Movies that are based on true stories often have to sacrifice the actual facts of the story in order to fit a coherent narrative. Sometimes, the changes are ridiculously huge, such as with The Sound of Music. Sometimes, criticism concerning accuracy focus on only certain things, such as with Zero Dark Thirty or 42. Sometimes there are so many changes that it might as well not even reference the true story, like in 21. Then, there is The Social Network, which….sigh…One question could be whether the fudging of history necessarily hurts a story, particularly one that outright states that it is a fictionalized account. Or is it okay to use a real story as a template for a slightly different story? This week’s entry for WTF is No One Killed Jessica, which deals with a real-life story that is somewhat recent: the attempts to bring Manu Sharma to justice for the 1999 murder of Jessica Lal. I do not know much about the actual case, but I will talk a little bit about what I know regarding the changes to the story after I talk about the movie itself. Of course, that means that I will have to spoil the actual movie, but you can look up the details of the real story anyways.
The movie starts off with a television reporter named Meera Gaity, providing voiceover narration about the city of Delhi and giving the impression that this she is in a film noir or something. Honestly, the rock music, the flashy visuals over the opening credits, and the narration can make the beginning of the movie a bit difficult to grasp. In any case, Meera describes Delhi as being a city of power, and that power trumps money, righteousness, everything else. I guess that this sets the tone for the story.
Sabrina Lall is called to the hospital, informed that her younger sister Jessica has been shot. She rushes to the hospital and talks to Jessica’s coworker, Vikram, who saw the whole thing. In flashback, we see a party for a few hundred rich people. Jessica and Vikram, two aspiring models, had been serving drinks, but they have just closed up. Three men show up late to the party and ask for drinks. When Jessica and Vikram repeatedly refuse them, the men get hostile and one of them pulls a gun. When Jessica does not back down, the man shoots her in the head. The men run out of the party, bumping into another witness, and Vikram yells out into the crowd that Jessica has been shot. It is not certain if he has called the police yet, but I am guessing that that comes later. We are back in the present and Jessica has died.
We switch over to Meera Gaity, who has just finished reporting on a short border war between India and Pakistan. This provides the context both about what else had been going on when the murder was taking place and about Meera’s priorities. Specifically, it shows that she is not covering the murder case, since she has what she believes to be more pressing matters to report. Her coverage of the war has made her a celebrity and she is looking for the next big story, a story that people care about. In other words, not the murder of some amateur model.
Indeed, it seems to be an open-and-shut case, because the culprit is soon arrested. He is Manish Bharadwaj, and it causes a bit of a scandal, since he is the son of a prominent member of a major national political party. Privately, he almost immediately confesses on tape to the case’s head investigator, saying that he merely meant to fire a warning shot. However, another officer comes in to take over for the head investigator and things start to get tricky. It turns out that Manish’s family has decided to step in and tamper with the case as much as they can through bribery and witness intimidation. What seemed to be an open-and-shut case to people like Meera is shaping up to be not quite so open-and-shut.
The head investigator, who seems to have nothing but disdain for the wealthy and politically connected, notes with cynicism that all but seven of the 300 potential witnesses at that party claim to have gone home already by the time of the shooting, even though we see that that is not the case. He also openly states to Sabrina that he had been bribed to refrain from hitting Manish during the interrogation, implying that others in the Police Force who also are struggling financially have probably been bribed to do other things regarding the case. Why would Sabrina and her sister want to have anything to do with those people in the first place? It is a mild mix of victim-blaming mixed in with a dash of self-loathing. He lashes out at Sabrina for her sins during her time of grief, but he knows that he is no better.
Sabrina, who had always been the more introverted of the sisters, tries to do what she can talk to the remaining witnesses and convince them to remain honest, but she begins to suspect that some of the witnesses are being bribed and threatened. Of particular note is Vikram, who has refused to talk to her; another witness tells Sabrina that Vikram has been offered the choice of a lot of money or a bullet. The police are hardly clean in this case, as is made clear when the original head investigator finds out that the evidence has been switched out with something else. Though we see little of it explicitly, it is clear that Manish’s father and his political allies are using every trick that they can to turn this trial to their advantage. The Lalls are a somewhat well-to-do middle class family. With no political connections, however, they have no chance.
As the trial draws near, Sabrina is interviewed by Aditi, a young reporter who works at Meera’s company. Meera, of course, is focused more on the hijacking of an airplane by an Islamic Militant group. She shuts down Aditi for wanting to give more coverage to the Bharadwaj trial. I will say, right now, that that scene has my favorite use of “Shut the fuck up” ever, even if Meera was in the wrong. Anyways, Meera does briefly meet Sabrina and gives some brief, but genuine, words of encouragement before Sabrina gets interviewed by Aditi. This, however, does not actually lead to them teaming up for anything. That actually threw me the first time that I watched it, since the movie seemed to make it look like they were going to start collaborating there. It made a bit more sense upon subsequent viewings, though.
The trial begins and Manish’s defense lawyer proceeds to badger all of the witnesses in a somewhat predatory manner. A couple of the witnesses stand up to him and point out Manish as the murderer. One of them tries to attack Manish, but is subdued. All of that is for naught once Vikram takes the stand. Vikram, who had seen the whole thing, asserts that there were actually two people with different guns and that it was certainly not Manish who shot Jessica. Vikram claims to have been coerced into making testimony by the police and states that he signed documents written in Hindi, which he does not understand. How no one could have come up with evidence refuting this statement is beyond me, but his statement throws the whole trial for a loop. In contrast to the almost predator-like defense attorney, the prosecutor comes across as kind of hapless, pretty much shouting “I object” over and over, only occasionally giving a reason for it. The trial drags on for years and years as we see Sabrina wandering around the city getting more emotionally exhausted. Finally, in 2006, Manish and his friends are acquitted, due to lack of evidence. Sabrina is defeated. Her mother practically falls into a fatal coma and her father has to be hospitalized after she dies. Meanwhile, a newspaper headline reads: No One Killed Jessica.
The story then shifts over to Meera. If the viewer was wondering why she got so much screen time and so many voice overs during the first hour of the movie, here is the answer. When she reads the headline, she gets very upset. While she was already pretty cynical about a lot of things, she had never expected such a clear-cut case of murder to get botched so badly. She convinces her boss (more like irritates him into submission) to let her take on the story. She starts by setting up a fake interview between Vikram and the reporter who had initially tried to follow the murder trial. The reporter pretends to be working for a film company and Vikram is trying to sell himself as an actor. Through means that seem less than subtle to me, they get Vikram to say that he is fluent in Hindi and to pretty much admit that he was both bribed and threatened to give false testimony at the trial. Meera, of course, uses this as the main thrust of her quest to push this story forward. And before you can say “trial by media”, the story becomes huge.
As the reports continue and Meera gets other witnesses to admit to lying, the movie shows Indians from different walks of life watching Meera’s coverage and speaking to reporters about their outrage over the trial. Sometime in the middle of this, the police officer who had taped Manish’s confession secretly drops it off at Meera’s house. Why this was neither destroyed early on nor used in the original trial itself is unknown to me, but Meera uses it to put another nail in Manish’s coffin. She calls for people to contact their political representatives by every means possible. We see a lot of people on their phones and on their computers. It may seem a little bit like the type of slacktivism that would lead to the rise and fall of “Kony 2012” six years later, but the Indian people go beyond that. Indeed, public outrage reaches the highest level of government and there is actually stuff that happens, including new laws regarding witness protection. Manish’s father gets dumped by his political party and the police are subject to investigation. The case is reopened and one random woman, after watching a movie, begins organizing vigil on behalf of Jessica. Meera picks up on it and broadcasts it.
Meera goes to see Sabrina regarding the vigil, but Sabrina is unwilling to go. She had been fighting for seven years practically all by herself and had gotten nowhere. She had had no life of her own, her mother had recently died, and she is tired of everything. She just wants to move on and let go. Meera, sensitive soul that she is, accuses Sabrina of giving up just as the entire country is rallying to her side. She accuses Sabrina of thinking only of herself and not of her sister. She says that Sabrina needs to be there to serve as a symbol for justice. As Sabrina hears Meera speak, she is reminded of a time when Jessica ran after a pair of guys who had snuck a grope on Sabrina while riding a motorcycle. Sabrina was willing to let it go, but Jessica attacked them, saying that letting sexual harassment slide will only lead encourage worse actions. Sabrina realizes that giving up at this point goes against everything that Jessica believed in. So, Sabrina goes to the vigil, and there are a lot of people there from all walks of Indian life with candles and everything.
Soon, a new trial is fast tracked, with Manish bound to be found guilty. Meera goes to see Sabrina at the cemetery to tell her that they had won. Sabrina cries. The movie ends.
The first time I watched No One Killed Jessica back in the summer of 2012, I had a mixed reaction. I liked the characters, especially Meera. I liked the story for the most part. I liked the acting, with a few exceptions. But the presentation really confused me. While I liked Meera, I could not understand why the story spent so much time on her in the early sections when she repeatedly rejected involvement with the murder story until well-over halfway through the movie, and had minimal interaction with Sabrina. I did not quite get why the movie completely failed on the “show, don’t tell” rule when addressing witness tampering. And, finally, I was frustrated with the final act, when the story slowed down to a crawl in order to dwell on the news reports, the interviews, and the vigil. I kept waiting for a last-minute plot twist, but it never happened. Cynically, I figured that it was to pad out the running-time so that the movie does not end before the two-hour mark, but only because this was the shortest Indian film that I had seen at the time. Still, I decided to watch it a second time, this time prepared for the odd method of storytelling. I liked it a little better the second time, but it got me to do a little information gathering regarding the murder trial, the short war, and the hijacking. Well, color me surprised.
It turns out the murder and the original arrest took place before the outbreak of war, not at the tail end of the war. Additionally, the hijacking took place months after the start of the trial. What was the reasoning for these timeline changes? The only reason that I could come up with was that it was to show that Meera’s priorities were simply not with the case at the time. In the beginning, she was riding high from her reports about the war and local murder case that seemed clear cut did not particularly seem interesting to her or to the general public. Having the hijacking take place around the same time as the start of the trial was an effective way of sweeping the case under the rug again. Still, the war and the hijacking were huge events in modern Indian history, so surely many people would have remembered (or at least learned later) that the beginning of the story did not quite match up with the events in this movie. So, other than allowing for a thematic shortcut, why did they change the events? What did the real Meera do back then? Funny story, actually.
A few (or most) of the characters in the story do not share the same names as their real-life counterparts. For example, the Lals were changed to the Lalls (or that could just be Wikipedia being silly), Manu Sharma became Manish Bharadwaj, and Vikram was actually called Munshi in real life. That was fine; I expected as much. Legal reasons, perhaps. As for Meera, the second main character and arguably maybe even the main character of the movie, was a composite character, basically representing the media. I was genuinely shocked to see that this character, who took up so much of the movie and even took the story on many a detour in the beginning, was not even real. Sure, biopics and based on true story movies sometimes have fictionalized characters, but a main character? Why did the movie do that? Yes, I know that the text that preceded the movie had hinted that the media angle was partially made up, but I had not realized that it went to that extent. Why give her such a brash personality? Why give her all of those scenes of her narrating her thoughts? Why put so much effort into inserting a character whom everyone in the audience would know to be fake into a real story that most of the audience would remember? Why focus on her and not on Aditi, who had been interested in the case from nearly the very start? And why have Meera repeatedly reject covering the case and have scenes of her and Sabrina going past each other?
It was after the third viewing that I (maybe kind of) figured it out. Where I had been looking at the movie from the standpoint of the story about the murder of Jessica, I missed the story about India and its people. This was not really a story for me; it was a story for them. And it was about them. Sabrina was an Indian woman. She was humble, nice, middle-class, proper, a little bit of a loner, but kind of happy with her lot in life. Maybe she was hoping to find a good man one day, get married and start a family. She had lived a relatively complacent and uneventful life until it was shaken to its core. With very few people fighting for her and none of them putting in much effort to combat the powers that prevented justice from being done, she reluctantly took up the fight herself. She was not used to really taking a stand on anything, but she did her best, knowing that she was in the right even when she was alone. Yet, she still lost. And she seemed to retreat back into her shell. While one person really can make a difference, one person should not have to make a difference all by herself.
This is where Meera comes in. She may have been a stand-in for the India media, but she also represents the Indian people. She is rude, ambitious, coarse, competitive, manipulative, pushy, and determined to make it in modern society. Behind that rough exterior, however, is someone who does care, and passionately so. She is, at her core, a good person. Her main sin was repeatedly ignoring and brushing aside a story that she figured would resolve itself on its own. But, when she realizes that justice has not been served, she quickly takes advantage of her power as a member of the media to rally the nation behind Sabrina Lall, even though she had met her only briefly once. That is why the movie spends so much time on her, so much time on her ignoring the murder case. She, like many in India, was late in taking interest in the murder trial, thinking little of it. But when they realized their mistake, they collectively sprang into action. This is why the movie spends so much time showing all of these people watching Meera on television (a few of whom we saw halfway through the movie not paying attention to Sabrina’s pre-trial interview) and talking to reporters on the street. This is why the movie has so many lingering shots on the vigil. Meera represents the Indian people, and the Indian people in the movie represent the Indian audience. So, while the aggressively irrelevant inclusions of Meera threw me off and the drawn-out ending tested my patience the first time, by the third time, I found the seemingly odd storytelling choices to be near completely justified. I still could have done without most of Meera’s voiceover narration, though. That stuff was interminable, no matter how quickly she talked.
This is a movie about the Indian people about the Indian people; each of them and all of them. It is about how they once let justice fail through casual inaction or indifference, but then righted a wrong through vigorous collective action and forceful awareness. It allows them to celebrate in this triumph, but it also shows them the lengths that the people may have to go to ensure that justice has been served. They cannot forget about injustices and act like everything is fine. They cannot simply sit back and assume that the government will do the right thing. They cannot simply follow the will of their leaders. They cannot simply cower in fear over what those in power might do, as if they are the only ones being targeted. They cannot simply rely on a hero to stand up to the system. They have to be willing to be heroes too. They have to remain vigilant. They have to take advantage of being in the world’s largest democracy to make sure that their voices are constantly being heard by the powers that be. Does that seem a little overly-optimistic? Especially now? Well, maybe. There are plenty of Indian movies where the protagonists respond to a corrupt and oppressive political structure by using brutal violence, so this is a bit of reprieve.
India is not always safe for the people. Simply “Liking” a Facebook quote criticizing the memorial of a controversial political leader could get one arrested if others do not help. A few months after I watched this movie, there was an especially horrid and deadly attack on a woman on a bus. I won’t go into the details here, but you can look it up if you really want to. There were protests against the attack almost immediately, yet there was pushback as well. The movie…may only hint at stuff like that (and nothing about the behavior that led to the recent accusations of workplace harassment against a male journalist), but the message seems pretty clear to me: justice is possible, but it can take a long time and may require a lot of effort from all of us in order to make sure that it is achieved and sustained. It is difficult and may not seem worth the struggle, especially when things seem to backslide. But it is worth it; a trillion times yes. And this applies not just to Indians, but to all of us. We can admire heroes, but we cannot simply wait for them to fix everything without help. For heroes also sometimes need saving. And who better to save them than all of us? In helping them, we save ourselves.
Oh, and one notable thing about this movie: with the possible exception of one scene of an interrupted encounter with some random guy, there is no hint of a romantic relationship for either Meera or Sabrina, and they actually both pointed it out; one regretfully, the other happily. That women do not need to have a man in order to have their stories told is a difficult enough concept for movies in general. For Bollywood, it is nearly impossible. The fact that this movie almost completely dispensed with male love interests and still allowed for a happy ending is something quite notable. Just one more thing that makes this movie one to recommend.
WTF ASIA 27: Dream Home (Hong Kong: 2010, Approx. 96 minutes)
WTF ASIA 28: Cure (Japan: 1997, Approx. 112 minutes)
Available…uh…on the internet, I guess.