Reality based stories, especially much-hyped events like the 1999 after-hours shooting death of Jessica Lal, an attractive model/bartender in New Delhi, allegedly by a young, rich and politically-connected male patron, risk being weighted down by their own self importance. The fact that, of the 300-some upper-crust patrons present at the watering hole, not one witness stepped forward, thrust India’s judicial system into an awkward international glare. The case highlighted two self-evident realities of modern India—a notoriously slow judicial system and the possibility of a two-tier legal system where rich suspects anecdotally tamper with the legal process to push case outcomes in their favor.
Viewed through the eyes of two strong female antagonists, Sabrina Lal (Balan), Jessica’s sister, and Meera (Mukherjee), a high-flying investigative reporter for a satellite TV news channel, Gupta’s well-put together story puts forth two of the most interesting female screen personalities in recent memory. Mukherjee’s media maven Meera barks orders at everyone in sight. With her Christiane Amanpour-battle front reporting creds, Meera is a louder, bitchier Cruella de Ville with a trench coat and a mike. The ease with which Meera verbally emasculates male honchos in the media boardroom or tosses a scantily clad booty call-minded boy-toy out of her bed to chase down a late night news story provides a strange, sheepish satisfaction at the leveling of the playing field.
At the other end of the power equation is Sabrina, underplayed by Balan to meek perfection. Sabrina is concentrated, silent rage waiting to explode—and, yet, seldom does—at the indifference she bumps up against at almost every turn. Sabrina’s vow to hold back tears until justice is done in her sister’s case is a heavy, invisible garland around her bare neckline. Spectacled and mousy, Sabrina is the emerging new urban Indian everywoman—intelligent, English-language savvy, self-confident and increasingly restless for not only economic equality but full political emancipation from institutional misogyny. We care much for Sabrina and Meera. Where director Gupta falls short is making a case for why we should care as much for who exactly does kill Jessica.
Globe trekker, photographer, and film buff Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.