Two years ago on a family vacation to India, our taxi was pulled over by a policeman demanding to see the driver’s license. The policeman took the proffered license and told the driver to come to a Delhi police station the next day to retrieve it and sort the matter out. We drove off, my father offering his sympathies. But the driver shrugged; the license had been one of his five fakes. In Delhi, as soon as you get your license, you go across the street to buy a handful of counterfeits, to cover for situations just like this.
Corruption in India is a nationwide game in which every citizen willingly participates, from politicians to peasants. But in the hugely popular Bollywood political thriller No One Killed Jessica, a film that has become a landmark of India’s burgeoning anti-corruption movement, this message is largely missed. Rather than taxi drivers, the film wags a finger at the social elite: important figures in the corruption establishment, but far from the only culprits. As India’s wave of anti-corruption advocacy gains force, finding popular media symbols that accurately represent the problem remains the crucial step.
No One Killed Jessica is based on the true story of the Jessica Lall murder. In April 1999, Lall, an aging model, was shot while bartending at the restaurant Tamarind Court Café in Delhi. Prosecutors identified Manu Sharma, the son of a Haryana state congressman, as the killer. Manu had apparently bristled at Jessica’s refusing to serve him after the bar closed and shot her out of anger. However, 29 eyewitnesses later retracted their statements, claiming that their memory of the situation had changed, and Manu was acquitted. After a national media storm, Manu was hauled back into court and sentenced to life imprisonment, 26 of the 29 eyewitnesses were accused of perjury, and the Tamarind Court Café was shut down.
The film, released in January, has been hugely successful, both financially and politically. It has grossed $4.6 million since release, $4.1 million of which was in India. This is an impressive total, given that Indian movie tickets often cost less than $1. Of course, the film was conceived as a popular success, headlined by Bollywood superstar Rani Mukherjee as a crusading reporter, and featuring a strong performance by Vidya Balan, as Jessica’s quietly vengeful sister.
More importantly, however, No One Killed Jessica has become an important part of the national Indian discourse on corruption, as reflected by its reviews. The Times of India said of the film: “Raj Kumar Gupta shows absolute conviction in bringing to life one of the most significant murder-case convictions in the history of India. No one miss this cinema!” The Hindu proclaimed: “Seven years after Jessica was shot dead, a nation wakes up to fight for justice.” The film grew popular at opportune time for India’s anti-corruption movement. Although complaints about corruption have bubbled since the disastrous 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, an more full good-government movement gained traction in April 2011, coalescing around activist Anna Hazare’s hunger fast “unto death,” and demanding the passage of an anti-corruption bill in the Indian Congress. In this sense, No One Killed Jessica proved an important endorsement of the anti-corruption movement by powerful figures in entertainment and politics, at a time when the movement was still struggling for attention.
Of course, the entertainment industry knew its motives. The cinema proves a powerful tool in Indian politics. For a country only 63 percent literate, movies are an important form of information as well as entertainment. The industry is valued at $1 billion, and sells 36 billion tickets annually, compared to Hollywood’s 2.6 billion. Further, while the Western entertainment industry is highly fragmented between films, television, Internet media, social networks, and music, the Indian entertainment industry is mostly driven by Bollywood.
However, the political influence of No One Killed Jessica raises an important question: does the movie portray corruption in an accurate manner? In a noteworthy way, it does not. The film places undue responsibility for corruption on India’s rich and famous. The film’s eyewitnesses (which jump from 29 to 300) are cast as Delhi’s most fashionable and powerful, and Gupta posits that they were bribed and intimidated by the powerful Sharma family to retract their original testimonies. As one poor witness objects, “What would you do if you were offered the choice of 10 million rupees or a bullet?” Not only are the eyewitnesses not commoners, but their corrupt retractions are motivated by plausible threats of death – quite unlike the experience of most day-to-day corruption in India.
Transparency International’s 2005 India Corruption study illustrates the many layers of the problem. Based on a sample of 14,000 citizens in 20 of 28 states, it found that, “As high as 62 percent of citizens think that the corruption is not a hearsay, but they in fact have had firsthand experience of paying a bribe or ‘using a contact’ to get a job done in a public office.” The study also showed that only 15 percent of Indians believe that corruption is the fault of citizens and that 33 percent believe that corruption is a fact of life.
In more qualitative terms, the daily presence of corruption can be seen through corruption blogs such as ipaidabribe.com, which allows users to post the most egregious bribes they have been asked to pay (and have often paid). From Meerut comes a post: “My father who is about to retire in one month’s time from UPPCL was asked by his Executive Engineer to pay a bribe of 10,000 to release his service book, so he can get pension and funds on time.” From Bangalore: “I had to forfeit 20 percent of my Agriculture produce to HOPCOMS. They billed only for 80 percent of my supplied agri-produce and took almost 20 percent unaccounted.” Bribe posts are even split into categories: “police,” “registration,” “motor vehicles,” “municipal services,” and “customs.”
Corruption in India is a common thing, but No One Killed Jessica presents it as an almost rarefied event, shifting responsibility for better governance away from civic society. In a country where graft is as much a part of the exchange of goods and services as money itself, and the collective actions of a billion people give it staying power, anti-corruption needs an accurate model. In the days after Manu is initially acquitted of Jessica’s murder, the film shows a massive vigil for Jessica in a large public space in Delhi. People across the city come out in t-shirts and signs reading, “I am Jessica.” What they should be thinking is: “Am I Manu?”