Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In No One Killed Jessica, two women fight to prove that title is a lie

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Siblings Week at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about sisters.

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No One Killed Jessica (2011)

The Bollywood thriller No One Killed Jessica is a serious movie about an important subject, the real-life murder of model Jessica Lal and the years-long legal proceedings that ensued and eventually made the case a nationwide cause célèbre that raised awareness of both systemic corruption and women’s rights. Director Raj Kumar Gupta films the story largely in a style that, for better and worse, can best be summed up as “awards season verité.” Focusing on the better, there is one wry scene, an exception to the film’s style as a whole and one straight out of a masala romance, when the film’s two protagonists—the murder victim’s sister Sabrina (Vidya Balan), and Meera (Rani Mukerji), the TV journalist who eventually takes up her cause—meet in a manner much like lovers, down to the exact camera angles and music cues that would have heralded such a moment.

There’s an alternate universe with a version of this movie that’s 45 minutes longer where Sabrina gets married off to some dude who gets all huffy that she’s wasting quality homemaking time on a quixotic quest for justice, at every which point the movie grinds to a complete halt. Instead we have Balan’s transformational performance, which puts shame to the cliché of plunking a beautiful movie star in glasses and calling her plain. Balan’s entire posture changes, and the timing of her line readings slows to a point of painful social awkwardness. She’s a marvel to watch work.

When Sabrina’s quest for justice seems to hit a dead end, Meera—who had previously refused to report on Jessica’s murder because she regarded it as an open-and-shut affair (there were a half dozen people in the room when Jessica was shot, and hundreds of people in the next room)—takes center stage. Mukerji brings an entirely different sort of energy to this role; in a deliberate, symbiotic contrast to Sabrina’s inward sorrow, Meera is pure will projected outward—brash, abrasive, utterly unconcerned with hurt feelings or anything other than that journalist’s holy grail, The Story. Without any adornment, watching a woman in flawless eye makeup chain smoke, curse like a sailor, and casually toss men aside like air would be a good time in itself. But watching Rani Mukerji do all this is about as purely pleasurable as cinema gets. (It’s exactly the kind of performance for which a major star would win an Oscar in the States, and indeed Mukerji did win the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work.)

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No One Killed Jessica accumulates an undeniable amount of emotional momentum by its climax. Gupta and editor Aarti Bajaj maintain a thriller-like pace, which enables the occasionally awkward staging to be overwhelmed by the sheer star power of its leads, a number of immensely effective isolated moments (the revelation of the title’s origin, in particular), and a truly moving ending. It’s a tale of sisterhood both of blood and of choice, an unabashedly pro-woman movie, something world cinema frankly needs more of.

Availability: No One Killed Jessica is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally from Amazon.

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