but there’s no difference.
Shefali, what’s the one quality of Vidya that surprised you while working with her?
Shefali: I admire every bit of Vidya. I admire her as an actor, woman and human being. There is so much warmth, genuine-ness and she exudes it. I don’t see any falsity in her. That’s a very important quality for me. What I admire about Vidya the most is the fact that she’s grounded and yet she’s confident in her own space. She’s very comfortable and confident about who she is, without ego or arrogance. I really wish I could do that, too. I am burdened with self-doubt, all the time. I am sure Vidya must have also had the same, at some point.
Vidya: Yes, of course!
Shefali: She’s changing me everyday, bit by bit.
Vidya, the same question for you.
Vidya: I’ve met Shefali a couple of times socially, but when we met for ‘Jalsa’ at the Abundantia office, she gave me the longest and warmest hug of all time. On the set, she was like a child. I’d watch her on set and she’d constantly be doing masti with the team. And to me, it was unlike anything that I had expected her to be. It happens to all of us, when we mistake the actor for the characters he or she has played. I was surprised to see how fun she was as a person. As an actor, God bless her and I feel she will always have that ‘magic’. The way she imbues every character with so much feeling is what amazed me before I had worked with her and even after working with her I wasn’t able to figure that out. That’s her magic, I guess.
Shefali: We’ve both been behaving like children for the past few days and it’s so much fun.
Vidya, you’ve conquered the theatre business, you’ve been the hero of 100 crore hits. Now you’re making a soft transition of sorts onto OTT with ‘Shakuntaladevi’, ‘Sherni’ and now ‘Jalsa’. Has this new direction been deliberate or just something that happened?
Vidya: There’s no thought process. We didn’t take the decision to release ‘Shakuntaladevi’ on OTT as part of any strategy. The pandemic had just exploded on the global scale and our film was ready. In a medium sized film like ours, we couldn’t afford the interest cost that is incurred when a film doesn’t release. So we released it on Amazon and I was amazed by the reactions. It got us so much love and even now, it’s one of the most viewed films on Amazon. ‘Sherni’ was also supposed to be a theatrical, but the second wave happened and it had to go to OTT. But with ‘Jalsa’ it’s been a conscious decision to release directly on OTT. Now I’ve tasted the magic of OTT and it’s just the best way to go. ‘Jalsa’ has a universal theme and people all around the world will be able to relate to it. I feel our film will break barriers.
How was the experience of working in ‘Jalsa’ with your acclaimed co-star?
Shefali: As an actor, it feels like a treat to work with someone who is so good. Even though our characters Ruksana (played by Shefali) and Maya (played by Vidya) don’t compliment each other, I think Vidya and I do compliment each other. It was like I had a wish list of who I want to work with. Of course, she was on my wish list and it’s happened now.
Vidya: I have said it enough, but maybe not yet enough, I have loved and admired Shefali’s work for as long as I can remember. Just the prospect of getting to work with her was an exciting one. Even though we don’t have too many scenes together, the few that we do have are all so powerful and impactful. I’ve always wondered about Sridevi’s and Shefali’s processes as actors. But I couldn’t figure that out on the set of ‘Jalsa’ because I was busy watching her perform. Maybe I’ll become an assistant director on a film that she does next (laughs).
When two actors come together, do they end up feeding off each other’s talent and elevating each other’s work? Especially in a dramatic setup like ‘Jalsa’?
Vidya: That becomes a little difficult to articulate. It’s a give and take scenario, which was happening between us, thankfully. The thing about working with someone like Shefali is that you know she will give it her all to every scene, with every actor. So I don’t really know how we ‘fed off’ each other, but I just know that we did.
Shefali: In the last four days that we’ve been promoting ‘Jalsa’ together, I figured that Vidya and I have great chemistry. Like really! It’s like we have a mutual admiration society. We’ve said before that our characters weren’t really compatible, because they are like the opposite sides of the coin. Perhaps on another project we could have been two actors who really come together to create, but with ‘Jalsa’ that didn’t happen because the divide between us was very necessary. The uncomfortable space between our characters Maya and Ruksana is something we respected and understood. As far as feeding off her goes, I would obviously do it, because it makes me richer. An actor’s job doesn’t happen in isolation. I am only as good as what’s happening around me.
As is the case with any art form, an artiste tends to put a part of themselves into what they create. Did you do that while playing these intense characters in ‘Jalsa’ as well?
Vidya: It’s very difficult to say where the character begins and where it ends and where Vidya stands in between all that. End of the day, it’s all in me. I find points of identification with every character and yet, there are things that I don’t really relate to, but somehow, I infuse myself into it and that’s where my experiences and my feelings get fed into the performance. It’s a very fluid space where you can’t really tell the difference. You don’t know where the actor’s job ends and the director’s job begins. Or even the director’s job ends and the DOP’s job begins. I guess, every department of filmmaking depends on the actor at some point and vice versa.
Shefali, ‘Delhi Crime’ was very similar to ‘Jalsa’ in its thriller and human drama themes. In that respect, have you found a calling of sorts with the thriller genre?
Shefali: I identify with any kind of human drama. The complexity of the human mind intrigues me and sometimes the simplicity of it endears me. ‘Jalsa’ is not just a thriller, it’s a human drama-thriller. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, you’ll keep guessing about what’s going to happen and what’s going on. But ‘Jalsa’ is also about interpersonal relationships and also about how your relationship with yourself also changes. It’s about how one incident changes everyone’s lives, and affects so many people’s lives. So the conflict is between characters as well as internal conflict of the people involved.
You both started off with stints on iconic TV shows and then onto movies and now on OTT. Did the fact that you two have had similar career paths become a point of bonding between the two of you?
Vidya: I don’t think so. We’ve spoken about television around the same time, but we haven’t really discussed it at length or anything. I mean, we were working in Tv around the same time, but I was studying and doing it at the same time, I had a project, which unfortunately never released and we talked about all that. Rohini Hattangadi was also on the set and we all connected on that part, too. So we all exchanged notes and reminisced about those days. But that didn’t become the reason to bond.
Shefali, the OTT revolution has dramatically impacted your career.
Shefali: ‘Delhi Crime’ became a game changer for me. Ask any creative person and they will tell you, content is king. On OTT you can express yourself fearlessly without the requirements of a commercial, box office film weighing you down. Best part is, you know your film is going to reach out to the entire world. That’s what we want. Even from the viewer’s perspective I can sit at home and watch any content from around the world. It’s enriching for a student of cinema.
Vidya: I am watching stuff in so many languages. It opens up your horizons and you get to learn from so many different types of cultures and people. My mother recommends to me what films I should watch. The other day she was recommending a fantastic Marathi film. So yeah, it’s great to see the impact of OTT platforms.