“No One Killed Jessica” (2011)

24 February 2011

Tales of true crime seem to be the site where we try to assess whither our nation is tending, and it’s precisely the question, what is the new India? that drives Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica. Manish, the son of a powerful member of India’s Legislative Assembly, attends a posh party with an entourage of male friends in Delhi and when he still wants a drink after last-call he finds himself in a faceoff with the woman working the bar, Jessica Lal, who refuses. The situation escalates. Manish pulls out a gun, points it at her face, and fires a warning shot into the ceiling while the rest of them stand frozen. Jessica still refuses to serve him, so he kills her with a point-blank shot to the head. Open and shut case, right? Not in the new Delhi, where money and power can buy your not-guilty verdict. (Many thanks to Mike for recommending this film to me, which is streaming on Netflix; see his excellent review here.) Is the new India so purely corrupt?

The first half of the film is really the tale of Jessica’s sister Sabrina (Vidya Balan) and her disappearing faith in the Indian justice system. Through her eyes we see the first inklings that Manish’s father is buying and threatening witnesses, such that even his son’s confession to the police cannot be upheld in court. Other witnesses know better than to come forward. Sabrina goes so far as to give Indian Rupee ₹20,000 to one of the witnesses, a poor man, to guarantee his testimony — only to realize too late that he’s in the pocket of Manish’s family. Most alarming is the disappearance of a key witness and one of the sisters’ best friends, Vikram (Neil Bhoopalam), who stood next to Jessica as she was shot. The film uses their family’s Christianity to symbolize her faith — Christians make up only about 2% of the Indian public — and Sabrina appears almost as a novitiate with her plain-Jane glasses, unflattering t-shirts, and severe ponytail. Gupta uses striking contrasts between Sabrina’s Christianity and Manish’s family’s too-eager public expressions of Hinduism (the country’s dominant religion) — appearances at religious festivals, etc. — to show us one more way that Manish and his family are corrupt. Perhaps it’s Sabrina’s wide-eyed faith that makes it all the more distressing when evidence disappears, eyewitnesses change their testimony, virtually all of the party’s 300 guests now claim to have gone home before the shooting. After six years in the painfully slow Indian court system, Manish is declared not guilty — and the Delhi newspapers declare in big headlines, NO ONE KILLED JESSICA.

The court’s shocking decision finally animates the film’s second heroine, Meera (Rani Mukherjee, doubtless the most beautiful woman I have ever seen), a famous TV journalist, who’d also expected in a guilty verdict. But whereas Sabrina’s loss of faith has religious overtones, Meera’s is wholly secular: she’s established as a wholly modern woman who’s highly ambitious and driven, sexually liberated, and free with an admirable range of expletives. (In fact, it was somewhat quaint to hear her call someone a motherfucking bastard in English but see the Netflix subtitles translate this as you idiot.) Now that she’s utterly pissed off, she seeks secular solutions. In a series of investigative stories, Meera proves the witnesses perjured themselves in court; with the help of the angry detective who saw his case collapse, she gets an audio copy of Manish’s confession and airs it on TV. Most of all she uses social media to move the public to action, urging frustrated citizens to text their legislators and jar the Delhi High Court into action to right this wrong.

Obviously there’s a lot to like here, not least that the film centers on two female protagonists, neither of whom adheres to conventional female roles. Meera is particularly appealing, even more so for her potty mouth and frenetic bossiness to everyone around her than her stunning beauty; she drives the story for much of the film. But I was struck most of all by the linguistic hybridism of the dialogue. Characters speak in a rapid-fire amalgam of Hindi and English that really does capture The New India in a way I haven’t seen in many Indian films before. Neither is it just a throwaway element of the film — language is a prominent subject of the film, not least for Jessica’s and Sabrina’s Westernized names, their (Western) Christian faith, and Meera’s Western brassy womanhood.

So am I such a cynical American that this film leaves me caught between disbelief and envy of the film’s optimism? Its determined drive toward a happy ending reminded me of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which told such a gritty, realistic tale of the fates of poor Indian children in the first half of the film only to opt, in the second half, for a fairy tale of love, almost mystically endowed riches, and dancing. As much as No One Killed Jessica purports to offer a dark view of the new India, where the life of a young woman matters little in comparison with that of the pampered son of the political elite, the film ultimately reassures us of an innate goodness of the Indian people and a journalism dedicated to finding out the truth. This is no The Wire, which never allowed us to believe in truth and justice as core Americanisms.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Crusading Journalist Exposes Corruption narrative (ah, All the President’s Men) but this film’s lack of commitment to the darkness of “the new India” theme hobbles it. In contrast, Aravind Adiga’s magnificent novel The White Tiger did such a better job signaling a different future for the nation. As much as I cried with happiness as the entire city of Delhi attends a candlelight vigil to protest the court’s decision, I couldn’t really believe that the High Court cared in the least how many texts they received from citizens about the case — this turn in the narrative seemed desperately eager to assert the essential goodness of the Indian people and to assure audiences that their opinions matter.

At the same time, even though Manish is eventually convicted, his father doesn’t suffer in the least for his role in perverting justice during the trial; the film asks us to be satisfied that the murderer is put away for life. Yet as I see it, corruption is the real story of the film as it was in Adiga’s novel — and one leaves the film knowing that corruption will continue. Even more than Crusading Journalist narratives, I’m riveted by Whither Are We Tending tales of crime — hence my love of The Wire and films like The Good Shepherd (2006), as well as Henning Mankell’s Wallander mysteries, which ask again and again what is happening in a new Sweden beset with new levels of racism due to unprecedented immigration. Ultimately I think No One Killed Jessica ends up torn between competing narratives — Whither Are We Tending, Crusading Journalist, and The Romance Of An Earnest And Engaged Public — such that one suspects Indian film doesn’t quite yet have the stomach for true cynicism. In the end, after seeing an awful lot of cynical Western films, I think I’m envious of your faith.

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6 Responses to ““No One Killed Jessica” (2011)”

  1. Hattie Says:

    A movie to watch tonight after we put the grandkids to bed. Thank you!!

  2. jmmnewaov2 Says:

    Woo hoo !!

    Another terrific piece. You took on a far larger subject than I did in my review – that of the new India. And I applaud you for doing so.

    As far as the duality of the languages. While India has many languages – The British Raj did bring about the widespread use of English which today we see in the media and the government. But I think it is also dependent on the locale of the film – If it is Mumbai or Delhi – the use of English language is to be expected. Less so in outlying areas.

    Thanks for doing this review (and sort of springing it on me). According to your upcoming list – I expected another female rocker cult film. So I was ever so pleased to see that you took on NOKJ and liked it.

    As for Rani, I call her the green-eyed goddess …

    Mike
    jmm

    • Didion Says:

      About the language — that’s what I suspected about the film’s back-and-forthing between English & Hindi, that it’s a realistic portrayal of how people really speak in cosmopolitan areas like Delhi; or I should say that since my Indian friends here speak in that amalgam of the two languages I’d assumed it was typical. Yet I hadn’t seen a lot of Indian film that represented the languages so merged.

      And oh my, Rani Mukherjee. Sometimes it was hard to stop just gazing at her.

  3. Neeraj SD Says:

    Reading your review, it does sound like you have no idea that this is based on a true story. o.0

    As for your comments on the ‘westernized’ names of ‘Jessica’ and ‘Sabrina’, you read too much into it, as 1. Christianity has been in India for over a thousand years, 2. These names are quite common, especially in the South of India. There isn’t a ‘bigger’ story in there. And, wait a minute, Christianity is a ‘western’ faith ? Since when ? It originated in the Middle East, and has followers worldwide.

    You shower praise on Slumdog Millionaire, which was nothing but poverty porn, manipulated ‘third-world’ squalor, packaged, insultingly, as ‘the feel good film of the year’, and classified as ‘comedy’ by the British censors. Realistic ? Ha ha. Anybody with even an iota of knowledge about India would know that such a fairytale would be impossible. It is this aspect of the film that is so disgusting, using REAL places with REAL poverty as the setting for a fairytale, pulling the curtains on and off of it as and when the director felt like it. ‘Slumdog’ isn’t even a word, ffs. It’s runaway success only emphasizes the world’s ignorance about India.

    One feels like the director sat down and made a list of cliches about India to use as part of the story. a. Poverty, check. b. Poor sanitation, check. c. Religious tension, check. d. Call centres, check. e. Wily kids, check. f. Child prostitution, check. g. Taj Mahal, check.

    If I were to visit America, and make a movie about a Black kid, growing up in the ghettos amidst extreme poverty, facing horrible racism, being kicked out of school for it, dodging bullets shot by rednecks living in trailer parks, being taken away by the KKK for some weird experiment, whose sister is then used by a white pimp, whose mother is shot dead by some gang, and finally the kid ends up winning Beauty and the Geek, I really doubt it would have won so many oscars and have 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    I appreciate an American taking his eye off of his domestic entertainment industry, watch foreign films, and then take time out to review them, I’m just trying to present an Indian view here. I hope you continue to watch Indian cinema, and review them.

    • Didion Says:

      I read your comments and thought, “Have I completely misremembered my own writing about that film?” Upon re-reading, I see I didn’t misremember — you misread my original post.

      1. Yes, I knew it was a true story. In looking at films, I try to examine them as films alone — especially in cases like this when I don’t know the details of the real story behind them. To be sure, if I’d known the full story I might have been able to critique the film on another level; but that doesn’t affect my ability to critique it.

      2. In referring to Christianity, my review is mostly unconcerned with discussing its place of origin than its influence on the film and its characters. The influence of the West is everywhere, because the major theme of the film is what the “New India” consists of. It’s not just Anglo names like Jessica; it’s also Meera’s fiery journalist, who curses a blue streak in English and Hindi and is quite clearly a sexually liberated woman. Manish’s corruption itself is partly portrayed in the film via those visual contrasts between his “fake” and public demonstrations of their Hinduism and Jessica’s family’s “genuine” practice of Christian faith. (You and I can probably agree that this was a cheap visual technique — I cringed when I saw it. But the film is trying very hard to understand this “New India” and what it will mean for ordinary people.)

      3. Your main concern is Slumdog Millionaire — which is odd, since my only brief reference to it was as a similar narrative. For the record, I agree with you wholeheartedly on that film. But that’s not the point of THIS review. No One Killed Jessica also begins with a grim, almost hopeless situation only to end with a romantic conclusion in which seemingly the High Court reads so many urgent texts from members of the public that they find the bad guy guilty. Really?

      • Neeraj SD Says:

        Call it the incompetence of the Indian judiciary, but it did in fact take suo moto action only after the media and the civil society made as much noise as possible. Not sure about the smses bit. My main beef was with you reading way, way too much into parts of this movie. And yes, I admit I lost a bit of focus half-way through my comment, but it was mainly because you called Slumdog Millionaire a ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ film.

        And I’m not defending NOKJ, I thought it was a bit of an average film.

        Btw, I noticed you havent reviewed a single Indian film ever since you did this review ? I would recommend you watch ‘Swades’, ‘Rang De Basanti’, ‘7 Khoon Maaf’, ‘Kahaani’ and a few more I think you might enjoy, especially since they have strong female roles.


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