The public sphere, the masculine world, has rules and regulations. Logic. Laws. It decides what one life, or 200 lives, are worth. It is a world of violence. Women are told to keep out, because it is a violent world, but who made it that way? The system supports its own violence. Men decide and women are left to endure.
No One Killed Jessica is about women taking action, instead of simply enduring.
The film is based on the murder of model Jessica Lal, though some parts are fictionalized. Rather than a straight forward timeline of “this happened, then this happened, and then this,” the film cuts back and forth through time and pairs the personal (the aftermath of her murder) with the political (such as a war between India and Pakistan), showing how the two intertwine.
Additionally, sound enhances the story telling: Sabrina’s (Vidya Balan) silent screams after her sister’s murder, Vikram’s (Neil Bhoopalam) stutters as he tries to recount what happened, the blaring dance music as the murder unfolds. The only detraction is the voice over narration from investigative reporter Meera (Rani Mukerjee). The narration adds little to the film, mainly musing on the nature of power in Delhi, and the coda at the end could have been provided in text. Mukerji’s performance is excellent, but her narration is flat.
Most remarkably, No One Killed Jessica focuses on women. Typically these types of movies center on a male protagonist, a dogged police inspector or reporter trying to find the truth. There is such an inspector, but this is not his story. Jessica’s friend Vikram witnesses her murder and sprayed with her blood, but this is not his story, either. Instead, we follow Sabrina, trying to find justice for her sister, trying to adjust to life without her, trying to keep her family together. Meera, a journalist who initially dismisses the story and then makes it a cause. Jessica’s friends. Meera’s female coworkers. Even the murderer’s mother appears, hiding in her sari behind curtains, imploring the men to save her son.
Sabrina does everything “right,” speaking with police, lawyers, and witnesses. Police Investigator N.K. (Rajesh Sharma) warns her that the accused’s family will tamper with witnesses. Sabrina takes it upon herself to talk to the witnesses and implore them to do the right thing, even giving money to one. (A bribe? Well, as N.K. explains, we all do it.) She dutifully attends court and tries to keep up hope, at least for her parents’ sake. She is scared, angry, sad, hopeful, despondent. She is a person.
Meera takes pride in being a bitch (or witch, as my subtitles said), demanding high profile assignments from her boss. She reports from the frontlines of a war, and when a man excitedly tells her how cool it was to watch, how like an action movie, she reminds him of the lives that were lost. She is a bitch, but she is not made of stone. A female coworker, Aditi (Maanvi Gagroo) suggests she report on Jessica’s murder; when Meera later decides to cover it (years later), she recruits Aditi to help investigate. She pushes the story and uses a variety of tactics to get justice and create a change in the judicial system.
Which is another major theme of the film: the power of media and storytelling. Jessica was a person who always deserved justice, but nothing happened until a television reporter picked it up and crafted a narrative. Sabrina pushed for justice, but she couldn’t make a story; her public speeches are often simple, lackluster. Aditi is inspired to create a protest march after watching Rang De Basanti. I had to pause the movie for a moment to think about the ramifications of a fictionalized version of a real case that shows a character influenced by a fictional movie about real(ish) events. I was afraid Meera was going to break the fourth wall and start speaking to the audience directly, implicating us for only caring because now we had a narrative.
Indeed, at the moment, true crime is incredibly popular in the United States, and the majority of that audience is female. I don’t have data for any other country, but I would guess the same holds true elsewhere. These are the crimes that affect us. We have been passive and polite, but gotten nowhere. We need a “bitch” like Meera to get justice. (And needless to say, Meera is not a bitch, simply articulate, demanding, forceful: traits praised in men.) Yet most true crime media follows a certain narrative, and values certain victims over others. The interest can border on ghoulish. Sabrina reminds us that her sister could have been anyone’s sister, that her sister had dreams. Jessica wasn’t a character in a story, but a real person.
In looking for a source for “women like true crime more than men,” I found a few headlines that suggested women’s interest is a revenge fantasy. But No One Killed Jessica shows it’s not really a revenge fantasy, but a justice fantasy. Jessica’s murderer was eventually sentenced to life in prison. He murdered her because she refused to pour him a drink; he pulled out a gun to threaten her and instead shot her. He felt entitled and used violence to get it. What would be appropriate revenge in this case? More violence? No. That he be sent to prison so he can’t hurt anyone else, and that the system (judicial specifically, but cultural norms and ideas, too) change to better protect people. Women’s revenge is disrupting the masculine world.