It was 1999. There was an insurgency in Kargil; people were preparing for the new millennium; India had gone nuclear a year earlier; internet was still in its infancy and the world was at the footsteps of the dot com boom, and bust. In this year, Jessica Lall, a little known aspiring model and bartender, was shot dead by a cabinet minister's son when she refused to serve him a drink at a popular Delhi nightclub. There were 300 witnesses, but only 7 admitted to have been there. These included the owner of the club, her daughter, an aspiring model and a cleaner. As Jessica’s sister, Sabrina struggled to secure justice for her sister, she realised that this was going to be an uphill task as she faced corruption, nepotism and naked display of power. It was supposed to be an “open and shut” case. As the trial court judgment came out, the world was shocked and the media joined Sabrina to take on the system.
This is the tale that is depicted in No One Killed Jessica. There are several films which have had a similar plot Countless masala movies come to mind involving corrupt policemen, politicians and judiciary. The only difference here is that this is not just a story; this is a true story. The murder happened; justice was denied; a happy and well knit family was destroyed and 10 years of their life were wasted in the quest for justice. Therein lies the strength of the film. You identify with the events; in a small way, you may even have been a part of it.
In terms of storytelling, the director uses the same technique as The Social Network. This is not a documentary, or even a docu-drama. It emphasises on gripping storytelling rather than slavishly following facts and suitably fictionalises characters and plot points for the sake of entertainment. Nevertheless, it follows the facts where they matter. The recreation of the sequence of events, particularly the murder itself, is crafted in such meticulous detail that it has a chilling effect on the viewer. It even uses the contemporary events that shaped the public opinion on the case, like the release of Rang De Basanti. Meera (Rani Mukerjee) is an amalgamation of a legion of reporters who worked tirelessly on the issue. Sabrina (Vidya Balan) is depicted as a determined but helpless sister whose entire life is destabilized with that one bullet. Doing so helps give the film a tight narrative and greater dramatic force as we see the two suitably contrasted women (battle against the system. The writers canonize Jessica (played by Myra) thereby elevating her from an ordinary victim to an embodiment of the modern, progressive, free thinking woman. The script is excellent and packs a strong emotional punch as it puts together 7 years of facts into a 140 minute runtime. The film is furiously paced, bursting at its seams with anger, irony, sarcasm and earnestness. It has resonance and relief in equal measure.
However, it falls short of perfection by a considerable margin. There are some very serious problems in the writing. First, the courtroom sequences leave a lot to be desired. In a film that strives to be authentic, the flaky way in which the courtroom sequences are depicted is quite off putting. There are simple things that the film gets wrong. For example, one of the witnesses claims that he cannot speak Hindi. However, he seems to understand everything the investigating cop and the prosecution lawyer say in Hindi and no one points it out. Second, while the dialogues are refreshingly peppered with expletives and obscenities, there are several points where it comes across as forced, awkward and therefore, fake. I know it’s rare that one gets to here such language on screen, but must it be used so unnecessarily? The dialogues are also plagued with clichés at some points which have no place in a film like this. Particularly painful, jarring and even borderline offensive, is the killer's mother who is extremely filmy and annoying.
Thankfully, the execution by Raj Kumar Gupta is solid and helps overcome some of these flaws. The director takes giant strides as a storyteller from his first outing, Aamir. The music and background score by Amit Trivedi are fantastic and provide additional depth and meaning to the proceedings at appropriate points. The one song that stays with you though is, of course, "Dilli" which fits the film's angry tone perfectly. The production design is, by and large, authentic and the cinematography is stunning in places.
The performances are littered all across the spectrum. Vidya Balan is brilliant as the shy and closeted Sabrina who is suddenly thrust into the spotlight after her sister is murdered. She is suitably restrained and conveys far more through her eyes than her words. It would not be incorrect to say that the film belongs to her. Rani Mukerjee is good but the whole aggressive, ambitious, foul mouthed act would be better suited for a good character actor. However, the rest of the cast is plagued with theatricality. Moreover, the performances by the actors playing Jessica’s mother, the club owner and Vikram Jaisingh leave a lot to be desired. Their performances are fake, over the top and mar the dramatic impact of the film unnecessarily.
Ultimately, Indian cinema still has a lot to learn about making fact-based films, if for no other reason, then just because so few are made. However, No One Killed Jessica is certainly a step in the right direction. It is well researched, responsible, tightly scripted and brilliantly executed. It has its flaws which keep it from joining the likes of Black Friday, The Social Network and All The President’s Men. Nevertheless, it is gripping cinema and more than worth the price of admission.