Bollywood Noir?

Catch—if you can—a screening of Raj Kumar Gupta’s latest film, No One Killed Jessica, released in India on January 7th and a week later here in the United States.

It’s unlike any Bollywood film you have probably ever seen, not cutting edge as much as cutting lose from the traditional patterns of Indian films. The title is from a Times of India headline in 2006 when a gross violation of justice acquitted a young man who had shot a young woman named Jessica Lall. Jessica had refused to sell a drink to the privileged son of a politician at a nightclub—because the bar was closed. The killer, named Manish Bharadwaj, shot her in the face from a few feet away and assumed that because of his father’s connections, there would be no consequences.

Initially, that’s what happened. There were three hundred people at the club at the time of the murder, seven or eight actual witnesses, but all were bought off by Manish’s father before the trial. The murder was in 1999, and the trial—with Manish’s acquittal—was in 2006. But the headline in The Times resulted in a surprising development which re-opened the case in a higher court, and Manish was sentenced to life late in 2006. Juicy material, obviously, for a Bollywood film.

That’s where things get interesting. The film opens quickly with Jessica’s murder. Manish (played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) has an oily, pot-marked face, constantly drenched in perspiration, belying his supposed coolness. His father and mother care for nothing but protecting their son. Witnesses are bribed or threatened, including the chief detective covering the murder. All goes as the family plans until the unexpected headline in The Times.

That triggers the interest of a female TV reporter named Meera Gaity (Rani Mukherjee) who is determined to get to the truth of the story. She joins forces with Jessica’s older sister, Sabrina (Vidya Balan). These two women strike out eventually together (after a series of thwarted efforts), as No One Killed Jessica becomes an example of sisterhood, women’s power and fortitude in the face of an obviously sexist legal system. Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan are the most convincing actors in the extensive cast of characters, Balan especially for her outrage and eventual strength, but Mukherjee, also, who is unlike any heroine I have ever seen in a Bollywood film,

She cusses a blue streak throughout the movie, smokes, and has obviously learned to be pushy in order to get her story as a journalist. I suspect that many Western viewers have never seen a Bollywood star use such raw vocabulary—let alone a woman. There’s a kind of running joke that she’s regarded by her colleagues and even her friends as a bitch. Add to her own raunchy character, the film includes scenes of suggestive sexuality and heavy drinking—fast living in Delhi, the setting of the film. With its “documentation” of lying witnesses, contradictory statements and Manish’s numerous debauched friends, the film often exudes a kind of seedy quality.

By its conclusion, Raj Gupta’s film has become didactic, but—so what?—this is a breakout Bollywood film where the characters and the plot do not rely on the usual singing and dancing. (The soundtrack provides a droning musical accompaniment—including rap, which helped the film turn a profit even before it was released.) Still, this is a daring film because of its commitment to exposing social injustices and a willingness to tackle the enormous problem of corruption in Indian courts.

The last spoken piece of dialogue in the film—said by Meera Gaity as the now very successful TV reporter—has to be unsettling to many Indian viewers: “I’m still a bitch.” Before that, No One Killed Jessica documents the rapid changes that are taking place in India, including social networking (as thousands of text messages in response to Meera’s TV program demonstrate viewers’ outrage), quickly turning everything around.

No One Killed Jessica
Directed by Raj Kumar Gupta
Starring Rani Mukherjee, Vidya Balan, and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
UTV Spot Boy, 136 minutes; music by Amity Thrived.
Mostly in Hindi, with English subtitles.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

September 25, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Fact-Finding Labour’s “Anti-Semitism” Crisis
Charles Pierson
Destroying Yemen as Humanely as Possible
James Rothenberg
Why Not Socialism?
Patrick Cockburn
How Putin Came Out on Top in Syria
John Grant
“Awesome Uncontrollable Male Passion” Meets Its Match
Guy Horton
Burma: Complicity With Evil?
Steve Stallone
Jujitsu Comms
William Blum
Bombing Libya: the Origins of Europe’s Immigration Crisis
John Feffer
There’s a New Crash Coming
Martha Pskowski
“The Emergency Isn’t Over”: the Homeless Commemorate a Year Since the Mexico City Earthquake
Fred Baumgarten
Ten Ways of Looking at Civility
Dean Baker
The Great Financial Crisis: Bernanke and the Bubble
Binoy Kampmark
Parasitic and Irrelevant: The University Vice Chancellor
September 24, 2018
Jonathan Cook
Hiding in Plain Sight: Why We Cannot See the System Destroying Us
Gary Leupp
All the Good News (Ignored by the Trump-Obsessed Media)
Robert Fisk
I Don’t See How a Palestinian State Can Ever Happen
Barry Brown
Pot as Political Speech
Lara Merling
Puerto Rico’s Colonial Legacy and Its Continuing Economic Troubles
Patrick Cockburn
Iraq’s Prime Ministers Come and Go, But the Stalemate Remains
William Blum
The New Iraq WMD: Russian Interference in US Elections
Julian Vigo
The UK’s Snoopers’ Charter Has Been Dealt a Serious Blow
Joseph Matten
Why Did Global Economic Performance Deteriorate in the 1970s?
Zhivko Illeieff
The Millennial Label: Distinguishing Facts from Fiction
Thomas Hon Wing Polin – Gerry Brown
Xinjiang : The New Great Game
Binoy Kampmark
Casting Kavanaugh: The Trump Supreme Court Drama
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will There Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?