Killed model provides real-life drama for Bollywood

A new Bollywood film comes out this week based on the real-life murder of a fashion model by the son of a leading lawmaker, in a case that cast a spotlight on the corrupt nexus of police and politics.

“No One Killed Jessica” tracks the fight for justice for Jessica Lal, who was working as a celebrity barmaid at a fashionable New Delhi restaurant in 1999 when she was gunned down for refusing to serve a customer a drink.

The prime suspect, Manu Sharma, whose father Venod was a former government minister, was acquitted at trial seven years later after several witnesses retracted their initial statements.

The verdict prompted a public outcry and a media campaign that led to a prosecution appeal at which Sharma was convicted and given a life sentence for murder.

The case was seen as a turning point in India, whose wealthy elite had long been able to have their own way with few fears of reprisals.

Director Raj Kumar Gupta said the film was a reminder of how the Indian public could be a force to be reckoned with when faced with the corrupt practices and vested interests of the rich and powerful.

The movie, to be released on Friday, stars Rani Mukherjee as a campaigning journalist who teams up with the model’s sister Sabrina, played by Vidya Balan, to overturn the lower court verdict.

“The higher strata of Indian society realised that they cannot get away with anything after the Jessica case,” Gupta told AFP.

“They realised that the common man had found a voice and that voice will be heard if they do injustice to them.”

Sharma’s initial acquittal, despite many witnesses implicating him at first, outraged the normally politically apathetic urban middle classes, who organised vigils and Internet campaigns protesting that India’s elite was above the law.

In April last year, India’s Supreme Court upheld the verdicts against Sharma and two of his friends, who had been convicted of destroying evidence and helping him flee the scene of the crime.

Sabrina Lal said at the time: “In these cases where high profile and powerful people are involved, the important message is that it is not an impossible fight. It is a message for everyone that justice is possible.”

But despite the hopes of change, India’s upper echelons have faced a string of scandals, particularly over the last 12 months, that have shocked many even in a country well used to corruption and cronyism.

Few people expect anyone to be brought to book given India’s dismal record on fighting graft, which has seen only one conviction of a senior politician way back in 1949.

The weekly current affairs magazine India Today said in its new year issue that “the size and frequency of corruption in 2010 made it the theme of the year”.

India’s chaotic parliament has been deadlocked because of the government’s refusal to allow a cross-party probe into the sale of second-generation telecom licences at knock-down rates.

Telecom minister A. Raja quit his post when the claims surfaced but denied accusations of kickbacks and favouritism.

Leaked tapes of phone taps of a leading political lobbyist meanwhile called into question the claim of the Indian media to be the guardians of national democracy.

Several prominent journalists were accused of crossing the line by offering to act as powerbrokers in talks between big business and government over the allocation of cabinet seats.

That came on top of graft claims surrounding the awarding of contracts for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which were mired in cost overruns, accusations of shoddy building work and poor organisation.

Several firms were also accused of offering bribes for loans, while the chief minister of Maharashtra state was linked to a scam in Mumbai in which apartments meant for war widows were sold to politicians and military officers.

Gupta declined to say whether his film was a comment on the latest examples of power and corruption. Instead, he said he was highlighting how the public fought the system.

“This story is very inspirational because civil society very rarely comes together on such issues and tries to get justice for the dead,” he said.

“In this case justice was done for Jessica. Civil society came together as one and said, ‘Enough is enough’.”