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.