The facts are staggeringly cinematic. Jessica Lall’s murder and Sabrina Lall’s battle for justice are part of our collective memory. Seven years after he shot her to instant death, when Manu Sharma was convicted of murder, a silent, but collective catharsis took place. The story’s trajectory can’t be messed with, because Sabrina’s imperturbable and determined persona constantly stayed in the headlines; so did the powerful politician’s tenacity in fudging the truth. To have catalysed the final verdict is one of Indian media’s unequivocal triumphs.
So, when a film comes along, “inspired” by the facts, the curiosity doubles. Will it tell us something we don’t know? Will it reimagine Jessica or her killer? Can it take us to the inner life of the Lall family? The experience of watching Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica is akin to watching a crime thriller in which the murderer is revealed right at the beginning of the plot—when you are not waiting for a startling twist, but for how the wreath of intertwined details in the plot unfurls.
Rani Mukherji and Vidya Balan in “Noone Killed Jessica”
Gupta’s film turns this potentially satisfying narrative into shtick. The director-writer is confused as to what deserves his imagination—the story itself, the courtroom drama, Sabrina’s life, the other protagonist besides Sabrina that he creates, the cast of supporting characters, or the visual language. A film is sloppy if any or some of its parts are hurried through, but in No One Killed Jessica, the glaring negligence of everything except how the two main characters should appear and act spirals it down to the realm of mediocre Bollywood—courtroom scenes are farcical, with loud, haranguing lawyers shouting down witnesses; close-ups of characters in poorly-acted scenes are jarring and there are some overstretched scenes that contribute nothing to the story, only slacks its pace. Barring the performances of Balan and Mukerji, and some skilfully dramatized scenes, No One Killed Jessica does not hold up in entirety.
The film follows a linear narrative arc, opening with the news of Jessica’s murder reaching her sister Sabrina (Vidya Balan). We soon witness the murder itself. Jessica (debutant Myra Karn) is portrayed as a vivacious woman who speaks her mind and Manish Bhardwaj (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) who fires the fatal shot at her as a boorish brat with a thick Jat accent. From there, the film moves to the family’s temporary resignation to their loss and then to the moment when they find out on television that Manish, who had surrendered to the police, is out on bail. Sabrina, a girl in her early 20s, goes in search of eye witnesses—her first step towards finding justice. The witnesses, inspired from real-life characters, appear on screen and leave without no real impression of who they are and why they did what they did. All of them are caricatures, acting out their lack of courage by hamming or whining. The only real character in the film is that of a cop (Rajesh Sharma) who, in one of many well-executed moments, tells Sabrina how much bribe he has accepted to comply with the guilty. There is cold cynicism in his tone and voice. The same man later helps the media expose Manish’s crime.
The narrative parallel to Sabrina’s story is that of a patchy journey of Meera Geti (Rani Mukerji), a firebrand reporter for NDTV who, after reporting from Kargil and having shown her intolerance for stupidity and knack for using cuss words along the way, returns to her Delhi office as a hero. She is uninterested in the Jessica Lall murder case because she is convinced it is a foregone conclusion Manish Bhardwaj would be convicted. When he is out on bail after the key eye-witness, an aspiring Bengali actor named Vikram (Neil Bhoopalam), takes back his statement to the police, she is fired up. “Let’s nail the b******d,” she tells the reporter who has been following the case. A wave of public outcry is galvanized until the case is reopened and Manish gets life imprisonment.
It has been two remarkable years in Balan’s oeuvre. She has chosen roles which are written such that they require her to mould her body language and think about her character—a blessing for actors who are hungry for a rewarding trip. This is another role in which she has immersed herself. She has lent it a kind of suppressed physicality and the gentle but dogged persona of her real-life counterpart.
Mukerji is overloaded and overdetermined and she blusters through the role of the “bitch” who gets away with everything. Hindi films in the past year have portrayed the self-satisfying machinations of the TV media ruthlessly and in simplistic terms. Here, the role of the media in the verdict of the case gets due depiction. Even so, it is a myopic and unresearched look at how TV newsrooms work. For Meera, her boss and the TV studio are more like play things, always under her control. The boss bends over to her whims. But for some sassy one-liners and Mukerji’s convincing histrionics, Meera is a caricature.
There is no spectacular camerawork or visual treatment of its locations in the film. But No One Killed Jessica suffers the most from confused direction. Did the director want it to be a gritty crime film or a formulaic Bollywood drama? A film based on a real criminal case rarely comes along. No One Killed Jessica is a film of stilted possibilities—it can’t define a genre or even pass off as a competent piece of film-making.
For a watch, the two ladies holding fort is the only abiding reason.
No One Killed Jessica released in theatres on Friday.