Film Review: No One Killed Jessica

Directed by: Raj Kumar Gupta

Starring: Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan and Myra

All pictures courtesy of http://www.glamsham.com

“One for No One Killed Jessica, please.” “Sorry, the screening has sold out”. “Really? Not even a single seat available?” “Afraid not – and the next showing is nearly sold out too”. I had thought the girl at the box office was exaggerating but when I went along to the next show and had my ticket checked again at the door (something that hasn’t happened in a very long time!) it was clear she wasn’t exaggerating. Sitting in a packed screening, though it had disrupted my day coming to a later showing, it was also very encouraging. For here I was, first release of the year, sitting in a full cinema – what January jinx???

Interestingly, last year (2010) also began with two female centric films (Pyaar Impossible and Dulha Mil Gaya) but aside from reminding us how beautiful Priyanka Chopra and Sushmita Sen are (duh, we already know that), it didn’t show off their talents and both films were quickly forgotten, never mind the fact that film’s openings were resting on the heroines’ able shoulders. But No One Killed Jessica (NKJ) has quietly been gathering steam and it seems after Tees Maar Khan and the other Christmas releases, audiences are in the mood for a film which entertains and engages and will be taking no prisoners.

NKJ is the story of Jessica Lall (Myra) and her sister Sabrina (Balan). Working as an assistant manager at a nightclub, one night Jessica is shot by a cocky MP’s son for refusing to serve a drink to him – a shot which proves fatal. Sabrina fights for justice for her sister whilst trying to keep her own life together but corruption and power intervene and see Jessica’s killer get away scot free, thanks to his father’s connections. Meanwhile Meera (Mukherjee) an top news TV reporter remains ambivalent about the case, believing other news stories are more news worthy until she sees the verdict passed that no one killed Jessica and decides to do something about it…

Based on a real life case, NKJ takes the bull by the horns and goes all out to capture the sentiment generated by the case at the time and largely succeeds in doing so. This is not a documentary film nor an entirely accurate representation of the case and doesn’t try to be either – it simply dramatizes a rare moment in time where the establishment was shaken and when viewed on this basis, it is a satisfying film. Gupta writes many scenes without a sense of irony and allows the audience to react to what they are seeing. There were many moments in the film which capture elements of Delhi life quite well (the audience applauded when Jessica beats up the man who “accidentally” brushes past her sister!)ย  but also the strange situations ordinary people can find themselves in through a simple careless act (note the scene when the killer’s parents visit Jessica’s parents to pay their condolences which forces viewers to question what they would do in such a scenario).

In fact, where the film really succeeds is in connecting with the audience with small touches which not only make allow one to identify with the some of the situations in the film (ie a feeling of wanting to do something but not being sure how to express it) but also gives the film some balance so that Jessica Lall murder case is placed in context and becomes three dimensional – at first, Sabrina is consumed by her sister’s death but as in real life, day to day minutiae begins to creep back in and the struggle to ever feel “normal” continues long after the event.

Technincally, the film is fantastic, really capturing the feel of Delhi in the summer and winter. I loved the opening sequence, the fly on the wall shots and the close ups that don’t allow the actors to hide anywhere. I have to admit, the film feel like made for television movie at certain points but at the same time, is lifted by taut direction, a script that remains focused on its subject and powerhouse performances by the two leads. I also really liked the soundtrack which did not disrupt the flow of the film and encapsulated the essence of the film perfectly. Also, being the shallow sort, I couldn’t help noticing the styling (especially as Vidya and Rani are known to wear Sabayaschi off screen as well as on screen) and how it helps make the characters more real.ย  Whether it is oversized T-shirts or shirts, Sabrina is very much a tomboy and a sharp contrast to her mini denim skirt wearing sister and the more feminine Meera. Meanwhile, Meera sports printed fitted t-shirts tucked into jeans, later graduating to plaid shirts with argyle jumpers and wearing a wardrobe that is very real working woman. I liked that the same clothes were worn again in different ways and similarly, the scarves and shawls worn by the two were also used again and again. At no time does the styling overtake our characters stories and its only because I love looking out for such things that I noticed this.

In terms of performances, we have two fantastic lead female performances. Starting with Vidya, who on the surface, appears to have a subdued role but in fact, conveys Sabrina’s pain and resolve to get justice for her sister very well. What I loved about Vidya’s performance was the subtlety and the fact that Vidya was challenged by this role but not overwhelmed by it – this could have easily have gone wrong but I think the strength of the direction and characterisation and Vidya’s acting ability means the viewer sympathises with Sabrina and rather than become a caricature or stock type, Sabrina’s raw pain is real. I thought Vidya did very well in the first half which focuses on Sabrina and also matched Rani in the three or four scenes featuring both actresses too. Vidya has a wonderful characteristic of being able to appear strong and vulnerable at the same time, and now after Paa and Ishqiya, she adds yet another solid performance to her enviable body of work. I also thought Myra was very good as Jessica and looked stunning, which made for the perfect debut.

Now, I’ll be honest and say I’ve never been a fan of Rani – no, I didn’t even think Black was her finest hour (I’ve always felt Yuva to be her strongest performance) but in NKJ, she scores big time as Meera. Pushing herself out of her comfort zone, here is a Rani that swears like a trooper, smokes, has casual sex and is pretty much unlikeable (as seen when Promila, her housekeeper, calls her a bitch) and finally, we have a Rani I can get on board with! Rani really attacks the role with gutso and sometimes strikes the wrong note but that can be forgiven as she powers through the rest of the film on target. Whether it is showing aggression or difficulty showing emotion (which we see at the end) Rani is the perfect foil to Vidya in the film, with both characters sharing the same drive and determination but have totally different methods of achieving it. I also liked Rani in the non makeup look as she has nothing to hide behind here and shows her acting mettle. I thought she didn’t overpower Vidya in the combination scenes but having said that, she certainly steals a few scenes from everybody else and shows a much needed on screen reinvention and a timely change of gears for her fans.

Interestingly, Rani and Vidya are both very similar in that they both have a niche of their own in the industry – both have a varied body of work behind of them and have reached a stage where it is not enough for them to be paired opposite a hero and have little to do – we expect as much from these two as we do from all our heroes and that is not always the case with actresses – some actresses work better with heroes (Katrina, I’m thinking of you), some work well in ensemble casts (Bipasha Basu, step forward) and some need that established star to up their game (*cough* Deepika). For me, the real USP of this film was bringing these two together and while I am Team Vidya all the way, I really hope that this film sets a trend where we see two talented actresses in author back roles, working together where the only hero is the script. I’ll also be following their next films closely.

NKJ is worth a watch and it is very encouraging that on the opening weekend here in London at least, there were shows that were sold out. I think this film has come along at the right time, with the right vibe and deserves to do well. Even if you know nothing about the actual Jessica Lall case (my knowledge was vague to say the least) this will not hamper one’s enjoyment of NKJ and that is perhaps the film’s trump card – making a study of power and corruption in today’s society entertaining and relevant to modern audiences. As the first film of the New Year and of a new decade, this is a very encouraging start to proceedings and more importantly, reiterates a golden rule – the script is the real star of the show and always will be. Recommended – if you can get a ticket…

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