Review: No One Killed Jessica

ALPHA FEMALES

A smart, sophisticated film about an imperfect heroine is dominated by its near-perfect heroines.

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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.

Star Ratings

Copyright ©2011 The New Sunday Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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37 thoughts on “Review: No One Killed Jessica

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Review: No One Killed Jessica « Blogical Conclusion -- Topsy.com

  2. ‘Maa Kasam’ fellow is another Bhandharkar character. But overall I liked the film. Rani guiding the reporter during the sting operation was really well conceived. ‘There is no sex in Bengali :-)

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  3. Hi friend
    Of late ur reviews seem more like a column answering points raised by other critics in their reviews. i came to ur review of this movie after reading khalid, rajeev,kaveree, namrata, mayanl etc. i fear ur heading the gautham bhaskar way. pls don’t fall in to the “curd rice critic” trap.
    chrs
    god….buddha

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  4. Branningan, do you want to analyse your own mind for stating ” this is a man who wears a sai baba pendant – and (therefore, implied in brangan’s’thought trail) is not painted in particularly villainous colours”
    Disclaimer: anyintentions you attribute to me for this post (linking to my anti-hindi stance etc) are fictitious.

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  5. raj: That’s for you to say, no? :-)

    The critic analyses the points in the film and therefore ‘reviews’ the film.
    The reader analyses the points in the review and therefore ‘reviews’ the reviewer.
    The blogger analyses the points in the comments and therefore ‘reviews’ the commenter.

    Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

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  6. Hi BR,
    In the star rating page, only a few movies are linked to their movie reviews done by you. Rest are not, as if you never reviewed them. Why so ?

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  7. The movie Didn’t work for me. Nada.

    If the movie is nearly good, the industry tends to heap praises on it too quickly. It seems like we thank our stars everytime someone like Raaj Kumar Gupta makes a “nearly” good enough movie because in the day and age of Tees Maar Khan, we really feel fortunate to have something good at least in the theater to chew upon.

    Nearly good is not enough, it has to be right there. It should be laden with electrifying performances, it should be well researched and well acted by all the cast, not the known 5 of the few actors. There are as my missteps in the movie as great ones.

    Things not quite great about the movie:
    1. The first half of the movie is okay. Its great in some patches, especially after the shooting leading up to the courtroom drama, with everyone pitching in with pitch perfect performances. For me, the hapless cop stole the show.
    2. The setup in the beginning was tending to veer very close to Bhandarkar category in its cheesiness of execution. Very ordinary.
    3. The tone of the movie was just like “Damini”. Everyone kept shouting. I walked into the theater expecting a lil subtlety but it was a completely different movie. Which brings me to the fourth point.
    4. It was irritating to see how the movie was playing to the gallery. The premise was power packed in itself. What was the need to execute the movie in this fashion? In fact there was a surdar ji joke too in “Justice for, justice for” which was a new low to stoop to bring in humor. Cringe worthy.
    5. I dont know how much did Vidya Balan channeled the actual Sabrina Lall in her acting, but the result was tolerable for the first half and totally irritating, dragging and a bore in the second. In fact it was ham-territory. I saw the actual Sabrina on youtube and she doesnt seem nearly the same.
    6. Where is the closure? The only fact that I didn’t remember about the case was the sequence of events and court trial after the “fastrack”. How did they re-prove the crime? It was all about making hero of Rani a.k.a Aamir in Taare Zamin Par, rather than providing an intelligent closure to the proceedings.

    So no, for it to get 4/5 stars in the media, it better be a classic. Otherwise its run of the mill stuff.

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  8. “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-”

    i think this- the distance part- was better shown by the scene that preceded this one- when meera is going home and sabrina is waiting at the reception for her interview. at that moment, they both know of each other, but it’s not meera’s ‘story': so she chooses just a polite “hang in there” dialogue. that’s interesting direction.

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  9. Just got back from the movie. Couldn’t agree with you more – hybrid of fact and fiction is an apt description. They could have reduced the playing to the gallery moments a little though. Vidya Balan was outstanding and the supporting cast (the cop and the other reporter) was quite good too.
    BTW, do you know what Lord Buddha is smoking? (curd rice critic???) :)

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  10. Movie is not at all about mourning about a girl who is like jessica or sabrina …. it was about unjustice done and faults in the system which was the part of the whole case. Ending scene with jessica does depict the liveliness of a girl who could have lived her life as per her wishes which became a victim of an unfortunate incident. So I totally disagree with the last para of your analysis

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  11. Love your review, as always. Wish you’d given us a heads up on the bloated length of the movie though. :P I don’t mind a movie being 2.25 hours long, but not when it subjectively feels like 4 hours! From the court scenes onwards, the movie seemed interminable. All those repetitive reaction-shots of TV viewers certainly did not help.

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  12. “She’d be funny if she weren’t so pathetic.”

    I thought it was hilarious when she said that, totally oblivious to the horrendous act her cute lil’ son had committed. People in my theater also seemed to think so. And, there seemed to be a clear setup for a payoff later on, according to the Rule of Three, but the third time she said it, the taciturn minister remained consistent to his character and simply closed the door on her, instead of losing his cool and chastising her for worrying about her spoilt son who has ruined his political career.

    The movie was gripping for the most part. But, I guess after a point, they ran out of dramatic material and decided to go all ‘Khoon Chala’ on us.

    I liked how all the characters, even the minor ones like the sycophantic party worker assuring the leader about getting the retired lawyer, the wife of the honest cop sympathizing with her husband, her son etc. were were all well-etched out.

    After a long time, a movie felt like taking a walk in the smoggy Delhi, taking a whiff of the real air and baking in its heat amidst real people in the real world instead of being aware that we are in a movie theater watching Jugal Hansraj telling his equally talentless actors and cardboard characters what to do.

    ” 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) ”

    Maybe a little. But, what if avoiding a stereotype is actually the stereotype? What if most of the high socialites who party are actually like that? What if stereotypes exist precisely because people who conform to the society without knowing they are being part of a stereotype exist? I won’t be surprised.
    This reminds of a South park clip.

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  13. Hello Rangan. Slight digression here…I’ve recently caught up with some essays exploring the Rajini phenomena as Endhiran released (Open Mag, etc). Some interesting hypotheses which tackle the psychological/visceral (dravidian, colour, etc)underpinnings of his febrile following across the south. Have you written anything on this yet? Do you agree with them?

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  14. Was watching Kannathil Muthamittal yesterday. By any chance, you wrote something on the movie apart from your Madras Male where you mentioned about it?

    If not, can you put something up now even if it is just a Bullet Point Review (Note: I am NOT asking for a Bullet Point Review, that is what I can settle for if you are not willing to put in time and effort for a full fledged review).

    And, romba naala India World Cup 1983 kku appurama win pannumaanu kaettindu irundhom, ippo irukkira form paartha win panniduvom pola…i think the next question is when will K2K be out? Varuma? Do not make us wait for it like Marudhanayagam man. Tell us the Due Date please?

    Milind if you are reading this…please do tell us the date!

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  15. the second half of the film sort of robbed it of some of its glory in my opinion. whereas the first half was quite restrained but not lacking either in terms of gripping drama the directory suddenly switched gears in the second half to opt for a more sensationalist approach ala madhur bhandarkar (the end product was still miles ahead of madhur bhandarkar though :))…when there was already so much drama in the real story i don’t know why raj kumar gupta went for this treatment. also the narrative in the second half becomes too straightforward…since the second half is still very fresh in public memory the director might have gone for a different narrative treatment.

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  16. For me, this is a mediocre film with some very ordinary performances. Plot wise, it didn’t offer me anything new or interesting.
    Oh yeah may be it did offer as you point out.
    “…Gupta keeps his heroines at a distance for the most part, and in one instance, he literalises this distance with a superb shot….”

    Well I must say that it’s all about effectiveness.

    Chasing a difficult target, one batsman plays some beautiful shots -exquisite cover-drives,straight drives,square-cuts,leg-glances, hook shots etc-aesthetically very pleasing but gets out ie fails in chasing the target.
    Another batsman plays awkwardly,but he hangs on .He accumulates runs by nudging and plodding and running hard.He shows grit and chases the target successfully.
    For me , this awkward batsman is more effective than the aesthetically pleasing batsman.
    No, it’s not about ‘awkwardness Vs aesthetics’.
    It’s about ‘effectiveness Vs ineffectiveness’

    Just because a film takes on a new subject or has a few interesting things or has a few things done for the first time in Indian Cinema, it’s NOT a good movie.
    It’s like saying that the first batsman has played a terrific innings when in reality he has lost the match but then you said he has WON THE MATCH(4 stars), didn’t you??

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  17. Naveen: I would take David Gower’s innings over a Jimmy Adams innings even if David Gower loses the match while Jimmy Adams draws it or even wins it. The former is so much a pleasurable experience imho.

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  18. Senthil: yes, avoiding the stereotype is sometimes the stereotype, but some associations are just so strong that avoiding them is perhaps the best thing to do. I didn’t feel that this caricaturing added to the film in any significant way — the rich folk could have been callous and also non-caricatured.

    kamal: I wrote a couple of things on Rajini — one for Tehelka. BTW, kamal asking about rajini? Idhu eppidi irukku :-)

    Padawan: I think I wrote something in the pre-blog days. Must be in the e-equivalent of paran. And Milind, you reading this?

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  19. Padawan–, you are saying that because for you being effective is to be able to play aesthetically pleasing shots. If my definition of effectiveness was also the ability to play beautifully, I too would agree with you :-)
    On another note, imagine Gowers Vs Adams in a tennis match. I’m not sure if you would fancy watching beautiful Gowers losing to ugly Adams.

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  20. Naveen: No, it is not a question for being effective or not. All I am saying is I would prefer a movie (or a match, tennis or cricket) where there are moments which I can take away even if the movie as an overall experience does not live up to its expectations (or effectiveness).

    Ideally though, I would prefer a Sachin Tendulkar’s innings of 143 against the Aussies in 1998 at Sharjah where the effectiveness was matched with the moments as well. Or, a Michael Schumacher with Ross Brawn at Hungaroring in 1998.

    But, I would rather settle for a movie (or a match, tennis or cricket) where there are enough moments (which have to be told effectively, no doubt) even though the overall effectiveness of the movie may not be equal to the sum of of all moments.

    And reg: “On another note, imagine Gowers Vs Adams in a tennis match. I’m not sure if you would fancy watching beautiful Gowers losing to ugly Adams.”

    Dude – What do you think I am? :-)

    I would rather fancy watching the “game” of Gower. :-)

    Instead, if you had written a game of Maria Sharapova Vs anyone else, yes, I agree with you!

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  21. Didn’t anyone think Rani Mukherjee was trying a bit too hard to swear? Some of it came off as obnoxiously unnatural – if she swears like a sailor, she swears like a sailor. Not like an urban socialite who’s taken up swearing as a fashion accessory.

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  22. >>We mourn for Jessica precisely because she was not noble and pure
    WHAT ?? We don’t mourn if someone was pure and noble ?!

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  23. oh are you shitting me? jessica was as near “perfect” as they could make a heroine.

    I wanted to retitle the film “why didn’t noone kill Sabrina Lall?” by the end.

    vidya balan got on my nerves.

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  24. Blame it on bad type tutors in 10th grade Type classes. I spent nearly 12 years correcting my predecessors by adding one space extra to their documents, only to realize later that I was wrong (thank Robert Bringhurst for that)!! :D

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  25. will be watching this movie soon. Will read this after that.
    Curd Rice Critic – love it :-) albeit the intention/origin.

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  26. It was a good movie, but could have been much tighter. At the end of it, the dramatic scenes interlaced with reality made for an interesting movie. Background score does deserve a mention.

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