Directed by Indian filmmaker Suresh Triveni (from Tumhari Sulu Fame), jalsa features young rookie actor Surya Kasibhatla – a cerebral palsy patient trying out the role of a child with cerebral palsy. This is arguably the first time a disabled artist has portrayed a disabled character in a Hindi film. jalsa features Vidya Balan as a popular news anchor and Shefali Shah plays her maid while Kasibhatla plays Balan’s son in the Amazon
Born in India, Kasibhatla loves technology and computer programming. He also created a computer game and developed a few websites. “My goal is to be a technology entrepreneur developing a voice-based operating system for people with disabilities. I also love acting and would like to continue as long as I get roles that I love,” says he, adding that he often studied during breaks while filming for jalsa.
Balan says playing Kasibhatla’s mother was the best thing about working on Jalsa. “The best role was playing Surya’s mother. He doesn’t see anything as a limitation and the credit goes to his parents. The way they raise him and the confidence he has (it’s amazing). I I have to say, he’s such a brilliant actor. It didn’t look like he was facing the camera for the first time. He would convey so much with just one look. I’ve always been amazed by him.
Director Triveni agrees: “He is an incredible and self-critical actor, Hindi is not his mother tongue but he practiced it again and again. If he felt that a word was not audible or clear enough, he would continue to practice.
Speaking of the portrayal of people with disabilities on screen, Kasibhatla says, “I don’t know of any real people with disabilities acting in movies. Hitchki, Taare Zameen By and Koi Mil Gaya are some of the Hindi movies I can think of that portray disabilities in a leading role. jalsa take the cake now – I’m told this is the first time someone with cerebral palsy has acted in a Hindi film. Whether it’s me or not is a side issue.
The actor also shares his experience working on the film and insists that Amazon and Applause Entertainment made sure the effort was transparent. “Amazon Prime Video, Abundantia Entertainment and the entire team at jalsa made sure I was comfortable. We had so much joy and laughter together during the workshops, before filming started. We played games to build a relationship. I played cricket with the whole team and even danced with them. Filming on sets was also a fun experience. It was a pleasure to chat and film the scenes together.”
Director Triveni explains how to get Kasibhatla for his movie. “He is the heart of jalsa. We were clear that we wanted an actor who has this condition. I experienced the condition nearby. You have to give credit to my casting director Anmol Ahuja, he insisted on bringing Kaibhatla from America. And, due credits go to my producer Vikram Malhotra and Abunduntia Entertainment. They actually got it (in India, for filming). We made sure that all precautions were taken. We wanted him to acclimatize well before shooting started.
The filmmaker says the 13-year-old has been spending time with the team and even training with them. “We were very sensitive to his needs, but we weren’t sympathetic. I don’t like the idea of people with disabilities. They need empathy, not sympathy. We made sure he had 24/7 access to a doctor while filming. He lived in a serviced apartment where he had all the aids to get in and out on his own. What’s great is that his parents taught him to be independent. We just did what we could for any good actor,” Triveni said when asked about special arrangements for Kasibhatla.
Shefali Shah, who also appears in jalsa, says: “Surya is an amazing person. When I first met him, I was still getting used to it and trying to understand him. I asked Suresh (director) to leave us both alone and he did. Then I said to Surya “you get the relationship (between their on-screen characters), right?” He said “yes” and I said to him: “Now don’t say the lines, say what you want to say”. And, he stuck to the lines, but I think he got it perfectly. He’s so good, when I had scenes with him, I was just watching the kid, not acting.
“He’s not overconfident, but he’s confident. He’s not bitter, he’s happy and funny, and he’s also introspective. There were times when he said I don’t think I did well. This child is something else. I even tried to trade my kids for him, I really did, but no one is taking my kids,” laughs Shah as he logs off.
(Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)