Let me begin by saying how happy I am that this is my first Bollywood movie of 2011. The first of a select few no doubt, given the kind of movies that are coming out of B-town these days! I saw good reviews and was curious.
The movie is based on the high-profile, real-life murder of a small-time model Jessica Lall, that occurred in 1999, in a happening night-spot in Delhi. She tended bar there and was killed when she refused to serve the trigger-happy son of a minister and his cronies, after the deadline for serving drinks had passed. While the murder and all that followed was reported extensively in the media, I must say I remained aloof. Horrified for a while, but aloof. This was not something I identified with. The victim at the time seemed to me seedy (when I think back, I have no explanation for why that should be), and I was convinced that the accused would get off, which just shows how severely dented my belief in my country’s judicial system was and unfortunately still is. So although I followed the case, it was with superficial interest and the outcome was unsurprising if frustrating.
This movie brought it all back and this time, gave it the human face I should have seen the first time. I’ll start at the beginning…I enjoyed the title montage with it’s interesting interplay of narrative by Rani Mukherjee (who plays Meera, the hard-nosed, high-profile journalist who initially dismisses and then campaigns for Jessica’s cause), and the snapshots of Delhi. The director mentions at once that the movie is neither a documentary nor a biography; but simply a hybrid of fact and fiction based on a real-life tragedy. I like that he states that up front so there’s no confusion. It leaves me free to draw my own conclusions and make my own judgments. That’s another thing that I enjoyed about the movie – nowhere does the event seem sensationalized. Instead the story unfolds succinctly, without burdening the viewer with preconceived notions and conclusions about characters and their actions. He manages, through a taut script, excellent dialogue, gripping music and an ensemble cast (mostly unknown except for the two main characters); to tell a story that is interesting, engaging and yes, even entertaining.
Most Indians are familiar with Jessica’s story and if they aren’t they should be. The movie does not disappoint. Whether it is the tragic disintegration of Jessica’s family after her brutal murder and the shocking if predictable ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, or the methodical marshalling of its considerable resources and & calculated abuse of power by the family of the accused. Whether it’s the omniscience of the media or the corruption & apathy of the Indian justice system. Whether it’s the stories of the witnesses – their vulnerabilities and weaknesses that allow them to back-track testimony and perjure themselves with impunity, or the grit of one cop who tries his best to do his job within the limitations of the system in which he must function. Whether it’s the persistence of Aditi – the novice journalist who feels compelled to follow Jessica’s story even when her channel is unsupportive, or the crusading senior journalist Meera, who has the gumption to acknowledge her initial mistake and goes about setting things right in a spectacular fashion. All of it rings true and is made believable by some stellar performances of the supporting cast, finely nuanced, convincing performances by Vidya Balan as Sabrina Lall (the victim’s sister) and Rani Mukherjee as Meera Gaiti (the veteran journalist) and a great script.
My favorite part of the movie though is the way the director portrays the slow awakening of the hoi polloi. It’s not an instantaneous uprising, but a gradual realization of the ‘It could have happened to my daughter’ kind, that fuels an increasing sense of outrage and frustration at the system. The awareness results in the successful ‘Justice for Jessica’ campaign, which receives millions of SMSes from concerned citizens all over the country pledging their support. In Delhi, a friend organizes a ‘Candlelight March’ in Jessica’s memory and watching all those people come together for a cause, other than war or cricket, warmed my heart. It’s heartening to see that hidden beneath all the stress of daily routine and a general defeatist attitude when it comes to our Government, we Indians still have a semblance of moral fiber left. We still have it in us to unite for a cause and wield our considerable collective power. My only regret is that our unity always seems short-lived, tenuous and unpredictable. Why we don’t seem to recognize our own strength even when it brings us results, is a mystery to me. Perhaps that’s an integral part of being a democracy where everyone is allowed their own opinion and freedom of choice or maybe we’re just too scared. If so, it seems a pity.
A word about the performances. The film is excellently cast. Vidya Balan gives a sensitive performance as Sabrina Lall, the victim’s sister and justice-seeker. Her naïve faith in the system is at once heartbreaking and heart-warming as is her gradual disillusionment and withdrawal from life as her family falls apart. All throughout her dignity and integrity remain untouched however showing an extraordinary strength of character in the face of overwhelming odds. Rani Mukherjee, an old favorite of mine, and seen on-screen after a long hiatus, is back in business with a gutsy performance as Meera. She portrays the combination of edgy efficiency, gumption and sensitiveness that makes for a great journalist, with her usual panache. But my absolute favorite is the cop, played I think by Rajesh Sharma, who is superlative. His understated role-playing caught my attention more than any major histrionics would have! He is effortless in his role of the cop, who tries his best to do his job within the system and when that fails, finds a way to help Meera in her campaign by sending her information anonymously. I love that he doesn’t pretend to be innocent, like when he confesses to accepting a bribe, to not hit the accused in custody! “Why do you look so surprised?” he asks a shocked Sabrina. “Everyone does it (takes bribes). The difference lies only in the reasons for which they do!” Rather cool I thought, given the circumstances. There’s even some dark humor to be found, in the way 300 witnesses claim to have left the venue, each before at midnight, to avoid testifying and getting involved with the police. In the pickpocket who steals a cell phone and then attends the Candlelight March in response to the SMS that he sees on it. In the way the SMS finds it’s way to the accused, proving that sometimes those infernal forwards do hit their intended mark!
For me, the success of this movie lies in the fact that the sum is more than the parts of the whole. It is cohesive, insightful and entertaining even while dealing with a grim subject, and avoids falling into the trap of voyeuristic sensationalism. I knew the ending, we all do…justice was served and the accused is now serving a life-term for his crime. His cronies got four years for helping him cover-up and tamper with evidence. His father had to resign as minister, although I think he should have been in jail too on bribery charges. And hopefully, somewhere in a happier place, Jessica Lall can finally rest in peace.
This is good cinema! Now, go watch it People 🙂