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 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.