No One Killed Jessica

There is a voiceover narration by the Rani Mukherjee character (a TV journo named Mira) while the opening credits roll, that contains the following statement: “Everybody is somebody in Delhi. Nobody is nobody.” The corollary to that sort of Orwellian equality, of course, is that some somebodies are more of a somebody than others. Jessica Lall’s death and the subsequent events provoked a widespread sense of outrage, I think, because as far as anyone could tell, she was closer to the “nobody” end of the spectrum. Like most of us. When Sabrina says, “Jessica could’ve been anyone’s sister,” this most cliched of lines manages to work because the ordinariness of those people makes us think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

What Raj Kumar Gupta accomplishes most effectively in No One Killed Jessica is provoke the sense of outrage we all felt when Manu Sharma was acquitted by a lower court. Since most viewers already know the broad outlines of the case, he chooses wisely to focus not on what happened but on how it made us feel. And he does this, paradoxically, by recounting what happened in as low-key and dispassionate a manner as possible, and letting us fill in the emotional gaps. In this endeavour, he is aided by a superb cast headlined by Vidya Balan who, over the last 3 years, seems to have finally made good on the promise she showed in Parineeta. By choosing understatement over histrionics, Balan creates a quiet, strong character in Sabrina, Jessica’s sister. Although the story is narrated by Mira, it is through Sabrina’s eyes that we view the trial for the most part. Her frustration echoes our own.

In direct contrast is Rani Mukherjee’s brash, foul-mouthed Mira. Maybe there are reporters who behave like she does, but I suspect that her character has been fashioned this way primarily for dramatic impact. If you want parallels, think of Sunny Deol in Damini or Aamir Khan in Taare Zameen Par. In real life, the shenanigans of the defence were exposed by a whole bunch of new magazines and TV channels. Compressing all those achievements into one character and her cohorts feels a bit like a crowd-pleasing ploy and constitutes one of the few weak points in the script — wouldn’t it have been better to show a whole bunch of journos taking up cudgels on Jessica’s behalf? Still, it doesn’t torpedo the movie, and Rani Mukherjee sells it better than she’s sold just about everything else in the past few years. Gupta earns himself a few more brownie points by not making her a saint — there are enough throwaway lines that suggest unexplored subplots about Mira herself, but the choice to keep the focus on this case is wise.

At the end of the day, this story is not so much about Jessica or Sabrina or Mira. It is about our collective outrage. On that front, No One Killed Jessica is as faithful to the source material as one had hoped it would be.

ps: This is the film Raj Kumar Santoshi’s Halla Bol could’ve been. Maybe the directors’ version of Schrodinger’s Maa ought to be renamed Schrodinger’s Jessica?



Freeze Frame #141, #142: In the Bedroom, Mystic River

When people are faced with a tragedy they cannot make sense of, they try to explain it to themselves in terms of things they understand and can control. They just need something to pin it on, something to channel their frustration into. Very often, a movie will concentrate on selling one of those explanations to the audience, simply because it takes far too much courage to do otherwise. One reason why I treasure In the Bedroom and Mystic River is that they are possessed of that courage.

Both films feature characters who are faced with a personal tragedy. In both cases, they eventually answer with violence and have to deal with their guilt, although for differing reasons.

In In the Bedroom, Matt ends up killing the man who murdered his son, but it is not purely a matter of revenge. His rage against his son’s killer may have remained impotent, were it not for the fact that his wife could not take it. It is her inability to deal with the tragedy that makes her turn on him and goad him into doing it.

In Mystic River, on the other hand, Jimmy is well capable of violence, and it was just a matter of finding the man who murdered his daughter so he could extract revenge. However, he finds out afterwards that he killed the wrong man.

Both men are consumed with guilt afterwards. In the Bedroom ends with a shot of Matt lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling while his wife sleeps beside him. You sense that, in the end, he is utterly alone. In Mystic River, on the other hand, Jimmy’s wife tells him that he did the right thing:

Because it’s like I told the girls. Their daddy is the king. And a king knows what to do and does it.

Think about this: the case where the wife is supportive is the one where the husband has killed the wrong man.

The key isn’t whether or not the guilty man was punished, but how the characters react to tragedy. Revenge is a very visceral reaction — irrespective of how civilized we would like to be, we cannot deny the fact that we are often dissatisfied with less than an eye for an eye. Both women regard their men as the instrument to achieve it. Their reaction is determined by whether they deem their husbands capable of the task.

What if it had turned out that the man who got killed at the end of Mystic River was indeed guilty, while the man who got killed in In the Bedroom was actually innocent? My guess is, these couples would have turned out the same way even then.

Winter Light

Full disclosure: The idea of a movie about God’s silence doesn’t set my pulse racing, despite whatever I have led you to believe about my tastes in cinema. In my defence however, I will state that it doesn’t turn me off to the point of not watching it. So I slipped in the DVD and settled down to watch Winter Light, a Bergman film about a pastor who has lost his faith since the death of his wife.

What a quiet, sad, affecting piece of film making this is! The principal characters seem to be living in their own private hell most of the time. The conversations are mostly monologues, with the other participant simply reacting to the speaker, and the dialogue is spare but brutally honest. The only “event” in the movie is the death of a supporting character, but even this does not lead to any dramatic closure.

And yet, Bergman managed to draw me into this world of oppressive silences and uncomfortable confessions. He made me care about these people. Even the pastor, who is the least sympathetic character in the film. I spent a good bit of time wondering how he managed to do that, and then it struck me.

The man doesn’t try to tell a story. He simply observes, and with such an unblinking eye that you become the man behind the lens. You simply cannot look away, and as a result, you get involved. I have seen directors do this for a segment of a movie, but rarely for the entire running length. I am so used to seeing movies where things keep happening that my initial reaction was to wonder how much discipline it took to keep so still as a filmmaker. But then I realized that I am thinking about taking things out of the movie, whereas Bergman probably thought upwards from a blank canvas.

I read that Bergman and his cinematographer Sven Nykvist spent an entire day sitting in the pews of an empty cathedral just to understand how light moves through the space. When I imagine how this would’ve happened, I don’t imagine them talking. In my mind’s eye, they sit there quietly through the day, with just a few words between them. They just sit there and do the job they came there to do.

The performances match up to the expectations this style of film making places on the actors. The camera stays focused on their faces so much of the time that it is impossible to be less than totally committed. The principal characters seem so tightly wound up that, when they speak, it is as if every little show of emotion leeches all their strength out of them.

I wonder whether I would recommend Winter Light to anyone. Films like this demand more than a passive viewing. You have to get involved, think about the issues that the characters think about and reach your conclusions without the director holding your hand every step of the way. And to make matters worse, none of these are happy people or easy issues.

Do you want to do that? Frankly, on most days, I don’t. But when I do, I am glad I took the effort.

ps: On a slightly more flippant note, there seems to be a Schrodinger’s Maa between this movie and Manoj N Shyamalan’s Signs.

Schrodinger’s Maa: Deewar & Aatish

By far the most often quoted (and parodied) line in Deewar is: Mere paas maa hai.

It comes at the point where the smuggler Vijay (Amitabh) taunts his brother Ravi (Shashi) saying he now has every material comfort he can think of, as opposed to his honest cop brother. And Ravi responds by referring to the one thing Vijay doesn’t have: the support of their mother. While this isn’t the single important choice that the entire movie hinges on (that would be Vijay working for Dawar), it is definitely the one that matters most to Vijay.

When I think about it, this choice seems to be the jump-off point for Sanjay Gupta’s Aatish. It’s like, he sat down after watching Deewar and asked himself: What if the mom chose the criminal over the cop? I mean, the guy turned to that life so that he could support his family, not because he wanted to. Surely his mom recognizes and appreciates how difficult that choice must have been for him?

In essence, that is what Aatish is about. Sanjay Dutt becomes a criminal, his brother Atul Agnihotri becomes a cop, and when they face off, their mom Tanuja chooses Sanjay. Everything else about that movie is fluff and nonsense. Which is a problem, because once you see past that interesting idea, there’s really very little to write home about.

I wonder if there are more examples like that: Movies that develop the same way and then diverge from one crucial choice. If you can think of any, let me know, willya?