This film raises many issues, many of them subliminal.
In brief, the film is about the bar-rage killing in Delhi in 1999 of Jessica Lal, a "celebrity barmaid", by a spoilt kid of a powerful politician, his manipulation of the witnesses and his subsequent acquittal, and about the media campaign which led to his re-trial and eventual conviction.
It is essentially a film about modernity versus medieval values. Modernity believes in institutions, in a faux equality before the law, and the strength of process, whereas tradition focuses on power structures and influence. More on this later.
Democracy can only function when people know what is going on. Only then can the protest and outrage begin. However, the vectors of mass media target mostly the middle classes.
The middle class is essentially risk-averse. It is essentially about consumption, evolution of status, safety, security, cocooning, avoidance of scandals, and a defensive and conservative attitude towards life.
If there is oppression and injustice, the approach of the middle classes is to work around it, and not to invite more trouble by protesting against it. The protests, if at all resorted to, need to be safe. Hence, middle class protests are marked by numbers (candle light marches, SMSes, online petitions), where there is no risk of being individually targeted.
There are hundreds of murders and thousands of instance of miscarriages of justice everyday, around the world. What was significant about Jessica's murder that it captured the imagination of urban India?
She was perceived as "one of us", a hep upwardly-mobile middle class, anglicized, fashionable, etc. It is easy to be outraged when the victim is more like us. The film repeatedly stresses that it could be "your sister" or "your daughter". If a tribal woman is raped and killed, urbanites can't easily identify with it and such incidents are generally forgotten.
She chose a certain profession, that of a "celebrity barmaid" where it is all about status. At such parties, the invited are the well-heeled, the powerful, the ones accustomed to servility in others. Whether it be the tasteful rich, or the nouveau rich, uncouth in their mannerisms, both classes expect to have their egos gratified in those ivory-tower gatherings.
I can personally attest to the fact that high-status bars and clubs are all about who can get which table, who can get the waiters and the barmaids to hover, who can bring in friends from the back door, and who is left standing in a corner waiting for one's drink. In such a place, it is foolhardy to not expect that, given the slightest provocation, egos won't explode. That's why bouncers are kept on a leash, and one is strip-searched at entrance.
On a digression, I urge you to read through this longish article about "bottle service celebrity watering holes". Also, note that Jessica Lal's next destination was Dubai, the mecca of decadent parties and pimping.
At such a party, the bartenders and waitresses have to be very careful and diplomatic while serving their clients. It is pretty clear to me that the accused, drunk with booze as well as power (and holding a loaded gun in his hands), suffered a narcissistic injury via Jessica Lal which provoked an explosive response.
Such bars and parties are also obvious petri-dishes for sexual preening and sexual status battles. Beware of a narcissist who is unable to get his fix of sexual attention in such a party. He will hold everyone as responsible for his pain, and will become abusive and aggressive. "You don't know who I am?" "You are attracted to THAT loser?" "You don't like ME?" "Let me teach you a lesson about not liking me."
The more one feels like a loser, the more the narcissistic rage boils.
Unfortunately, but revealingly, the film (being a cultural document) illustrates the "loser" characteristics. It is a wholesale snub to people-with-poor-taste-who-suddenly-have-money-they-shouldnt-be-allowed-at-the-Leela-Kempinski.
- The "Sai Baba" locket (the SWPLs have a platinum chain, or a US soldier tag)
- The "Jai Mata Di" celebration (the SWPLs drink while trance music plays)
- The Zingaro beer bottle (in the swimming pool scene) (the SWPLs drink single-malt scotch and vintage wine)
- Men dancing with men, while leering at women (the SWPLs make subtle passes, and have literate eye contact, and don't just grab women, they pinch it and crack a joke)
- Having a docile and dumb wife who wears a sari and covers her head
- Bad hair and bad noses
And so on...
This film is also a revealing look at the gender roles in the post-literate-inforati. Women are wantonly aggressive (rude epithets fly thick and fast), revealing dresses (which I continue to maintain is a power tactic), women hit men and sit on tables and block their way, extra-large red bindis (which I continue to maintain is an expression of "I'm Kali and you better not disagree with me"), women starting the act of sex, being on top, and then leaving suddenly without so much as an apology, reveling in being called a rancid bitch, a woman who is ready to be on the go 24x7 and who rebukes any other woman who isn't, who constantly puts others down, and men who are scared, soft and careful.
Coming to the gist of the film, the media-fueled conviction of the accused is as much a miscarriage of justice as was his initial acquittal. I see the incident as more of a road-rage-kind, and his being drunk and not having premeditated the murder must lessen the severity of his crime (which was a murder nevertheless). In US, there is the notion of degrees of murder. This crime falls in the category of "second degree murder" which is generally not punished with life-imprisonment.
In still-evolving democracies, miscarriages of justice, or past injustices are generally sought to be reversed with acts which are themselves prejudicial. In this case, the initial acquittal was obviously a miscarriage of justice. But so was the draconian punishment awarded by the superior court (due to the media circus).
On a last note, I strongly uphold the invalidity as evidence of statements-made-in-custody. This is one of the few safeguards against a police state anywhere.
See, for example, Murder on a Sunday Morning.