One of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in Indian legal history is dynamically dramatized in “No One Killed Jessica.” Tackling the 1999 murder of model Jessica Lal, whose rich young killer walked free before public outrage and media pressure forced a retrial, helmer Raj Kumar Gupta delivers an enthralling and universally accessible account of the human and political dimensions of the case. Released locally and internationally Jan. 7, pic has notched strong numbers across the board and has the raw emotional punch to attract non-Indian viewers in offshore markets.
Presumably to cover legal bases, pic opens with a disclaimer stating it is neither “a documentary nor a biography of any person.” But in almost every detail, Gupta’s screenplay accurately rolls out the facts surrounding Lal, who worked at a ritzy New Delhi nightclub and was gunned down in front of several eyewitnesses and hundreds of bystanders after refusing to serve a drink to the son of a wealthy politician.
Unusually for a Bollywood movie, “Jessica” sports dual female protags. Early focus is on Sabrina (Vidya Balan), Jessica’s plain-Jane sister, who quickly discovers the conviction of gunman Manish Bhardwaj (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) is anything but certain. Screenplay’s fury at institutionalized corruption finds its most potent voice in N.K. (Rajesh Sharma, outstanding), the weary, self-loathing detective heading the investigation. No sooner has he told Sabrina, “Everybody takes bribes, only the reasons change,” than crucial evidence is tampered with, and star witnesses including wannabe actor Vikram Singh (Neil Bhoopalam) start recanting sworn statements.
Muscular editing effectively counterbalances Sabrina’s sinking feelings about Indian justice with the activities of Meera Gaity (Rani Mukerji), an ace TV reporter who swears with abandon at harried bureau chief Gaurav (Satyadeep Misra). Among the brassiest of Bollywood dames, Meera initially dismisses the Bhardwaj trial as an open-and-shut case unworthy of her attention.
Though the narrative tarries a tad too long on the intimidation of witnesses by the goons of Bhardwaj Sr. (Shireesh Sharma), pic thunders home once Junior is acquitted and an outraged Meera springs into action. Playing to the gallery without dumbing things down, Gupta ensures viewers get full satisfaction from elaborate stings set up by Meera and spunky cub reporter Aditi (Maanvi Gagroo).
Balan’s delicate underplaying and Mukerji’s high-energy strutting are pitched just right. Standouts in a fine supporting cast drawn mostly from legit ranks include veteran Avijit Dutt as Bhardwaj’s reptilian attorney and newcomer Myra Kam as the vivacious Jessica, seen in flashbacks.
Anay Goswamy’s fluid camera and production designer Sukant Panigrahy’s richly textured decor, spanning high- and low-end life in New Delhi, top an impressive tech package. Sans dedicated song-and-dance sequences, pic slots six punchy Amit Trivedi-Amitabh Bhattacharya original compositions into the vibrant soundscape.