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.

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