In death, Jessica Lall galvanized sympathy. The murder of this aspiring model at a socialite’s restaurant in Delhi by Manu Sharma, son of a power-wielding politician from Haryana, was a potent trigger for public outrage. Sharma gunned down Lall, who was bartending for the evening, when she refused him a drink. It was like a movie.
The moot point of the debate, in the media and in public discourse, ever since the killing in 1999 became simple, and abiding: If someone can get away with murder committed in front of the Capital’s who’s who because he is a politician’s son, who can even think of protecting the Everyman Indian?
Through the drama, Sabrina Lall, Jessica’s sister, was the stoic protagonist. She was the face of the wronged, in a battle against Delhi’s power elite.
Contrasts: Rani Mukerji (left) and Vidya Balan play characters who are different from each other in looks and temperament.
When Raj Kumar Gupta, director of the new film No One Killed Jessica, met Sabrina in Delhi every evening for a couple of months in 2009, he was convinced she was going to be the film’s emotional axis. “The words I remember are ‘everybody is human’. She told me this. I was quite startled. Sabrina had a matter-of-fact way of speaking about her struggle. She had kind of gotten used to the loss and there was no room left for emotional or sentimental rants. She just had to keep going on.” Gupta decided he would keep the film’s focus on the emotional journeys of the people around Jessica’s life.
Gupta met others who had been involved in the case—witnesses, investigators, reporters— but for the film’s factual heft, he depended largely on media reports. Later, another character emerged. “After researching for about three months, I had to distance myself.” The other woman besides Sabrina (played by Vidya Balan) is a journalist named Meera Geti (played by Rani Mukerji), a ballsy, foul-mouthed TV journalist who helps Sabrina send the murderer to jail. “I wanted that character to be a b**** with a golden heart, and Rani Mukerji has done the role to a tee,” Gupta says. The media’s role in reopening the case and triggering national debate gets due depiction.
No One Killed Jessica is a rarity in another sense. Compared with the cinema of other countries, where real-life murders have been fodder for many memorable films—an eternal favourite of mine is Coen Brothers’ Fargo—Hindi cinema’s crime genre hinges on the Mumbai underworld, and in films before the 1970s, on gold smugglers (such as Teesri Manzil directed by Vijay Anand). Wonderful oddities such as Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar and Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under are inspired by sub-genres of the crime film narrative. No One Killed Jessica is based on a real-life case, though Gupta reiterates that his film can’t be watched just as a crime film. “It is a human drama based on a crime thriller. I wanted the journeys of the two women in the centre of the film to be the driving force.”
An associate director with Anurag Kashyap, Gupta made his first film, Aamir, in 2008— again a thriller, but largely about communal identity and the discriminations inherent in the idea of a “terrorist”. It received accolades, but was a blip at the box office. “This film is much bigger in scope. It’s a case that is already in public consciousness and I had to have big actors to make it work. I wrote the script keeping Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan in mind—both in roles that are starkly different from each other, but similar in some fundamental ways.”
No One Killed Jessica has already received attention as Mukerji’s “comeback film”. But that’s not why it is important.
The test for Gupta has been in how well the stars have performed and also, more crucially, in how well he has interpreted and reimagined a story that has already unfolded cinematically in real life for many years, before it reached its fitting, cathartic closure.
Q&A | Vidya Balan
‘I was stripped of all my excesses’
Trying to coordinate an interview with Vidya Balan in the week prior to the release of her latest film No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ) was a challenge. So somewhere between a promotional tour of India, New Year’s Eve and her birthday (1 January), I managed an interview between a shopping trip in Mumbai (for a belated Diwali present for her parents) and a drive back home to her new residence in Khar, where she spoke about her role as Sabrina Lall. Edited excerpts:
2010 was a great year for you.
Yes, it was a fabulous year. 2009 finished with Paa being critically and commercially successful. Then Ishqiya did very well. Suddenly, people were looking at me very differently and I think The Dirty Picture (on the life of Silk Smitha) happened thanks to Ishqiya. I started shooting for NOKJ, which was a strange (but good strange) experience because I was in this completely inconspicuous, nondescript avatar. I shot in the streets of Delhi unrecognized. Then awards for Paa began coming in and then I shot for two months in my favourite city Kolkata for Kahani, which redefined hard work for me. I shot 65 days without a break. There were also endorsement commitments, etc. It’s been crazy. But I am not complaining.
Extra ‘ordinary’: Balan was initially sceptical of her look in the film.
How difficult was it playing the part of Sabrina Lall?
I was stripped of all my excesses in this film—in terms of make-up, clothes, hair and even in terms of performance. I think director Raj Kumar Gupta really expected, and has managed to extract, an understated performance. The thrill of working with these New Age directors is that they have such a different take and you are on the same page. Cinema is actually about emotions. While we all know of Sabrina, we do not know what her emotional journey has been. NOKJ is based on a real-life incident but it takes you through the emotional journey of Sabrina and the people involved.
How much of the script is fact and how much fiction?
In the case of my character, we have lifted the spirit and strength of character of Sabrina, but the rest is a figment of our imagination. She was kind enough to share a lot of facts with Gupta but we could not have asked her what she felt like at that time. That would have felt very unfair. Therefore, it was not very different from playing any other character as I have based my characterization on the script. As for fact and fiction: What happened is a fact; how it happened is our interpretation. One cannot know what went on in people’s minds and hearts. If my Sabrina shares any similarities with the real-life Sabrina, it would be a happy coincidence.
Much has been said about your “de-glam” look.
Gupta wanted the journey of a regular girl. He said, “When you (the viewer) see her you should feel it could be you.” But as an actor and woman, you are a little vain, so at first I was a bit sceptical. But once I got into that look, I could see that girl who could have been Sabrina and I said “wow!” For an actor, that is half the battle won. My attempt was in creating a real person, so whether glam or de-glam is not the criterion for choosing a film.
— Udita Jhunjhunwala
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No One Killed Jessica released in theatres on Friday.