Release date: January 7, 2011
Director: Raj Kumar Gupta
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Vidya Balan
Conclusion: A good film. Holds the attention though it falls short of being gripping all the way. Top marks to Rani and Vidya for their performances. There are also some wonderfully written, wonderfully acted supporting characters in this film: the alarmingly realistic honest-yet-dishonest cop on the case superbly played by Rajesh Sharma; the prime witness to the murder who turns hostile, Vikram Jai Singh (Neil Bhoopalam); and Myra Karn in a brief but compelling appearance as Jessica. But implying – without officially stating – that Rani’s character is based on Barkha Dutt is an unnecessary gimmick. So here’s my review …
There’s a reason why I gave you my conclusion before the body of my review. After all, No One Killed Jessica is about a very very public real-life murder trial and we know the conclusion long before we enter theatres. The test then is the treatment.
For the most part, director Raj Kumar Gupta pulls it off. We watch the callous killing of model Jessica Lall by a politician’s son at a high-society do. There were 300 guests at that party. But at the bar in an adjoining room, as a policeman later points out to Jessica’s sister Sabrina, there were just a handful of witnesses to the crime.
The first part of the film takes us through Sabrina’s relentless pursuit of the case until witness after witness turns hostile and she gives up hope. It’s also through this time that we’re shown NDTV’s star reporter Meera Gaity refusing her boss’ suggestion that she follow up the Jessica story. It’s an open and shut case, says Meera, later to discover how wrong she was.
Vidya’s Sabrina Lall is quiet, dogged and tugs unbearably at the heart. Rani as Meera Gaity is feisty, flashy and supremely entertaining to watch. And Gupta – who earlier directed Aamir and who has also written the screenplay and dialogues for NOKJ – gives us a bunch of accompanying players who are neither black nor white, but human and gray … There’s the aspiring actor who should have been the case’s prime witness, asking, “If you were given a choice between a crore of rupees and a bullet, what would you choose? I don’t want a crore, but I don’t want a bullet either.” There’s the bumbling socialite digging into a chocolate cake as she tells Sabrina that her memory of the incident is confused. There’s that fabulous policeman who burns the midnight oil to crack the case but also informs Sabrina matter-of-factly, “I took Rs 70 lakh from these guys just to keep my hands off the boy while he was in custody” and then, in reaction to her shocked expression: “Sab koi khaata hai. Kisliye, mein fark hai … Aap kaunsi duniya main rehti ho Sabrinaji?” Completely, utterly lovely.
But the film slips up on other fronts. The mother of Jessica’s killer is a caricature, terribly acted and killing the mood each time she is crudely inserted into a scene. I also kept waiting to see Vidya transform into the Sabrina we’ve seen on TV for many years now, the sparkling girl who pulled herself out of her despair when she witnessed the public and media support for her battle. The fault here lies not with the actress – the fault lies with the script which seems inexplicably keen to anoint a solo journalistic crusader (and not Sabrina) as the star of this story.
NOKJ is an unsual, experimental blend of reality and fiction which is interesting until this point. But if you were to believe the film, then the entire Justice for Jessica campaign was spearheaded single-handedly by one particular journalist from NDTV. Among other things, this is factually incorrect though NDTV was no doubt at the forefront of the movement.
The producers say Rani’s Meera Gaity is not Barkha Dutt but “an amalgam of many journalists who worked on the story”. But boy oh boy, have they gone out of their way to remind us of Dutt in the film! Gaity is a star female reporter from NDTV who covered Kargil. Who else are we the people expected to assume that she is? Is this a stunt intended to spark off speculation and thus bring more bums to theatre seats because Dutt is the most visible face of Indian TV news today?
In a bid to build up Gaity’s character, Gupta even ends up displaying what seems to be a lack of understanding of the functioning of news channels – a pity since Bollywood got it absolutely right in a pathbreaking fashion just so recently with Peepli Live. NDTV is so foolish in this film that when they conduct a sting operation, they send one of their anchors (read: a visible face on national TV) to meet the man they are investigating. This reporter is an under-confident idiot, because after all she’s not Meera Gaity. But the day is saved again by … guess who? … Meera Gaity who guides the foolish girl past every one of her faltering moves.
There’s also some worrisome gender stereotyping in NOKJ. Rani’s Gaity ends up perpetuating many widely-held assumptions about professionally successful women. She is single, brilliant, foul-mouthed, aggressive, has sex (because of course that’s Hindi filmdom’s way of saying she’s ‘liberal’), smokes relentlessly and (her words not mine) she’s “a bitch”.
But let these grouses not divert attention from the fact that NOKJ is a ground-breaking film. Unlike Hollywood, respectable film makers from mainstream Bollywood have so far steered clear of recent real-life events. NOKJ is courageous in that respect.
Besides, there is much that is moving in the film. When a despairing Sabrina refuses to join in the Justice for Jessica campaign, we see her recently widowed father lying in a hospital bed, surreptitiously getting a nurse to send an SMS in support of the movement. Then there’s Amit Trivedi’s rousing music. And most of all, there’s the flashback to the spirited Jessica that Sabrina knew and loved, the girl who tells her sister: Today you tolerate an eve teaser, tomorrow he’ll come back to rape you, what will you do then?
This is a story that needed to be told. And for all its flaws, No One Killed Jessica tells it well.
Rating (out of five): ***