Bollywood films have never quite known how to deal with reality. There has been a divide between art-house Indian films and mainstream cinema, that popularly goes by the name of Bollywood. While films by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others wowed audiences at film festivals the world over, they didn’t quite make the mainstream grade. As a result, the two kinds of cinema followed their own paths. The high-brow fare, minus the glamour and spectacle of the low-brow popular movie, were watched by niche audiences at film festivals but were deprived of much-needed mass viewership and investment.
Until now. Over the past few years, the retail boom has given a new lease of life to Indian cinema. Shiny new multiplexes have mushroomed and there is a growing demand for films – not just for the song-and-dance variety. A new generation of filmmakers has emerged – one that is not afraid of drawing from real life events and borrowing from true-life incidents to spice up the fictional narrative. These filmmakers realize that going the art-house route is no longer an option. Lack of funding and audience apathy had practically oozed out any life that was still left in the “art film” movement. Veteran art house directors like Shyam Benegal had started to adapt their filmmaking to appeal to mainstream audiences, while not losing out on their strong storylines and powerhouse performances. But it has taken a brave new breed of filmmakers to blend fact with fiction; to adapt vignettes of real life India in a manner that is compelling and breathtaking. Anurag Kashyap (‘Dev D’; ‘Gulaal’), Dibakar Banerjee (‘Khosla ka Ghosla’; ‘Love, Sex aur Dhoka’), Anusha Rizvi (‘Peepli Live’), Neeraj Pandey (‘A Wednesday’) have created a new kind of crossover cinema for Indian audiences: crossing over with stories that are grounded in Indian reality while not missing out on the entertainment factor.
One such writer-director is Raj Kumar Gupta whose ‘No One Killed Jessica’ (NOKJ) is a valiant and successful attempt and closing the gap between popular and art-house cinema. Gupta’s endeavour is all the more remarkable because he has sought to recreate for the silver screen a sliver of real-life drama that is still very fresh in the memory of Indians. The Jessica Lal murder case. The story had stayed on the front pages for weeks: an attractive young model was shot dead by a patron at a swish restaurant, when she denied him a drink after the bar had closed. The man who committed the murder was the son of a politician. It symbolized everything that Delhi stood for: power, corruption, nepotism and unbridled lawlessness. Would Jessica get justice? Would the murderer get away scot-free? After five long years of trial, he was acquitted. For lack of evidence! That too when 300 people were at the bar when the incident happened! Even the most hardcore cynics were shocked at the outcome. And then something totally unexpected happened: cashing in on the public outcry against the judicial verdict, the media got into the act. Jessica Lal became a cause célèbre. A nationwide campaign was launched by the press and TV channels and a public litigation case filed. A fresh trial was ordered and this time around, the murderer’s political connections didn’t help him to get away scot-free. He was thrown behind bars. An outraged nation and an activist media had led to justice for Jessica.
It was a story made for the movies. Or maybe, not. The details of the case were still fresh in people’s memory and how do you engage with an audience when they already know how the story will end? How do you navigate through a huge cast of characters – many of whom are celebrities and likely to sue for damages if the filmmaker makes a single wrong move? And most importantly, how do you tell an entertaining story without getting lost in the myriad facts?
Gupta discusses these issues in the official website of NOKJ: “The initial satisfaction of having zeroed in on an important and interesting subject soon wore off and I began to panic. How am I going to write this script? I didn’t want to make a biography or a docudrama although the film is inspired by important real events. I also did not want to pass judgement on anybody and the idea wasn’t to accuse anyone or set out on an investigation myself. ..I did not want to be overwhelmed by the material or influenced by the bias of any real person involved with the subject.”
He adds, “I must admit that before I got down to writing I was really scared. I don’t know whether it happens to other screenwriters or not…I was not sure whether I would be able to write this film with such a broad canvas. But that is when I told myself — if I am able to write this script, I can write anything. For me, the beginning of a film is important. If I am able to crack the first ten pages, I know I will have a good script. It took me one month to write the first ten pages and that is when I decided I am going ahead with this film. It took me seven months and fifteen drafts to finish the script.”
Gupta has managed to blend fact with fiction with amazing dexterity in NOKJ. While the protagonist of the story is Sabrina, Jessica’s real life sister, the co-protagonist, Meera, is a fictional character. Gupta does a brilliant job of personifying the media into one character, Meera – a feisty TV journalist who is ambitious, foul-mouthed and has her heart in the right place. “I know I am a bitch,” she says nonchalantly while smoking. (That itself is a first for Indian film heroines.) Through Meera’s character, Gupta verbalizes the whole media-as-an-arbiter-of-justice argument and makes it a compelling watch. He also smartly avoids the trap of getting into the personal motivations of the dramatis personae (like the restaurant owner in whose bar Jessica is killed) or that of Jessica’s actor friend who was with her when she was shot dead. By sticking to the story that emerges from the first court trial, the director avoids taking sides, and thus standing on judgement. The nuances and the lightness of touch with which Gupta handles some of the characters – or even the portrayal of New Delhi, the big, bad capital of crime and unabashed power, make for a compelling, multi-layered screenplay.
Gupta’s film – among others in recent times – gives hope to many screenwriters in India that there is life beyond the masala movie! No One Killed Good Stories in Indian Cinema!
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