When a movie begins with promise, it’s almost more disappointing when it falls apart than if it had been terrible from the beginning. Such is the case with No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ), which fizzles after a gripping first hour.
NOKJ begins with a disclaimer that the movie is a mix of fact and fiction, and not a strict reenactment of the Jessica Lall murder case. Based on accounts of the case at Wikipedia, the only major changes the movie makes are to the names of the persons involved. From a dramatic standpoint, sticking so closely to the facts actually makes for a weaker movie.
If you want to avoid plot spoilers, you may not want to read further (and certainly don’t go to the Wikipedia page).
The movie begins with Jessica’s murder at a party attended by 300 Delhi socialites. Jessica, in her capacity as a celebrity bartender, refuses to serve a trio of young men after last call. One of the men, Manish (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyubas), shoots Jessica in the head and flees the scene.
Since the murder took place in front of several eyewitnesses — and that dozens more saw Manish run from the party — it seems like an open-and-shut case. Given the likelihood of conviction, popular war correspondent and reporter, Meera (Rani Mukerji), turns down the opportunity to cover the story.
But victory looks less certain after Jessica’s bookish sister, Sabrina (Vidya Balan), talks to the prime witnesses. Those who are even willing to speak to her are either too scared to testify or willing to sell their testimony to the highest bidder. Rumors swirl that Manish’s wealthy politician father is threatening witnesses.
Up to this point in the story, the movie is terrific. The scene in which Jessica is shot is tense, and Manish undergoes an impressive transformation from arrogant clubgoer to terrified suspect. There’s just enough of Meera, the foul-mouthed but charming reporter, to make us want to see more of her.
Balan is riveting as Sabrina. Jessica’s introverted sister becomes her unlikely advocate, working with the one beleaguered police chief more interested in the truth than placating a killer’s politician father. Sabrina expresses her emotions in few words, sitting stone-faced, as a high society woman, who professes her fondness for Jessica, claims to have forgotten what happened that fateful night, all while blithely stuffing her face with chocolate cake.
But the story loses its intensity as soon as the case goes to trial. The lawyers are poorly-written and poorly-acted. All of the key testimony is given over the course of a few days, but a montage accelerates time forward six years. While this is true to the actual case, it makes little sense in a fictionalized account. Plus, there’s no mention of what Meera was doing during that time.
After the initial trial results in an acquittal, Meera makes getting justice for Jessica her personal mission, and uses her news program to do so. While crass Meera injects some much-appreciated humor into the film, the story stops being about Jessica at this point. It becomes a cheesy paean to the power of the people.
While it is true that it took public outcry to prompt a retrial of Jessica’s killer, the movie puts too much focus on the people doing the protesting, overshadowing Jessica and Sabrina. There are “man on the street” interviews set to absurdly patriotic violin swells. It’s very on-the-nose, and it makes the movie longer than it needs to be. The point that an outraged populous can affect justice could’ve been made more subtly and more succinctly.
*Even though No One Killed Jessica has no official MPAA rating, consider it an R-rated movie. Meera curses a blue streak in both Hindi and English. The scene in which Jessica is shot is so intense that a child at the showing I attended cried. This is not a movie for children.