After capping off 2010 with an embarrassing film like Tees Maar Khan, UTV Motion Pictures has turned right around by kicking off 2011 with a film that actually makes us feel good about the year ahead. How one production company can exhibit such a drastic range of quality of cinema is a whole another discussion. But for now they must be applauded for backing a film like No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ) by Rajkumar Gupta. After an incredibly raw and gritty debut film like Aamir, Gupta’s second feature is more commercial, has a mixed bag of performances, but is ultimately a powerful and gripping drama about a real event that rocked India.
In 1999, a model/waitress Jessica Lall refused to serve drinks to a rowdy man in a crowded bar, who then in a fit of rage shot her point blank. 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 tampered with, leading to the release of the killer. Gupta’s film 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).
Gupta remains obsessively loyal to the central plot. The film is about this murder case and nothing else. There are no romantic tracks snuck into the narrative, no diversions, no subplots. Literally 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 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 (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.
Where NOKJ falters is in the casting of the supporting and minor roles. There are police officers, lawyers, the “villains”, and an army of witnesses from the incident and later random people around the country who join the fight for justice. It’s an incredibly heavy load of characters and the uneven casting at times brings the film very close to being unintentionally funny or suspiciously masala. What was the need, for example, to show Manu’s mother on three different occasions peering from behind a curtain to say “Please do anything, but save my son”? I couldn’t decide if that was a parody of filmy mothers or genuine emotion but it came off as a caricature. In the courtroom scenes, the lawyers enjoy barking at their witnesses in typical filmy style, which often took away from the intensity of the situation.
Mukherji’s portrayal of Meera is by far the more interesting character whereas Balan’s Sabrina at times becomes so understated that she comes off as dull. The most memorable performance, however, is by newcomer Myra who plays Jessica. She is simply a revelation. She injects such charm and vivaciousness into Jessica that you instantly fall for her. It’s a stunning debut by someone who claims to not have the slightest interest in acting. Of the rest of the supporting cast, Rajesh Sharma as the cop working on the case delivers a standout performance. He’s one of the good guys in a world where “good” is a very relative term.
This review would not be complete without mentioning the sheer brilliance of the background score and soundtrack by Amit Trivedi. There are times when the music evokes more emotion than the action on screen. The songs gain even more currency in the narrative; ‘Dilli’ is used fantastically in the opening credits introducing the city and the events of 1999; ‘Aitbaar’ accompanies a montage that shows the chronic weakening of the case over seven years and how Sabrina gradually loses hope; and ‘Dua’ is placed effectively during the climax, heightening the emotions of the moment.
Hindi cinema has traditionally had a very overbearing approach to advocating social change. It’s usually loud, preachy and tiresome. With NOKJ, 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. More careful casting of the smaller roles and less of a commercial feel would have taken the film to new heights. Regardless, it’s 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.