A smart, sophisticated film about an imperfect heroine is dominated by its near-perfect heroines.
JAN 9, 2011 – IN THE SUMMER OF 1999, while the war in Kargil was underway, Sabrina Lall (Vidya Balan) launched a battle of her own. Her sister Jessica (Myra) was shot dead by Manish (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub), the son of a politician, and Sabrina soldiered on till justice was served many long and laboured years later. This is a matter on public record, and the question walking into Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica is how he is going to make us sit through a story whose beginning, middle and end we already know. Will he, with a documentarian’s cool eye, opt for dispassionate disquisition? Or will he rip into the material with the righteous indignation so beloved to filmmakers who want their films to be about something – something big and topical and heavy? Gupta, to his credit (and I must admit, to my great relief), treads a middle path that’s tasteful and tactful and yet not embalmed with noble intentions. His film is alive – an artfully made, commercially-viable entertainment, a straightforward story backed by sophisticated storytelling.
I suppose there will be those who bring up the not insignificant issue of manufacturing a broad “entertainment” from the outlines of a real-life tragedy, but Gupta is clear about his purposes, and what he sets out to do he does very well. (He calls this a “hybrid of fact and fiction;” I’d call it fiction based on fact.) He wants to document a slice of our recent history, but he wants to make a film first – a movie that can be watched as commentary, as a footnote, as a reminder, or just as a stand-alone story. And to this effect, he employs a battery of time-tested audience-baiting tools. He narrates his story in bite-sized vignettes and with a foot pressed on the accelerator, so despite our familiarity with the facts we are swept along by the momentum and our interest never flags. He stages conventionally dramatic courtroom scenes, rife with bilious rhetoric that clearly demarcates the good guys from the bad, and this grandstanding extends to the lines outside too. When Manish’s father receives a call from his higher command about his unsuitability for political office, he protests, “Halki si hawa hai.” The reply? “Hamein to aandhi lag rahi hai,” that the surge of public protest is no longer a slight breeze but a storm.
And Gupta’s most canny, most crowd-pleasing ploy is to cast Rani Mukerji against type. This is exactly the kind of grownup part she should be playing, and liberating herself from the Meg Ryan-cutesiness that had long passed its expiry date, the actress comes up with fierce and funny performance, her finest since her golden-hearted prostitute in Saawariya. About the only misstep is the smoking. She holds the cigarette at an angle, like a ball-point pen, and doesn’t so much inhale as peck at it, and the weak cloud of smoke that issues forth is a disgrace to any self-respecting smoker. But everywhere else – when getting hot and sweaty with a man she probably picked up at a bar (and who’s never referred to again), when licking her fingers noisily during a meal, when casually colouring her lines with profanity – she nails a character whose most redeeming aspect is that she’s not a selfless martyr. When she wins a point against a news editor who sees little value in pursuing the Jessica Lall story, she’s not above a small smile of victory. Justice for Jessica is certainly important, but so is the recognition this will bring her – she’s doing this story as much for Jessica as herself.
This is an old-fashioned film in the best sense, almost simplistic in the way it wraps itself around readily identifiable tropes of a readily identifiable genre. I saw No One Killed Jessica as a gender-bending Western (which is just another name for the near-mythological masala movie with a dharma-upholding Saviour at the centre) – instead of a Man with No Name, there’s a Woman with a Name, Rani Mukerji’s Meera. She rides into a lawless town, sets things right with her own brand of justice (including a very funny sting operation), and walks away in slow motion, as alone as she was when she walked in. And Vidya Balan (who, after Ishqiya, seems to be doing her bit for rescuing January from the bad-movie blues) is the luckless frontier-woman, imperiled by bandits with political muscle. With the exception of Meera, the women are outsiders, and Manish’s mother is literally rendered an outsider as she stands behind the curtains by the doorway – the men are all inside, chalking out plans and strategies to free Manish – and wails, ”Mera Monu mujhe vapas chahiye,” that she wants her ickle son back. She’d be funny if she weren’t so pathetic.
But underneath this classical narrative structure, under this story of readily recognisable surfaces, there are reserves of great depth. Sabrina, at first glance, is the typical wallflower, recessive and passive to the extreme. When we see her first, she’s sleeping, and nothing, apparently, will wake her up. In a photograph taken with her sister, it’s Jessica, smiling and self-aware, who’s in front; Sabrina is content in the background, her head resting on her sister’s shoulder. She’s not ready with displays of emotion – when, in the ambulance, she realises that her sister is dead, there are no tears; only a statement of fact, “She’s gone.” With her hair bunched up in a scrunchy and with her very ordinary and loose-fitting tees, this is not someone who looks for attention and wants to be noticed. Later, while on television and when the interviewer says she understands what Sabrina is going through, Sabrina cuts in, “I don’t think so.” But instantly, she apologises for cutting in. With her reluctance to put herself out there and take a stand and assert herself, she might be the Invisible Woman, and even Vidya Balan’s affecting and dignified performance is invisible, in the background.
These details are strewn throughout the story, not presented to us in a character-defining flash, and it’s only as they accrue that we see what it must have taken for this woman, this invisible woman, to step into the spotlight for the sake of her sister, how uncharacteristic (and therefore how scary and brave) her actions must have been. The ending is only deceptively triumphant. It’s mostly sad and cynical in the way it underlines how someone like Sabrina is still unable to achieve something as standard as justice, something the citizens of a democracy should take for granted at least in a case as open-and-shut as this one. In a near-surreal moment, she’s walking on the street, lost in thought, and she nearly runs into an elephant. She was living her own life, and now, suddenly, there’s this gigantic obstacle looming between her and the rest of her life. Is it any wonder that she’s so out of it that she forgets to remove her spectacles in the shower? At the beginning, Meera states, in a voiceover, “Everybody is a somebody in Delhi – nobody is a nobody.” But Sabrina, like millions of Indians, is a nobody, and she needs a somebody like Meera, a deus ex machina, to overcome these obstacles. And you have to think: what about all those others whose stories aren’t picked up by a sensational news reporter?
At several places, No One Killed Jessica threatens to morph into a buddy movie, with its mismatched leads – one passive, one aggressive – just begging to get together and take a crack at the villains. But Gupta keeps his heroines at a distance for the most part, and in one instance, he literalises this distance with a superb shot. Sabrina is on TV, and from the studio we cut to a television set in Meera’s home where her family is watching the programme, but even when Sabrina is practically in her home, Meera is far, far away – the camera snakes through rooms and locates her in the backyard, fake-smoking her cigarette. Just a little before interval point, Meera runs into Sabrina at the television studio, but even then, there’s just a casual greeting. In conventional movie terms, the first half belongs to Sabrina and the second half to Meera, and when they do finally come together – only for brief minutes – this much-awaited union (which would have evoked a whistle in a traditional masala movie) carries a muted emotional charge that would have been undermined had the two come together earlier.
The few times the film falters are when it plays too much to the gallery, mostly in depicting high society in the fashion that has made Madhur Bhandarkar famous (or infamous, depending on how you view his cinema). It’s hard not to wince when a socialite walks into a police station and wonders how they can work in such stifling conditions and asks that the air-conditioning be turned on, or when another mondaine sinks her fork into sinfully rich and moist chocolate cake while dismissing Sabrina’s pleas for help. These scenes are heavy-handed embarrassments. But elsewhere, when Sabrina’s mother is admitted to the hospital and the film cuts between her and the newly released Manish, we are miles away from Bhandarkar’s brand of trite moralising. He would have cut to Manish being a bad boy, boozing and babe-hounding, whereas Gupta shows Manish on a pilgrimage. This is a villain who wears a Sai Baba pendant and who’s not painted in especially villainous colours. Gupta’s rage is more against the system.
And it’s the system that allows for such scenes as the darkly funny one where Jessica’s parents are paid a visit by Manish’s mother and father. Manish’s mother places a wreath below the photograph of the girl her son killed in cold blood, and they sit around as if they were distant relatives meeting after the passage of decades, fumbling for conversation. After a while, Jessica’s father asks, “Chai?” This helplessness of Jessica’s parents confounds Meera’s conviction that even in films, these days, politicians are no longer accepted as villains who get away with (sometimes literal) murder, and therefore this case too will be wrapped up speedily, especially since the police have acted quickly and obtained confessions, confiscated evidence, made arrests – and then it all falls apart, when confessions are retracted, when evidence is tampered with, when witnesses are bribed and threatened. (Things get so ridiculous at one point that the normally composed Sabrina bursts out laughing in court, as others join her.) What is a common man, whose only interest is to protect his family, to do except proffer a cup of tea?
And yet, Jessica is an uncommon woman. The film contends that she is not a “good girl” like Sabrina. She falls asleep in church. When she teases her sister with offers of a “virgin” cocktail, there are hints that Jessica has been around the block. The most unsentimental aspect of this film is that Jessica isn’t boxed into a set of saintly traits, so that her death makes the country mourn for the loss of a noble and pure soul. We mourn for Jessica precisely because she was not noble and pure, and because she lived life to the fullest and because that spark of exuberant life was extinguished in an instant, without a second thought. For all its unapologetic attempts at audience pleasing, No One Killed Jessica doesn’t stop to wonder if Jessica would play more sympathetically if she were more like Sabrina, and it celebrates her as a spunky, unapologetically Westernised free-spirit. The film ends not with shots of Sabrina or Meera, but with images of Jessica modelling to the camera, to the audience, every freeze-frame a reminder of poses that never happened. Had she lived today, she might have been an unremarkable person, an anonymous woman in a big city, but because she died, she’s come to stand for that oddest of contradictions: an impure, imperfect Indian heroine.
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