Before it was a movie, No One Killed Jessica was a thought. Not a firm thought. Not even a half-dry one. Raj Kumar Gupta, the film’s amiable writer and director, saw something in the Jessica Lall case, but he wasn’t sure what. There were “thousands of pages” of words available on the case, which was great for background, but he wasn’t attempting a biopic. He needed something more to let the idea grow, so he flew to Delhi, where emotional traces of the case still lingered. There he met Sabrina Lall.
Gupta approached Jessica’s sister with utmost caution, uncertain of how to broach the topic of her death, but was surprised by her cheerful demeanour. “It was a relief, because you don’t know what the right thing to say is,” he says. “But when I saw her, my first thought was that time does that to you. It had been almost ten years since it happened, and she must have gone through this emotional journey and got over it.” He didn’t want information from her, he explained. Just a chat. “I wanted to see this person, to see if this person exists.” They met every evening after she got off from work. For a couple of hours the next two weeks, she told him how she felt.
The talks were informal and friendly, and he was struck by how unemotional the conversations were. Gupta returned to Mumbai armed with the flesh that makes stories human, and distanced himself from what he had learnt, and, just as important, felt. “I didn’t know if it would be a film,” he explains at a Mumbai coffee shop on the Sunday before its release.
When Gupta is excited, his eyebrows shoot up over thick black-rimmed glasses—to just below a layer of flat, spiked, greying hair. Seated low, he presses his chest hard to the edge of the circular coffee table, and stays there for a good half hour. It gives him the appearance of being in motion even on a sofa; his cream sneakers strain at the toes as he presses down hard on the balls of his feet. And the sincerity and passion with which he speaks of the medium leaves you feeling like you’ve just had chocolate cake.
At first, he struggled like everyone does, writing four scripts that were better than the last, before writing a movie he named Aamir. “I began with this single thought: ‘Who says a man writes his own destiny?’, and it followed from there.” Anurag Kashyap, despondent after the response to No Smoking, was energised after he saw the raw first half of Aamir—the recollection makes Gupta, who assisted Kashyap on Black Friday, pretty happy. “He matters because his opinion carries weight with me.” Once Kashyap gave it his approval, the success that followed seemed a foregone conclusion.
After a month away from the story, Gupta sat down to write in his modest Versova apartment. Looking at the material he had, he was frightened by its scope and scale. His last movie focused primarily on one character, while this one had several. “Then I thought, ‘If I do a bad job, no one will know about it because it won’t get made.’ But if I did a good job, this could be my best script. And if I could write this, I could write anything.” Before he began to write, he pulled down a poster of Aamir, and put it out of sight. (“You don’t want to think about what you did earlier.”) After four starts, he found his pacing, tone and rhythm with his fifth attempt at the first scene. This is important, he says, because it gives him momentum when he launches himself into the foggy blank pages of a potential script. “I still didn’t have a story in mind.” Still, he wrote. Words amounted to paragraphs. Paragraphs became pages. After writing ten pages, he decided he was going to make this movie. Propelled by the force of a steady beginning, he gradually had a story. And then it became a script.
Gupta wrote the script over 15 drafts in seven months. It was, as some writers know too well, torturous. “Writing is a very painful process,” he says. “Very tiresome. Very lonely. I have no one to guide me. So it takes me time to figure things out.” To move on with an incomplete script, or even one that’s less than perfect, is unthinkable. It isn’t just about the story in itself. The story is what will wake him up in excitement for months during gruelling schedules. The story is what will keep him strong when it’s cloudy on an outdoor shoot. The story, essentially, is where hope lives. “I think what’s important is that the script is the inspiration. Whatever I make, the story should be inspiring enough for me to keep going. And as a director, you know, there are 200 people working towards one person’s vision. Out of them, 70 per cent will be doing a job. There’s no art to it. But the other 30 per cent are creatively adding to the product, whether it’s the director of photography, or assistant directors who are highly neglected and underestimated. But everything begins with the script. It’s not like everything’s perfect and that there are no moments when I say ‘faaack yaar, dimaag kharaab ho gaya’. You feel like that many times. But then you go back to the script, and it’s like ‘Boss!’” [At this, Gupta’s eyebrows come to life, his chest juts forward, and his heels lift off the ground, giving the act of sitting real dynamism] “‘Boss! Just think of the final film!’”
A filmmaker’s work is not just a creative endeavour, it is also a constant negotiation with the filming environment. Gupta says that knowing his script helps him adapt it to “real places that are different from the utopian world you imagine when you’re writing something”. “Ninety-five per cent of Aamir was shot on roads. When you shoot in out-of-control environments, the trick is not to look at what you want, but what you get. You will never get what you want. When I go to a location, something or the other goes wrong. Either assistant directors will say that something can’t be done, or the prop department says they don’t have a particular object, or the lighting department says they can’t light a frame a particular way.” Gupta’s approach is to explain what he wants, and ask his crew if it’s possible. “Had I gone in with fixed ideas, I don’t think I could have shot either my first or second movie.”
When Gupta ran his first film by the censors, they reportedly made the observation that it didn’t look like a first film. “How I’ve grown since then is… in conviction. The growth in writing shows the growth in technique. It’s not always easy to be inspired by a real life event and adapt it to the realm of cinema and make it an engaging and entertaining thriller.” He pauses, and corrects himself. “Rather, an engaging thriller with a balanced point of view and certain sensitivity. How I write this script, how I bring in the balance. That is also a technique.”
Aamir was a study in greys. Its protagonist, strung along by a fanatic who communicated with him by phone, believed in the merits of individualism over a deadly cause. Even as he ran about the city, held hostage by his attachment to his kidnapped family, he jousted with the fanatic over the futility of this struggle. Towards the end, during one conversation, he gave his tormentor pause even as he went ahead and did what they wanted him to. The moments were eloquent. Good guys can do bad things. Bad guys might stop and consider a good thing. While the events in No One killed Jessica are driven by a heinous act, it has more depth, Gupta says. “This film isn’t about heroes and villains. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s not treated that way. Nobody’s bad and nobody’s good. Acts are bad. Acts are right or wrong. Our actions define us. I wanted to get that balance. You know, two years have passed since Aamir. I wanted to grow as a filmmaker. I tried to do that with this film.”
Gupta knows he’s been lucky so far. Not only does he get to make movies, but he gets to make them his way. To do this once is the film equivalent of a unicorn sighting. He says he’s managed it twice. “I think that’s enough of an inspiration to keep you going. That vision and that high of imagining people’s reactions. That’s the biggest motivation. Half our industry sucks because they make what others want them to make. But for me, luckily, I’ve got to make the film I want.”
Now, on the verge of his second release, his phone rings with a frequency he can’t comprehend. “I’m going mad,” he says. When things were normal, he received about 12 calls a day. “Now it rings 40-50 times. And Parull [Gossain, the film publicist] tells me it’ll get worse after the movie’s release.” He seems aware this could distort his sense of reality. “I could say that ‘No, I won’t change’, that ‘I’ll try not to change’, but it could happen. I just want to tell stories about the world we live in, the times we live in. Not an imaginary space that only filmmakers know of. It might happen later, but till this point it hasn’t happened, and I don’t see it happening in the near future.”