NO ONE KILLED JESSICA – Theatrical review

“What has become of our nation? The human life is less than the cost of a drink.” — Sabrina Lall

For Delhiites, the Jessica Lall story is well known for its tragedy and injustice, but it is still an uplifting tale that is a beacon of hope for similar cases. It is not because everyone knew who Jessica was, but because of the manner in which she was brutally shot to death in front of 300 people. On 29th April, 1999, Jessica Lall (Myra Karn) was a bartender for a big social gathering. At about 2 a.m. when the bar finally closed, three guys demanded drinks. Lall’s mistake: she refused to serve them the drinks. In a fit of rage, one of the guys (the son of a Member of the Legislative Assembly) went back to his car, got a gun, and at a point blank range shot Lall in the head.

The media coverage of the affair and the ensuing court case drew attention from everyone in Delhi and elsewhere. For an open-and-shut case like this, the assailants basically got off scot-free. Not only did the case become a mockery of the corrupt Indian judicial system, but it also highlighted that the combination of money and political power can buy anything in India. The film’s title, “No One Killed Jessica,” is taken directly from the main headline that appeared in the newspaper, “The Times of India,” after the defendants were acquitted in the first trial that ended on 21 February 2006.

So, what reopened the case? It was thanks to a feisty, dynamic NDTV reporter, Meera Gaity (Rani Mukerji), who noticed the final verdict handed out to the defendants. She began her own quest to bring the perpetrators to justice. Instead of analyzing the dead case as it existed in its current state, Meera, through her junior reporters, carried out a sting operation. Meera’s team interviewed the key witnesses in the case through a series of tricky questionnaire that brought to light how the witnesses were bought; and all of this was broadcast live on TV without their knowledge. The consequence of this transmission resulted in an intense public furor over the case, and soon after the regional High Court office reopened the case. However, this time around the defendants were arrested without bail. Presently, the main assailant is facing life imprisonment.

Inspired by the real-life events, “No One Killed Jessica” follows the life of Jessica Lall’s younger sister, Sabrina Lall (Vidya Balan), who battles hard to get justice for her slain sister. The film deals primarily with the courtroom trial following Jessica’s murder. At the start, we are told that the film should not be taken as a documentary and that fictional elements have been inserted in the story. But after watching the film, I can say the filmmakers have succeeded in unfolding the true events faithfully. In fact, it is hard to not see this as a truthful piece of Lall’s case, although the script assigns fictional names to Lall’s attackers. Having said this, the film should not be taken as a crash course on the Jessica Lall case, but, rather, a moving story about the Lall family’s constant struggle and their vulnerability exposed by the dishonest law of the country.

Director Raj Kumar Gupta has taken a bold step in exposing the loopholes of India’s judicial system. In the process, he has also remained respectful to the Lall family. Other producers may have balked at the notion of creating a movie with a female lead, but the producer, Ronnie Screwvala, funded the project with no reservations. It is hard to say how history will look at “No One Killed Jessica,” but the film surely shrugs off the need for a male lead for it to be successful at the box office. From the producer’s perspective, however, the movie was definitely a risky prospect at the box office. Nonetheless, the producer’s gamble paid off after the film was declared a hit just after four days after its release.

The performances in “No One Killed Jessica” are exemplary. In the past, Vidya Balan has received critical acclaim for her nonmainstream roles in “Eklavya: The Royal Guard “(2006), “Paa” (2009), and “Ishqiya” (2010). In the existing pool of actresses in Bollywood, Balan’s acting credentials have soared with each project, and her acting acumen is far ahead of other actresses in the Bollywood industry. I can’t imagine anyone playing the role of Sabrina Lall other than Balan, who is simply breathtaking in every shot.

As Jessica’s younger sister, she displays a wide variety of emotions, but mostly she hides her pain internally. In a subtle, emotionally moving scene, when she appears at the NDTV office, we see her sitting with her head down and somewhat defeated but with a hope of still finding a spark to carry on the case. The scene is a testimony to Sabrina’s strength in carrying on the fight for the injustice served to her family, in spite of losing key witnesses. Further, the scene embodies the emotional pain absorbed by Sabrina during the course of the seven-year trial in which she also lost her mother. More so, Sabrina’s calm figure amidst all the turmoil only highlights the responsibility handed to her as she becomes the emotional anchor for her family.

Balan is able passionately to demonstrate sadness, anger, pain and eventual emotional fatigue with utmost perfection. Thanks to the writers for dropping the unneeded melodrama and instead focusing on bringing out true emotional expressions from its cast. We feel compassionate towards Sabrina and her family because Balan’s convincing, heartfelt performance makes us feel this way. I am sure she is going will be the front-runner for the National Award in the Best Actress category in 2011.

On the other hand, as a foulmouthed, energetic, hard-ass reporter, Mukerji’s presence injects urgency, and the plot accelerates during her scenes. Her character in the second half is entertaining to watch. Meera smartly devises a plan to uncover the truth behind the hostile witnesses. We are shown that she possesses extraordinary skills when covering any news report. When Sabrina loses all hope, Meera provides her the strength and the motive to keep on fighting. Nevertheless, I found Meera’s character underdeveloped in terms of her professional prowess. Is she detail oriented? What makes her unbeatable in her profession? In addition, I found Meera’s relationship to Sabrina inadequately developed. Nonetheless, as two separate characters, both Mukerji and Balan are convincing in their roles.

As a political drama, “No One Killed Jessica” accomplishes several things. It shows us even in the biggest democracy in the world that the real power is not in the people’s hands. In fact, the power is controlled by the politicians and their money. But behind India’s unlawful political facet also lies the true power of the people’s voice; it’s something that money can never buy, and its force can shake any political foundation when justice has not been served.

“No One Killed Jessica” features several positive attributes; it’s a well-made film with brilliant all-around performances. In spite of this, I felt the film lacked a killer punch, and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the story is too familiar by now, or maybe it is the film’s boisterous soundtrack, or maybe the script rushes through in developing Meera and Sabrina’s relationship. Surely, the film would have benefited greatly by trimming off a few extra minutes, as this would have increased the pace.

Still, the shortcomings are not a big concern. It is only the beginning of 2011, and “No One Killed Jessica” will certainly find its place in the top ten movies of 2011. It’s a motion picture that should be experienced, as it evokes various emotions like anger and frustration. Above all, Vidya Balan’s multifaceted performance is worth the price of admission alone.