Still smouldering is the anger and agitation against blatant injustice, still bleeding, is the open wound that is the memory of the Jessica Lall murder case that ‘reopens’ with Rajkumar Gupta’s second film, No one Killed Jessica. (The tagline of the film is “case reopens 7th January 2011”) After a deftly shot tale that dealt with religious fundamentalism and terrorism in a novel way, Gupta presents to his audience another political film that critically engages with the social reality of contemporary urban India. Not yet relegated to the past, the case still reverberates in the popular memory of urban India that witnessed during the trials of this case, curruption and loopholes in the Indian judicial system in its most naked form. The film is feminist in its thematic content that pans over the lived lives of Jessica’s sister, Sabrina (Vidya Balan) and the journalist, Meera Gaity (Rani Mukherjee) and the reminiscences of the life of the slain model, Jessica Lall. Its questioning of nationalism, of public conscience is intrepid. However, what No One Killed Jessica is truely singing an ode to is, media and film, its political possibilities and its efficacy as a tool for activism.
The film starts with defining its borders as a “hybrid of fact and fiction”, clearly making space for frequent slippage into Bollywood melodrama. With a plot that its audience has seen uncovering around them, the film opens with a journey along the roads of Delhi, while the voice-over talks of the two things that brought the nation together in the recent past—an India-Pakistan match and the Kargil war. After his exploration of Mumbai’s underbelly captured in jagged camera movements, Gupta wishes to decode Delhi, the capital city of India. The undue advantages that people make of thier powerful positions, the apathy shown towards curruption in the executive council coexists with the capacity of the people of the city to come together, mobilize and raise consciousness.
In its unabashed valorization of media and cinema, the film portrays the impact that Rakesh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) had in setting off a revolution in the arena of public protest. No one Killed… recollects the moment of reality imitating art—the scene of the protest at India gate in the film that triggered off a very similar public agitation against injustice done in the Jessica Lall case. The celebration of the impact of journalism in times when journalistic ethics are coming under scrutiny is probably an attempt to win back the lost faith in journalism’s quest for truth. In a metacritical sequence Gupta, in his political film, makes a reference and pays tribute to another instance of celluloid activism (Rang De Basanti). This can be seen as an attempt by the filmmaker to both allign himself with a certain genre of cinema and drive home his point about cinema as a vehicle for social change.
According to Laura Mulvey in “Feminism, Film and Avant-garde” a feminist art work would be one that portrays women’s activities, documents protest and dissent against patriarchy; one that contained real lived experiences of women. It is important that feminist cinema brake away from the sterotypes of the ‘good’ angel of the hearth and ‘bad’ careerist woman with sexual desires, with a propensity to assert that she is not a thing to wipe feet on. Gupta paints characters in gray. There is the suave, swearing, smoking, commanding, mean journalist who bulldozes over her subordinates, sells news like it was cupcakes, leaves a man half way through passionate love-making because she must rush to cover a sensational news update, but is also the one to lead the public dissent campaign against the unjust discision of the court. The journalist, Meera is a well sketched but badly cast character as Rani Mukherjee keeps missing her steps while performing this pacy character. Sabrina Lal is painted as an ordinary girl with plain aspirations and a quiet will to fight the corrupt system. Vidya Balan though certainly impressive in her quiet and restrained act, is underutilized in a role that could have been better fleshed out. In a scene where Meera repudiates Sabrina for having lost strength to take on the killers of her sister, Sabrina voices her wish to have a “normal life” and have a boyfriend. Thus the plain woman, although a foil to the sharp tongued, domineering one, is not a moral opposite. In a sequence of montage shots to the song ‘Yeh Pal’, Sabrina, threading her way through the streets of the city almost rams into an elephant on the road because she doesn’t notice the huge animal. It is symbolic of the mammoth system and network of power weiling officials Sabrina is up against who even manage to use their sources to change the forscenic report. As a naive and trusting person she does not realise the enormity of it all or the threat of being crushed under it. Similarly, a shot of a truck carrying the sign of ‘men at work’ brings out the irony of it all, as the women, Sabrina and Meera, are, in this case, the ones at work. It brings into focus the patriarchal set up in society where it will always be the men who are ‘at work’ and women’s work go unrecognized. What, however, sets the film up as a feminist film is its siteing of a daily lived experience of women in urban India who must confront sexual harrasment and fight it. In a particularly powerful flashback scene, Jessica (Myra Karn) thrashes a leacherous man who tries to molest Sabrina on a street and tells Sabrina that she’s got to fight back in order to survive. The film here makes its voice of protest heard loud and clear against not only a particular incident of violence against a woman but the violence that prevails in the everyday life of women who often ignore it or consider it part of their fate as women.
In the words of the voice-over at the beginning of the film, “in the history of a new India” this case was a “landmark” one. Right at the onset, Gupta wishes to establish that this is not a drama about a singular event in history but one that formulates, in popular imagination, the image of new India. In the quest for the answer to the rhetorical question posed by Sabrina, “Kya kisi ki jaan ki keemat itni kam hai hamari country main? (“is a life worth so little in our country”), No one Killed Jessica’s filmmakers take us through a rough terrain of a depiction of the Kargil war that underlines the senselessness of wars and the insensitivity to the worth of human life it creates. The shot when Sabrina says “she stopped breathing” to announce her sister’s death in an ambulance is cut to a shot of Meera reporting from the Kargil hills at the end of the war, lamenting the loss of soldiers at the frontier. Whether it be a power weilding politician’s son, pulling the trigger, on whim, at a bar tender because she refuses to serve him a drink or the mindless killing of an unknown, unseen enemy to recalim a patch of land, this ‘new India’, as Rajkumar Gupta argues, must sensitize itself to injustice in any form and rail against it.
In a tale that is already circulating as public knowledge the film is unable to retain its tout structure throughout. The backgound score, however, by Amit Trivedi is exceptionally well crafted. It lends to the poignancy of certain scenes, sets an edgy mode for certain others and lifts up the movie in its sagging parts. Cinematographer Ananya Goswami captures the tones, textures and seasons of Dehi accurately, capturing roads with vehicles whizzing by, long skywalks, bylanes and a posh club.
Released in the midst of an India dunged in corruption, countless cases of violence against women and rising apathy towards injustice and violation of rights, No one Killed Jessica is surely a voice of protest that will hopefully be joined by other celluloid and social agitations.
Director: Raj Kumar Gupta
Writers: Amitabh Bhattacharya (lyrics), Raj Kumar Gupta (story)
Stars: Rani Mukerji, Vidya Balan, Myra Karn