With a title taken from a Times of India headline, it is evident that No One Killed Jessica has the intention of being something other than standard Hindi film fare. The subject of the production, the murder of model and celebrity bar-tender Jessica Lall, serves as the mainframe of the story and seldom does the plot stray far from the real-life incident and the ensuing embryonic movement to score ‘Justice for Jessica’ after the trial collapses.
Director Rajkumar Gupta (his second film after Aamir) opens with a montage of India’s capital, the track ‘Dilli’ an accompaniment to visual imagery presenting the many facets of the city, before focusing in on a 2am phone call to Sabrina Lall (Vidya Balan) hearing that her sister Jessica (debutante Myra) has been shot. The film then takes us through flashback from the hospital to a late-nineties club scene, creating a rising tension that culminates in Manish (Zeeshan Ayyub) firing a gun after being refused a drink.
In a role spinning a 180 to the quintessential Yash Raj heroine, Rani Mukherjee plays Meera Gaity the straight-talking, chain-smoking NDTV journalist, who originally refuses to cover the Jessica Lall story as it lacks the glamour of her last assignment, the Kargil Conflict.
Sound like a familiar figure? You cannot but help draw parallels with senior NDTV presenter Barkha Dutt. When we contacted Barkha (although she still has to view the film) she seemed to agree with the Meera comparison, and confirmed that the filmmakers had shot in her office. Although the scene where Meera is shown going from a yoga headstand to on-camera in under ninety seconds, Barkha took to be artistic license.
In contrast to Mukherjee, Balan as Sabrina Lall fills the screen with fragility and a quiet emptiness. We see the transformation of her character from a wounded sister uncomfortable in the glare of the media spotlight, to a figure who, inspired by flashbacks by the courage of Jessica, remains vocal and unwavering in her fight to bring about justice
While costume designer Sabyasachi has put Mukherjee in costumes that begin with late-nineties news anchor wear to become steadily more polished and TV friendly, a deglam Balan is presented in shapeless, masculine clothing and the same grey t shirt that she inhabits in scene after scene over a five-year period.
For vast portions of the film, Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan do not share screen space. In fact, the two really only come together in one or two pivotal scenes firmly into the second half and in a cinematic denouement in the final reels. One potential problem in filming the stories that are essentially interlinked but only intertwined at the end, is that the project at times comes across as almost two separate productions. From the performance styles to the art direction, from genre to dialogue delivery, the shift between the tracks of Mukherjee and Balan can be dis-jarring. When the two actors do come together, however, you realise that the wait is worth it. Their initial meeting at Sabrina’s house aptly demonstrates why both of these Hindi film heroines are regarded as actors while their contemporaries might simply be called stars.
The film has been marketed by UTV as a political thriller. It can equally be regarded as a courtroom drama, with significant sections of narrative devoted to the trial of the accused and the unfolding drama as three hundred witnesses turning hostile. Unlike most Indian cinema, the genre of romance remains untouched. From Sabrina’s proclamation that she has never had a boyfriend to Meera’s casual rejection of a one-night-stand when she gets a late-night work related phone call, these instances seem emblematic in their telling that other cinematic subjects exist beyond romantic love. In spite of the sombre tone of the film, some moments of humour punctuate the story, the sting operation against Vikram Jai Singh (Neil Bhoopalam): epic, the (filmi) ma who peers around the kitchen curtain three times throughout the film to proclaim “Do whatever it takes but save my Monu”: epic fail.
One criticism that I would have of NOKJ, is that, weaned as we are on the star system of Bollywood, the extended scenes where the lead actors are missing from the frame, as public reaction is gaged across India to the miscarriage of justice, might have been more effective with tighter editing.
It is the performances of Mukherjee and Balan that make the film so watchable. Mukherjee delivers the role of Meera Gaity in a performance that may well secure a black statuette when awards season rolls around.
Balan, who often faces criticism for her attire and wardrobe choices (Heyy Baby) or a lack of dance skills (Kismat Konnection), excels in a performance-based role. Essaying the role of a real-life figure is never an easy task. Balan has gone on record to say that she did not meet with her namesake before filming, so it will be interesting to see how accurate her interpretation is. Without wanting to join the Balan fashion-bashers, from occasions that I have seen Sabrina Lall in the media, she seems to be a much more glamorous figure than is presented on celluloid.
NOKJ achieves its aim of being something other than standard Hindi film fare. After a string of over-hyped and over-budget offerings from Bombay cinema in the final quarter of 2010, No One Killed Jessica is a welcome antidote, and it will be interesting to see what awaits this powerful film at the box office.