No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ) is quite a good film that opened internationally last month on January 7th. As the story begins it is 1999. An aspiring model actress, Jessica Lal, is working as a bartender/waitress at a private party in one of Delhi’s most fashionable and trendy clubs. She is shot at point-blank range for refusing to serve a customer a drink after the bar had closed.
There were multiple eye witnesses to the shooting. The victim died in the ambulance en-route to the hospital. The shooter was the son of a MLA or a Member of the Legislative Assembly which is akin to our House of Representatives.
The police begin to collect evidence, and soon enough they have their man. They are also bribed to not beat a confession out of him.
Only the Delhi courts have an extreme backlog. By the time the trial begins, six years later, the ballistic evidence has been tampered with, the eye witnesses have been intimidated or bought off or both. The rest of the 300 folks who attended the party, who might have seen the gunmen leaving the club, all swore they weren’t sure, or that they hadn’t seen anything, or that they had already left the club at that time, or were in the bathrooms.
In short, the entire case went down the tubes. Insufficient evidence. Case dismissed. The shooter walked out of the courtroom a free man. The Delhi newspapers and the Indian national media outlets screamed their outrage in huge headlines: No One Killed Jessica!
The two main characters of this film, were the victim’s sister Sabrina played by Vidya Balan, and a tough-minded TV news anchor, Meera Gaity, played by Rani Mukherjee.
Not only was Sabrina dismayed at the result, but her mother passed away shortly after the trial concluded, and her father then suffered a stroke. The rest of the country was shocked and outraged at the miscarriage of justice.
But India may have been used to such things as police on the take, corrupt politicians, influence peddling, and the intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.
Enter Meera Gaity, who had originally stated years back that she had no interest in doing a story on this case, because it was so open and shut. Everyone knew he was guilty. He’d be convicted, and that would be that.
Only he wasn’t convicted. He got away with the crime.
After some strong cajoling by Meera, and the fact that 200,000 messages had been received at the TV station, with 1000’s more arriving daily, Meera and Sabrina, joined forces, mobilized by public opinion, with the intent of bringing justice along after it had been left behind. A sting operation was run to capture the prosecution’s key witness (who had been bought off) in his lies, and a media blitz launched to agitate the powers that be. Slowly, sort of like what Howard Beale did to mobilize the public, and public opinion in the film Network, produced 35 years earlier, people got angry about the way justice had been tossed out the window. Eventually after the new and important evidence and facts had been brought to the desk of the President of India, orders were issued that a new trial be convened.
This time the case was open and shut. Guilty as charged. Do not pass go. Go directly to jail – for life.
And so it goes. While these events were right off the front page of every newspaper and news magazine in India, this film took plenty of cinematic license. The film has a placard at its beginning that says the film is hybrid – a combination of fact and fiction. However, Jessica Lal, the victim, was all too real, and though it took more time and energy and effort than anyone thought given that the victim was shot directly in front on numerous witnesses – justice was ultimately served.
As for the film, Director Raj Kumar Gupta did a more than decent job. The film has some terrific visuals, the pace is lively, and the film is dominated by the two lead actresses. The problem is the film is hampered to a degree by its structure. The run up from the introduction of the characters, Jessica, Sabrina, Meera, and the killer to the start of the 1st trial was fast paced, involving, exciting, and brilliant.
But the first trial was given short shrift and served as a coda between the first half of the film, and the second half of the film. Codas are usually add-ons at the end. In my view, the onscreen trial was executed too quickly and was tilted too far to one side. Like the script was designed to show us that the prosecution had no chance at all. Which may have been the case in the actual courtroom. Objection after objection made by the prosecutor were over-ruled. That may have been the reality. But as a scene in a cinema, it fell flat, seemed truncated, and actually needed close-ups of the prosecutor and a witness in denial to create an impression of the fierceness of cross-examination – which failed anyway.
The second half of the film suffered from a lack of suspense in one sense, and from another perspective – the sense of real-time urgency leading to an afterglow once the intended goal was achieved, seemed off. Despite that we knew what was coming, it just didn’t carry enough cinematic impact although the results were overwhelmingly positive. Additionally, the visuals of the demonstrations, including a candle-light vigil, seemed head-count small – maybe a thousand people but most likely far less – not tens of thousands. Of course that caused by the logistical issues that the film makers faced. But it harmed rather than helped the scope of the film.
As for the two leads; first let’s look at Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the sister of the murdered girl. This was the far more difficult role. Sabrina was a plain jane – so Balan had to dress down, wear eye glasses, abandon make-up and jewelry, and wear her hair in the most simplest of ways – just pulled back off her face. She also had to play the role of a woman whose family has been destroyed. She’d been so beaten down and disappointed by the system, to the point that when Meera first approaches her, she has neither the strength, the conviction, or even the desire to go through this all over again.
It was simply a fabulous portrayal by Balan. She touched your heart in almost every moment she was on the screen.
On the other hand – Rani Mukherjee’s portrayal of the foul-mouthed, smoking, swearing, cussing, and being generally overbearing to her crew at the television station, or her housemaid, was far easier. She also had some laugh out loud lines that made you as the audience look at her in awe. What a dame !
For example – after covering the Indo-Pakistan War of 1999, with live-on-the-scene reporting from the front lines at Kargil, Meera is on a flight back to Delhi. A male passenger tries to chat her up. He recognizes her from the TV – he wants to be able to tell his friends that he had been with a beautiful TV war correspondent. So he tells her … “how exciting the war is – like watching an action film – with huge weapons, tanks, rockets, airplanes, bunkers …”
Meera cuts him off, being able to recognize him as a guy on the make. She tells him … [and you also saw] ” the bodies of our soldiers. I am sure you enjoyed that as well.”
He tries to back pedal, “I mean…”
She cuts him off once more, “If you had been there, you’d be shitting bricks” When he says, “Excuse me. What did you say?”, she repeats it again, this time loud enough for people sitting six rows away in either direction to hear.
Later in the film, she and her boy friend arrive home after a night out. They start to fool around. They are on the bed and things are getting passionate. The phone rings. It is Meera’s producer. He needs her to come in at once – as there’s some new developments in the case. Meera jumps up from the bed. “Sorry, I’ve got to go in”.
The boy friend is plenty heated up. He says, “How can you go now, and leave me like this? What shall I do now?”
Meera says, “Fly solo …” and is out the door.
She gets to use almost all of the cinematic sinful words, including the f-word multiple times. She is extremely passionate about everything she does. And there’s nothing she won’t do to get her way.
When her producer seems totally against re-opening the coverage on the Jessica Lal case, Meera chases him down to the car-park, and hops up to sit on the hood of his car, which prevents him from driving off. She asks him to let her cover the story again.
“N.O.” he says.
“F.O.” as in fuck-off she says. She demands that he either let her the cover the story or fire her on the spot. He says nothing, so she says,
“Justice has been denied. You can live with it. I will not.”
As written, Rani’s role is all fire and brimstone – she tosses about every swear and cuss word in the book. You’d think she was a US Marine Drill Instructor, barking at the new recruits, or maybe a Master Chief aboard a sea-going navy vessel telling a salty story.
It wasn’t that Rani didn’t perform well – actually she was brilliant – but the role was too one-dimensional that it didn’t require as much grading or skill to pull it off. It was the easier role…but Rani was still mesmerizing in it.
Though the film was structurally flawed, and Rani Mukherjee’s role was one-dimensional, I still thought the film was entertaining, well made, and definitely worth seeing. As the words show up on the screen of the film’s trailer – Two women – slap the system – on the face.
To me, for a country that is the world’s largest democracy – that was an irresistible lure to watch this film. Trailer at the link below.