There is a scene very early on when Rani Mukerji, playing journalist Meera Gaity, enters the newsroom at NDTV after being away at a war zone and everybody just breaks into applause. The camera pans around slowly we all just bask in the arrival in Rani Mukerji. I have to admit that I got a little choked up; it was really amazing to see her back on screen and in her element and No One Killed Jessica was a great showpiece for her and co-star Vidya Balan.
I was unfamiliar with the story of Jessica Lall before I went into the film but the story goes something like this – Jessica was working behind the bar at a high-class function when she was shot in the head. Although there were witnesses, the accused suspect – the son of a prominent politician – went free. Instead of letting the injustice stand, the media stirred up public interest and forced the government to step in and right the wrong.
No One Killed Jessica follows this basic plot but stories that are ripped from the headlines walk a tricky tightrope, you need to streamline and simply for clarity but simply too much and the story ends up like an episode of CSI - everything tied up neatly with a bow in 45 minutes. No One Killed Jessica suffers from the opposite problem, the story octopuses out into thinner and thinner threads until it just vanishes.
The first half of the film follows Jessica’s sister Sabrina Lall (Vidya Balan*) as she puts her faith in the legal system only to have it shatter as the witnesses are bought out, evidence disappears, and it becomes more and more clear that the criminal is going to walk. Vidya’s performance is extraordinary - her Sabrina reminded me of Arshad Warsi’s character in Sehar. Vidya’s larger-than-life charisma is funneled into this meek and orderly character. Her grief at the loss of her sister, her alternating of hope and despair as the trial approaches, all of it is mesmerizing. Vidya Balan is truly one of the great working Indian actresses.
While this is going on, Meera (Rani Mukerji) bides her time in the background. She initially considers the Jessica Lall case to be beneath her notice, just another “human interest” story. It’s in the second half, that Meera realizes that there is more to this murder case than the death of one woman and decides to throw the entire weight of the media behind it. It’s this second half of the film where the momentum built up slowly dies through montage after montage. This second half of the film isn’t bad but whenever the focus jumps from Meera to the reaction of the man on the street the story is put on hold and my attention drifts.
I mentioned earlier my emotional reaction to seeing Rani Mukerji on film again and she is luminous on screen - vibrant, full of life, and looking super hot. If nothing else, this performance should get everybody who is talking about how she is “over the hill” to (to paraphrase Meera) shut the f*** up. And the rest of the cast was good, too. I especially enjoyed Myra Karn who played Jessica in the flashback scenes, Neil Bhoopalam as Jessica’s friend Vikram, and Rajesh Sharma as a police detective. Director Rajkumar Gupta, whose previous film Aamir I haven’t seen, does a great job with the gritty feel of the film and Amit Trivedi’s music is, of course, superb.
No One Killed Jessica is a really good film, despite the flaws of the second half, and more than the political message (one which is echoed all the time in Bollywood and is even referenced in the film through one of the characters watching Rang De Basanti in the theater) what is really important about the film is that it is a showcase for two really powerful over-30 actresses. So many films claim to be women-centric but are really focused on romance and getting a guy (calling Turning 30), No One Killed Jessica expands the women’s realm into the world at large. This may not have been intended but there was a nice contrast between Meera and Sabrina who go out in the world and the mother of the murderer who only appears behind a veil and whose only words are variations on “return my son to me.” It used to be that devoted mother to the hero was the best a woman over 30 could hope for – today we have Vidya and Rani kicking ass minus any heroes at all.
*And as an aside, much as been made of Vidya’s “dowdy” persona in the film but if you ask me, filmi Sabrina isn’t dowdy, she is coded gay. Dowdy would have been some drab salwaar suits or something, Vidya is dressed in boxy men’s shirts and denims. I have more to say about this but I’ll save it for another post.