At the outset, No One Killed Jessica might seem like an old-fashioned movie about good vs evil. While it is that, where it differs greatly from others is that how cleverly it changes who the “good” is and who the “evil” it’s fighting against. It goes from a one woman’s fight of bringing her sister’s murderer’s to justice to a nation fighting against a system which for decades (even centuries) has become a puppet of the rich and the powerful. This shift in the heroes and villains is what sets the second directorial vehicle of Raj Kumar Gupta apart from the usual revenge/courtroom drama genre of Hindi films.

Most of us who have been exposed to the Indian media in the last decade in any shape or form must have come across the Jessica Lall murder case. It is thus safe to say that much of the audience of this movie, already knows the outcome of the case. So, no spoilers here when I mention the background of the events that make up the plot – an aspiring young model, Jessica Lall was shot by the son of an influential politician at a social event in a bar full of New Delhi’s elite who’s-who. This was 1999. Jessica’s family led by her younger sister Sabrina Lall went to great lengths in this supposedly open-and-shut case to get Manu Sharma (the accused) the deserved legal punishment. However, Manu’s father, the then cabinet minister Venod Sharma managed to buy out key witnesses and change the evidence against his son, which eventually let the court to set him free. What followed was  a massive media generated hysteria against the rotten and corrupt ways of the judiciary. Fuelled by a massive public outcry, the case was reopened and eventually Manu Sharma was sentenced to life in 2009. This verdict was not so much a victory for Sabrina and her family, but more for a population which had found an outlet to vent against an immensely inept and corrupt judicial and political system. This was also one of the first victories of the media’s role as the ‘watch-dogs’ of the 21st century India. Not withstanding my personal opinions of how I feel about the journos that infest the country today, I cannot deny that the eventual outcome of the Jessica Lall would not have been possible without the new media’s intervention.

Around these real life events, Raj Kumar Gupta weaves a fact + fiction thriller which portrays two heroines fighting the battle to bring the accused to justice for two completely different reasons. Vidya Balan plays Sabrina Lall who takes over the first half as the unsure, wallflower sister of Jessica and tries tooth and nail to bring her sister’s killers to justice. When she sees her efforts gone to vain and her own life slipping away, she accepts her fate and recedes in the background taking care of those who are still around her. Meera Gaety, played by Rani Mukherjee plays a sure-footed, foul-mouthed TV journalist who takes over the second half and carries forward the fight for justice – more against the system than against the killers, Jessica and her murderers are mere pawns in her fight. She is seeking a personal glory in the whole scheme of things and is not ashamed about it and we come to agree that it is really not such a bad thing afterall.

These two characters barely come face to face for a long time, which is where lies the success of this script. This is not a “buddy” movie about two heroines hand in hand fighting together against one evil. It does not even for once become about “feminist” issues, it never for once makes it to be a “look we are girls fighting the big bag world of men”. Their gender is just a natural happening, some heroes are boys and some are girls.

Another refreshing departure from the norm is that the prime accused also does not come out as the traditional “villain” of a Hindi movie. Save for the actual scene where he shoots Jessica and his interrogation at the hands of the police thereafter, he recedes in the background. What emerges as the true “villain” is the malleable Indian judicial system and the many people who work it to make it to work for themselves. There is a key scene in the movie where Sabrina’s mother is fighting for her life in the hospital and the scene cuts intermittently to Manu, his friends and his father making a trip to Vaishno-devi to celebrate his acquittal. In a traditional script he would be back boozing, womanizing and intoxicated on his derived power (from his father’s political clout) with his friends. This scene along with the one where the politician and his wife pay a visit to Jessica’s parents are by far the best representation of the power games in the modern Indian society. The old “caste” system has been replaced by who-you-are,  who-you-know and who-you-can-buy system. This is further accentuated by scenes where the killer’s influential father buys off witnesses to turn hostile whole Sabrina and her father try to “buy” a key witness to stay truthful. Nobody escapes the “system”.

Of the performances, much web-space has now been consumed about Rani’s potty-mouthed portrayal of Meera. Personally, her performance came off as “trying too hard” and her English dialog delivery needs a “lot” of work to say the least. That said, I understand her casting in this role to bring that glamor quotient and a scene-stealing leader to carry the audience along in their fight. On the other hand, Vidya Balan nails the Sabrina character perfectly. Her transformation from a girl-in-the-background to the woman-at-the-forefront is displayed using her choice of clothing, her posture and her walk (from a navel-gazing walk to a confident I-know-where-I-am-going walk). Vidya does not strike one false note in this subdued performance. The rest of the supporting cast pitch in wonderful performances, notably – the politician father who is suitably restrained and does not come off as the usual caricature of a corrupt-politician and the police inspector who convincingly displays the angst of a good man rendered helpless by the big machine. The scenes with his son in his house are achingly beautiful and convey everything about this character without having to say a word. (Madhur Bhandarkar – are you taking notes?) Off screen, Amit Trivedi’s  score is instrumental in taking the audience through this emotionally charged roller-coaster ride. He rocks it big time and he is 31, he is only THIRTY ONE!!

With No One Killed Jessica, 2011 is off to an interesting start. Next up, awaiting the delicious looking Vishal Bharadwaj’s Saat Khoon Maaf.