Subhash K. Jha speaks about No One Killed Jessica

‘Wreath petition’…In a sequence brimming with a savage irony the mother of the murderer visits the slain girl Jessica Lal’s parents and lays a wreath on the deceased girl’s photograph. The stoic Murder India has only one speaking-line in this dialogue-oriented extremely thought-provoking treatise on justice and social awakening. "Kuch bhi karo mere Monu ko kuch nahin hona chahiye," she whines from behind the curtains as her powerful politician-husband plots to exonerate their laadla son from the murder charge. Justice will be drunk. For a while the murderer Manish Bhardwaj (Mohammed Zeshan Ayyub, looking like a cat that got the cream on its head while aiming for the mouth) is allowed to go scot-free. How did this monstrous travesty of justice happen in this celebrated real-life case? This, as they say, can happen only in India. Apna Bharat Mahaan. And one says this without irony after watching in rapt attention Rajkumar (Aamir) Gupta’s stupendous take on a headline that ripped across the lives of the rich and powerful and the exceedingly pretentious elite of Delhi. No One Killed Jessica straightaway takes us into the world of Jessica’s sister Sabrina Lal. The phone rings in the dead of the night to announce that Sabrina’s ebullient sister has hurt himself. "Go get her treated. She’s always hurting himself," Sabrina mumbles in her sleep. The hurt, this time, is far deeper than expected. Wounds too deep to be repaired open up in our socio-political and legal system as Sabrina’s case becomes a cause celebre…once again!

In re-creating the heinous crime from 1999 and the woeful attempts to suppress evidence to save the life of a bigda raeeszada, director Rajkumar Gupta is dead-on accurate. The mood of justice-smothered prevails from Frame 1. Cinematographer Anay Goswami swoops down on Delhi (the sutradhar of the plot, so to speak) to capture the mood of sweat grime and crime. Amit Trivedi’s wry resonant rippling sinewy music casts a zingy spell over the goings-on. Trivedi in fact invests a 2011 feel to the happenings in 1999 without subverting the periodicity. Aarti Bajaj edits the footage with an austerity that gives us barely a chance to grieve for Sabrina and her distraught parents. We don’t miss the mother’s glazed eyes, though. The pace is relentless, perhaps a little bit too much so. Why the paranoid persistence about creating a breathless pace? We weren’t going away anywhere, Mr Gupta. No One Killed Jessica is a persuasive powerful and pungent docu-drama. The narrative is remarkably devoid of overt sentimentality. The let’s-get-on-with-the-job-of-nailing-the-bastards mood goes effectively with the investigative journalist Meera’s character. As the Kargil-returned, cynical, horny chain-smoking foul-tongued bitch (her own description) Rani Mukherjee returns to the screen with a bravura performance. Looking like a million bucks and exuding a torrent of temperamental emotions Rani furnishes the fight for justice with an emphatic elan. Yup, she’s got what it takes. Cleverly Sabrina Lal’s character is transformed into a mousy timid quivering virgin-working girl (which the real-life Sabrina is not). By portraying Sabrina as an anti-gregarious creature of the shadows, Gupta immediately and effectively creates a contrast between Sabrina and her deceased vivacious sister Jessica (Myra, sunny screen presence) and of course between Sabrina and Meera. The contrasts are not killing. This is an implosively crafted screenplay shot with deft unsentimental hands that avoid the over-emotional moments by simply getting on with the business of getting justice for the Lal family. Indeed, No One Killed Jessica does full justice to Jessica’s memory. There are moments of great cinema strewn across the plot. Moments such as the one where Sabrina tells Meera she has no emotional freedom to do any of the normal things that girls her age do, or when the awkward untrained journalist struggles to tell Sabrina on camera that she can understand what the family is going through. And Sabrina retorts, "No you can’t. You don’t know." For us from the outside it’s very difficult to empathize with a family that has gone through a tragedy of such emphatic enormity. It’s even more difficult for a filmmaker to avoid seeming exploitative in recreating such a celebrated real-life tragedy. Rajkumar Gupta has managed to make a sensational motion picture without resorting to sensationalism. Yes, the film could’ve been less ‘obvious’ about its dramatic conflicts. Very often you feel the main characters are doing exactly what you’d expect them to, given the ghastly situation. Whether that is a good or a bad thing cannot be easily determined. Just where the filmmaker’s integrity dissolves into his temptation to make the headline-driven plot cinematically inviting, is a debatable issue. But this film doesn’t allow us to doubt its intentions. The performances are pitch-perfect…in Rani’s case, bitch-perfect. She makes the aggressive journalist Meera come alive in places like the conscience,that are not visible to the naked eye.

Like the conscience. Vidya Balan’s slouch, hesitant demeanour, soft-spoken speech patterns and a smothered pain and hurt make Sabrina Lal a character you empathize with because she isn’t screaming for your attention. She’s just doing what her conscience tells her. From the wanton adulterous saucy village wife in Ishqiya in January 2010 to the repressed anguished casualty of urban callousness in this film…what a range Vidya reveals! The rest of the cast of virtual newcomers is outstanding. Rajesh Sharma as the conscientious cop (the only voice of reason in an establishment filled with treason!), Neil Bhoopalan as the primary witness (who turns hostile because in his words he was offered a bullet or a crore and he wanted neither), Satyadeep Mishra as Rani’s quietly professional boss (Pranoy Roy knocking 30 years off) and of course Myra as Jessica…these are real people, not actors. Cleverly No One Killed Jessica ends with Jessica posing pouting and blowing kisses into the camera. The poignancy of the provocative postures somehow reminded me of Jodie Foster in The Accused where the girl having fun is gang-raped in a bar. Do we still punish women who dare to have a good time in a male bastion? No One Killed Jessica fills you with hope on many levels. While you look ahead with enthusiasm for more such quality-conscious cinema in 2011, you also look into a further future where justice will be done and human life won’t be snuffed out for a drink. This is a tale that had to be told. It is told in an edgy, gritty warm and provocative tone. Take a bow, Rani (welcome back!), Vidya, Rajkumar Gupta and the absolutely enthralling supporting actors. No one seems to be acting. Artifice is not one of the film’s many qualities. Thank God for small mercies.

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