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How Bollywood opened its doors for Suresh Triveni

Suresh Triveni on ‘Jalsa’, his new film starring Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah, and his journey from advertising to cinema

Suresh Triveni and Vidya Balan on the set of ‘Jalsa’
Suresh Triveni and Vidya Balan on the set of ‘Jalsa’

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Suresh Triveni debuted as writer-director with Tumhari Sulu, the story of an optimistic housewife who finds success as a radio show host. Five years later, Triveni has created a two-hander starring his Sulu star Vidya Balan and Shefali Shah. He describes Jalsa (on Amazon Prime Video from 18 March) as a hub-and-spoke story, a drama that teases the question ‘what if?’. Edited excerpts from an interview:

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How did you get into filmmaking?

I am a Malayali who grew up and studied in Ranchi. Later, I studied in Chennai, where I also worked. I am a confused Indian all over. The two things that keep an Indian going are movies and cricket, and I am a huge fan of both. When I was a kid watching movies, I always felt that the last name in the credits is the most important: ‘Directed by’. I thought, that is where I should be landing.

I have grown up on and loved hardcore Hindi films. I am a big Amitabh Bachchan fan. But I am a complete outsider to film-making. I didn’t know how to find my way in. I knew I did not want to come to Mumbai and struggle. I wanted to strike a balance between what I wanted to do as an individual and doing it in a way where my family does not suffer. Hence my entry into advertising, into client servicing, slowly moving to the creative side with a music channel, where I learnt the craft. I didn’t go to film school and I still regret that.

From ad filmmaking to doing a little writing and being optimistic and persistent got me here. I guess if you keep knocking on the same door again and again, eventually someone will open it and say, okay, just come in! That finally happened with Tumhari Sulu.

You are a writer and a director. Do you think it is better for a director to also be a writer on a project, or is it better to keep those roles separate?

I wrote the first draft of Sulu and then collaborated with Vijay Maurya. For Jalsa, I had a two-line idea and I got a new writer, Prajwal Chandrashekar, to write the first draft. What we finally filmed was a very different script, but having Prajwal write the first draft helped me to give the story perspective. I was very attached to Sulu and because of that there were problems in the script that I could not fix. When you are working with other writers, you can be more objective as a director.

Not all writer-director combination material will hit the bullseye. I think there is unnecessary hype about writer-directors. As a director, I don’t think you need to be able to write. The problem in India is that all directors want to write and all writers want to direct. I think the balance lies somewhere in between.

Did you have actors in mind while writing ‘Jalsa’?

Yes. I write with actors in mind. Sometimes the familiarity helps you in writing. Just as the end credit of ‘Directed by’ matters a lot to me, so too the first two names in the credits. I am excited about working with fantastic actors. I was fresh out of watching Delhi Crime and had always admired Shefali’s work. I also knew I wanted to work with Vidya again. This story looked correct.

Where did you get the idea for ‘Jalsa’?

I like drama as a genre but I don’t know where the idea for this story came from. I think all that we read, hear and see sediments in our imagination. I was toying with a few scripts but this one was constantly talking to me.

I like ‘what if’ stories. While Sulu was a feeling, I now wanted to do a plot. And women in a film don’t have to only be looking at women’s issues. Why not just a story with women in them? Jalsa is a hub-and-spoke story; it’s an event which touches everyone. Each character gets influenced and affected.

I have two fantastic actors leading it and then I wanted a bunch of actors who would set aside their baggage and totally submit to me. So Vidhatri Bandi plays a trainee reporter, there’s Iqbal Khan and the child actors Surya Kasibhatla and Shafeen Patel. Rohini Hattangadi was on my bucket list. Imagine going on set and seeing Vidya Balan, Shefali Shah and Rohini Hattangadi. That’s a powerhouse cast.

Why did you make your protagonists a TV reporter and a cook?

Being a journalist or a cook are professions that have pride attached to them. Secondly, these are professions where you need to trust. A cook is coming into your home and kitchen to cook for you. A TV journalist is someone sitting at the helm of news, for which trust is a fundamental tenet. This was key because the film is about an ethical dilemma.

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