No One Killed Jessica, directed by Rajkumar Gupta, is a loud, overdramatized account of the Jessica Lall murder in 1999 and the events that followed. Drama is inherent to this story, in which the prime accused was acquitted by the court for lack of evidence, then sentenced to life imprisonment when the case was reopened seven years later following a collective public outcry. Yet Gupta paints in broad strokes, delivering a simplistic, Bollywood-ised version of real events.

So Vidya Balan plays Sabrina, Jessica’s elder sister, as a dowdy figure, robbed of any personality, focused on seeking justice for the death of her sibling. And Rani Mukherjee is the smoking, swearing TV reporter Meera Geti, who leaves a man halfway through an amorous encounter when she receives a call about a big breaking news story. Both are what you’d describe as ‘signpost’ characters; they might as well be wearing their character sketch around their neck.

With the exception of a few powerful scenes that leave you with a genuine lump in your throat, Gupta goes for full-on melodrama that doesn’t always ring true. Courtroom scenes in which lawyers bellow at witnesses, or newsroom scenes in which Meera railroads her boss and barks at junior reporters, are written with the sole purpose of eliciting an applause.

The film opens with the news of Jessica’s death reaching her sister, and quickly flashbacks to the incident where the model bartender was shot at point blank range for refusing a drink to a politician’s son after the bar had been closed. The court case follows, where the accused is allowed to walk free, because witnesses have been intimidated or paid off. The only compelling character in this track is a cop (played by Rajesh Sharma), who in one of the film’s best-directed scenes tells Sabrina he accepted a bribe to not hurt the accused while recording his statement.

The film’s parallel track involves Rani’s character Meera, a star reporter who initially has no interest in the Jessica story, then goes after it when she’s convinced justice has been denied, and spearheads a campaign to undo the damage.

No One Killed Jessica has a disclaimer that describes the film as "a hybrid of fact and fiction". Indeed, the film may work as a masala entertainer, but for the most part, the director’s treatment is too exaggerated and bombastic for a ‘true story’. Virtually every single supporting character is a cardboard caricature, and watching those courtroom scenes in which witnesses are called to testify, is nothing short of sheer torture because of the amateurish acting that’s up on display. One character whose representation in the film I found particularly offensive was the mother of the accused, who shows up on three separate occasions and almost in a cutesy sing-song voice tells her husband that no matter what, he must protect her son. It’s almost unbelievable that the director goes for such insensitive humor in a film of this nature.

As far as the central performances go, Vidya Balan plays her character one-note, and seems to forget to invest any personality into Sabrina. Sure one doesn’t expect to see her play Sabrina as a bubbly, lively woman, but she needn’t have been so dull either. Vidya shines in the one unpredictable scene she’s allowed, in which her character breaks into a giggle during a tense moment in court. Rani Mukherjee, despite being saddled with a cliché of a character, is more cinematically engaging, and knows exactly how to command the screen with her presence.

But the star of No One Killed Jessica is Amit Trivedi, the film’s music and background score composer, who gives the film its soul. His pulsating track Dilli is possibly the best opening-titles number in recent memory, and he infuses life and pace into even somber scenes with his rich background compositions.

No One Killed Jessica isn’t a bad film; it’s just a disappointing one from a filmmaker who showed such promise with his debut film Aamir. This one falls short.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for director Rajkumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica. It reminded me of a Madhur Bhandarkar film. If you’re a fan of simplistic storytelling, you won’t complain.

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