No One Killed Jessica
In 1999 model/waitress Jessica Lall refused to serve drinks to a rowdy man in a crowded bar, who then shot her point blank in a fit of rage. That man turned out to be the son of an influential politician, but with 300 witnesses it seemed like a straightforward case. However, in an unfortunate example of the rot in the judicial system and rampant corruption, all the witnesses were either threatened or paid off, and the evidence was tampered with, leading to the release of the killer. No One Killed Jessica by Rajkumar Gupta follows the initial courtroom campaign relentlessly pursued by Jessica’s sister, Sabrina (Vidya Balan), and then the news media battle for the reopening of the case led by fictionalized reporter Meera (Rani Mukherji).
No One Killed Jessica remains obsessively loyal to the central plot of the real events; the film is about the murder case and nothing else. There are no romantic tracks snuck into the narrative, no diversions, and no subplots. Every scene is in some way connected to the main story, and this loyalty becomes the film’s greatest strength. For just over two hours, Gupta sucks you into the minute details of the case and, even if you know how it all turns out, the film makes you feel disgust for the guilty parties and root for justice. The bigger message here is the immense power of a democratic movement leading to a change in the system. As Meera questions at one point, “What would happen if power is truly given to the ordinary man?”
The structure of the film is intriguing. The two protagonists hardly have any screen time together and there is a reason for it. The first half of the film is focused more on Sabrina and her fight to ensure a solid case against the accused, Manu Sharma. Meera’s life runs parallel to provide a wider news context of the time (i.e., Kargil war, Indian Airlines flight hijacking), but she doesn’t really have a role to play in the Jessica case at that stage. The first half also moves at a somewhat slow pace, fitting in well with the simpleton personality of Sabrina’s character. The second half then sprints into more sensational and glamorized action where Meera comes to the forefront and takes on the cause. Sabrina’s role then diminishes until the latter parts, and the very moving climax.
Mukherji’s portrayal of Meera is by far the more interesting character, whereas Balan’s Sabrina becomes so understated that she comes off as dull. The most memorable performance, however, is by newcomer Myra Karn who plays Jessica. She is simply a revelation. She injects such charm and vivaciousness into Jessica that you instantly fall for her.
Hindi cinema has traditionally had a very overbearing approach to advocating social change. With No One Killed Jessica, Gupta walks a fine line between making a hard-hitting realistic film and a commercial political thriller. As a result, he tends to slip on a few occasions. However, considering that every detail of the case is already so well known, Gupta delivers his retelling in such an engaging manner that you get pulled into the chaos of the moment. No One Killed Jessica is a brave film that picks a battle and fights it until the end. It’s not just a promising start to the films of 2011, but with all the corruption scandals plaguing India these days, the timing seems even more appropriate.