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?