No One Killed Jessica (India 2011)

Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the sister who attempts to get justice – initially without support.

Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the sister who attempts to get justice – initially without support.

How do we decide the criteria to distinguish ‘New Bollywood’ or ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ from the mainstream? It’s a difficult question and No One Killed Jessica offers a particularly difficult case study. In institutional terms it was made under the banner of the ‘indie brand’ of an Indian major studio – UTV Spotboy. Its writer-director Raj Kumar Gupta received praise for his first film Aamir (2008) and the music comes from Amit Trivedi, the rising star of Indian cinema. Dig around and there are links to Anurag Kashyap as well as the more high-profile producer Ronnie Screwvala. On the other hand, the film features Rani Mukerji in a diva-like performance (seemingly required by the script) and at times displays a sentimentality that places it firmly in the mainstream entertainment camp.

But it is the film’s theme and the way that Gupta approaches it that sets up the dilemma over classification. The story is based on the real-life case of a middle-class Christian woman in Delhi who was shot in an incident at a party in 1999. The case took seven years to finally clear the judicial system and for the young men responsible to be cleared of charges despite committing a serious crime in front of several witnesses. These young men were the sons of influential politicians and business people. A public outcry generated partly via media coverage saw the verdict re-assessed by the High Court. The film narrative appears to be faithful to the main facts of the case and a film which addresses bribery, corruption and the misuse of power in India is certainly not in the Bollywood mainstream. But having said that, I found the presentation of the narrative was not as effective as it might have been.

In the main I have to agree with the verdict offered by Omar Ahmed when the film was released in the UK in early 2011. In attempting to detail what happened over a long period of investigation and court procedure involving witness intimidation and corruption, the filmmakers ended up with a broken-backed story in which the first half is led by the excellent  Vidya Balan as Sabrina, the dead woman’s sister, seeking justice, only for the story to switch to the media campaign featuring Rani Mukerji as a TV ‘personality’ reporter/presenter which dominates the second half. Omar sees a problem in the film’s use of family melodrama, but this is my one dispute with his reading. By focusing on the impact of the killing on the family, the narrative has the possibility of grounding its social mission in a particular stratum of Indian society. At times the script does take us into the lives of ‘ordinary people’ who are faced with dilemmas caused by poverty and physical fear – and onto the streets and into the houses of those people. But these opportunities are wasted because the film doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions. It would have been better possibly to move further away from the original story and to downplay the TV reporting angle and expand the social narrative – we don’t learn enough about the central family. The impact of a death like this on a family was at the centre of the first series of The Killing and the Danish TV series has illustrated just how effective this narrative idea can be.

I think that the real problem is that No One Killed Jessica ends up being a compromise which fails to produce either a potent commercial melodrama or thriller or a genuine independent film with a clear social purpose. Instead, the commercial elements seem ‘stuffed in’. This is a shame because interesting elements such as the use of social media to construct a mass campaign are negated by Rani Mukerji’s portrayal of the worst kind of ‘star reporter’, so familiar from the Bollywood mainstream. I should point out that the inclusion of scenes referring to the media campaign being partly inspired by audience responses to the 2006 feature Rang De Basanti suggest a range of further questions about what the potential impact of No One Killed Jessica might be. However, I don’t think that this reference gets in the way of my general criticism of this later film.  Although it was only a moderate commercial success No One Killed Jessica did receive nominations at the Indian Filmfare Awards. Ironically its only win was for Rani Mukerji as ‘Best Supporting Actress’ – the Bollywood star system survives another attempt to make different kinds of films.

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2 comments

  1. Martin

    So hard on Rani! I think you are right in that the script demanded that sort of performance from the actress but it was perhaps less misplaced than over strong in comparison with Vidya’s character. As the latter has proven since then she is equally capable of playing strong characters and maybe both actresses were slightly mis-cast? Rani herself has played characters that hover between mainstream (Bollywood) and parallel and played them well, but she was YRF’s darling for many years and I think this shows – compare with Anuska Sharma in more recent times. Until she is given better roles I don’t think we will see better performances. In contrast Vidya is always been associated with more quirky roles associated with non-mainstream films (e.g. Ishiqya) and perhaps has had a different chance to develop as an actress.

    No One Killed Jessica perhaps succeeds less well than (for example) some of Prakash Jha’s work because it is almost a Bollywood – parallel fusion piece, i.e. not quite fitting either classification well. This seems to be typical of the industry with parallel staying as rooted in ‘real’ issues as ever (e.g. Charuvyah’, Choker Bali) and the Mumbai industry broadening into it. Zindagi na Milegi Dobara is an example; while it retains the light and escapist nature of Bollywood, the subject and performance styles are considerably more modern – sort of ‘post-Bollywood’. Barfi and Rockstar might be other examples. They could not be mistaken for parallel but display a broader awareness of scope and issues that mark them out as not being Bollywood. A new flavour of commercial cinema is perhaps a more accurate description and perhaps No One Killed Jessica fits into this category?

    However it is viewed and described the post-Bollywood Mumbai commercial industry is developing apace and looking interesting!

    • Roy Stafford

      Interesting points, Martin. It was indeed the performance I took against rather than Rani Mukerji herself and you rightly point to the direction of the performance as another factor. I confess I haven’t yet seen some of the titles you mention but I certainly agree it is films like this that make the Bombay commercial industry interesting at the moment. I’m tending to think more about the possibility of ‘independent Indian films’ as a term rather than pursuing ‘parallel film’ ideas – partly I think because of the Anurag Kashyap factor. I’m hoping to post on some of his other films soon. But everything seems so fluid in Indian cinema just now. I’m cursing that I missed the chance to see Bala’s Paradesi at the Vue multiplex in Halifax last week. Now that did sound like a parallel film.

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