(Honestly, it’s more of a commentary on movie and the real events as they took place. Watching this movie was a personal experience that I refused to dissociate with real-life events. You can choose to skip the blue, italicized parts in paragraphs – they are mostly comments about real-life events. Also, all names except Jessica and Sabrina, were changed in the movie, yet I have stuck to real-life names. Also, I chose not to mention Amit Trivedi’s music which made more sense to me when it blended with movie. )
The title ‘No One Killed Jessica’ (NOKJ) is taken from the screaming mocking newspaper headlines when Manu Sharma, the accused in Jessica Lal murder case was acquitted by the court. That judgement, in a case that was expected to be an open-and-shut considering the number of witnesses that were present when the accused Manu Sharma shot Jessica, awakened a nation from slumber of inaction.
1999, the year when this incident occurred, was an eventful year. Jessica was killed in April, Kargil war dominated the news next three months and in December, flight IC184 was hijacked where a passenger Rupin Katyal, returning from his honeymoon, was cruelly murdered by the hijackers. There was lot for nation to chew on.
1999 was also the year I decided to stay in Delhi permanently, choosing over an option of studying abroad. I grew up with this Jessica story. The movie made me relive all of it, from when it started.
To its credit, it is true to facts, which is more than what can be said of best of true-story-turned-movies (such as ‘A Beautiful Mind’, ‘Papillion’, ‘Midnight Express’.). Though, while we are at it, I must point out NOKJ does *choose* to omit some facts such as dubious role of restaurant-owner Bina Ramani. But that is director, Raj Kumar Gupta’s prerogative and I think he has largely made a good choice about which events to focus on. I’ll come to that later.
Jessica Lal, an upcoming model was a celebrity bartender who had decided to help out her friend Malini Ramani’s mother at her restaurant ‘Tamarind Court’. (Since the restaurant , whose real name along with its owner is not mentioned in the movie, didn’t have liquor license yet in real life, they called it a private party. Hiding this fact, rather than help law to apprehend the killer would be initially more important to the restaurant owner Bina Ramani.) She was killed amongst her friends.
NOKJ begins with how Jessica’s sister Sabrina is woken up that fateful night and how she would discover that finding justice that was rightfully hers wasn’t easy in this country plagued with corruption.
Vidya Balan, who plays Sabrina, though she doesn’t reflect real-life Sabrina’s personality in totality, plays her part well – with quiet dignity. The first half belongs to her, tenaciously trying to hold on to the dream of justice, going post-to-post (literally) to ensure the witnesses and friends rally around. Her horror and shock at the revelation of hidden, unpleasant monsters amongst the people she meets, is understated and yet makes huge impact.
The three key witnesses – Shayan Munshi the other celebrity bartender – an upcoming actor- who was serving beside Jessica that night, Surender Sharma, an electrician at the restaurant and Karan Rajput a visitor (All real names, can’t remember the fictional names of the character in the movie), turn hostile and like how. Audaciously, shamelessly, outrageously and systematically – a case is butchered, evidence is tampered and justice is denied.
After fighting it for 7 years, Sabrina withdraws (I am not sure if real-life Sabrina ever did that.) During this time, she has already lost her mother (and her father too passes away soon after the judgement in real life.).
The second half of the movie is spearheaded by the narrator, a fictional journalist, a Barkha Duttish character since she is supposed to have ‘made her bones’ in Kargil war and works with NDTV. This character, played by Rani Mukherjee (yesteryear’s great actress) is probably the WEAKEST link of the movie. It looks most unreal, specifically, when it is known there was no single TV journalist who could claim this feat alone.
So, Rani (I am calling the character just that) at NDTV takes out all witnesses one-by-one by sting operations that were in reality carried out by Tehelka and aired by their partner STAR News. Anyway, with new evidence, a ‘trial by media’ takes place and public is outraged. (I, personally remember being angry at that time and did go to one such protest.) Rang de Basanti is released soon after acquittal of Manu Sharma. This somehow captures public imagination, SMS campaigns and candle light vigils ensue. Due to public pressure, government is forced to act – Venod Sharma resigns and case is re-opened. (In real-life, this also adds impetus to reopening of Priyadarshini Mattoo’s case. Power of populace.)
Movie etches the main characters well – there are two clear contrasts. One, a somewhat introverted Sabrina’s memories of her sister, Jessica, a bold extroverted girl, are flashed on and off in movie. It is one of the nicely done parts. Other contrast is of Sabrina aka Vidya vs. Rani – selfless, introverted vs. bold, self-centered, competitive. This one doesn’t work for me for Rani’s character of ‘bindass firebrand’ feels as fake as they come by.
Then, there is the character of a police man – played very well by actor Rajesh– in a (currently) rare attempt to humanise a cop, who wants to help and has worked for it but can’t since ‘powers above’ won’t let him and world around is increasingly revealing to be corrupt. No, he ain’t saint either, as he famously tells Sabrina, sab lete hai madam, bas fark itna hai ki kaun kiske liye leta hai?, while admitting he too took bribe of 70 lakhs not to beat up Manu Sharma in lock-up.
Except for Rani, rest of casting is also right. The actors playing Jessica and Shayan Munshi uncannily bear resemblance to real-life people. Manu Sharma’s character was played well by actor Md. Ayub, tho it is my hunch attributing desi jat, cliche-Delhi accent to Manu Sharma ain’t really true. In truth, Manu Sharma is sort of yuppie, uber-cool-wannabe – he studied at Mayo college and friends he hung out with that night were known yuppies.
NOKJ works because the true story of Jessica itself is powerful, it hits a spot for entire nation and most of those court scenes and sting operations were as powerful and shocking in real life. [Yet, I’d say our movies do not portray court scenes well, especially in terms of packing an argument.) Another thing that bugged me was that everyone in court kept referring to the judge as ‘janaab’ (which I thought was used in Pakistan) and not ‘your honour’ as we have grown up watching in movies.] For example, one of the unforgettable scenes is when Lals are visited by Venod Sharma and his wife during Sabrina’s absence. Though dumbfounded and uncomfortable, their (Lals’) ingrained hospitality gets better of them and they offer tea. This perplexing episode did actually occur in real life (Sabrina recounts that in an interview later. See Tehelka link at bottom.)
Yet movie is guilty of caricaturising and taking refuge in unnecessary melodrama. Other than Rani’s character, all socialites in movie were also caricaturised as vain beings (maybe they are but it feels hackneyed). Especially the restaurant-owner is portrayed as just a cake-eating socialite with crocodile tears. In truth, Bina Ramani had first cleaned up evidence in her restaurant (her defense, waiters were ignorant and cleaned up like every night. Bah.), made her foreigner husband chase Manu Sharma in his car that fateful night and later by some quirk of conscience helped Tehelka in their stings. Movie, eerily, is silent on her true role in the case. Sabrina’s mother dies of cancer, somehow movie omits this fact and lets it be just a consequence of the calamity that has befallen the family. Then, there is this almost-unreal, hugely irritating ‘heroic and latently-conscientious’ journalist who actually ‘confronts’ Sabrina into sense in a scene. Lame. Over-the-top.
In fact, it is Rani’s character that does HUGE disservice to the movie by making it eligible for A certificate; just to establish her as a caricaturised bindaas modern-day firebrand – she abuses, loves to call herself ‘bitch’ with pride (since when did calling yourself a bitch become cool??), she makes out in her apartment with a bloke (and leaves him high and dry) and does (really) beautiful headstands in between breaks. If not for that abuse and making-out scene, the movie would have got a U certificate and this is a movie that should have been watched by everyone, even if movie is not without its flaws. It is, after all, a historical documentary of an important event where populace championed. It is also an eulogy to the spirit and shared history of all brave family members of victims such as Jessica Lal, Chaman Lal Mattoo and Neelam Katara.
Rating - 3.5/5
P.S: 1. Personally, I was never completely happy even when fast-track court sentenced Manu Sharma. I couldn’t understand exactly why. It is only after watching movie I realised the reason. First time, Manu Sharma is acquitted even though there were witnesses and ballistic report because powers were on his side. Second time, public outrage (and stings) changed the balance of power and Manu Sharma is convicted. But, in it all, somehow they undermined the power of courts, the evidence and the truth. Stings were not really admissible in court, yet with same witnesses and facts, sentence was overturned. What do you think?
2. Read this Tehelka interview by Sabrina Lal to see how closely movie stuck to facts.