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Justice for Jessica, solace for Sabrina

Jessica Lall’s senseless murder symbolised the rot in the system. A decade later, her sister’s relentless fight for justice has made her a national hero.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2011 00:02 IST
Isha Manchanda

If you were to believe No One Killed Jessica'sportrayal, Sabrina Lall is a bespectacled, timid woman who you’d possibly have to strain your ears to hear. Instead, you found yourself sitting across from a tall, imposing woman who is warm, confident, who speaks freely and has a laugh that resounds in her plush living room.

That is the Sabrina Lall you have been seeing on your television screens for over a decade. Sabrina is played by Vidya Balan in Rajkumar Gupta’s film about model Jessica Lall’s murder titled No One Killed Jessica.

Sabrina, however, seems unfazed by this lack of similarity. “In terms of personality, Vidya Balan’s character is nothing like me. I was never that meek and mousy. Admittedly it was a little strange talking to the cops and lawyers at the beginning, since it was an entirely new experience for me too, and I was grappling with it. But I was never as uncomfortable as the character on screen, and I probably cringed more on father’s behalf than my own,” she points out with a warm smile that belie the years she’s spent dealing with the media and being int he public eye.

She didn’t give up on the case as depicted in the movie once the witnesses turned hostile. “After the acquittal, with the media interest in the case, I felt like there was hope again. And the candle light vigil was an overwhelming moment for all of us,” she remembers.

“I don’t mind it though, they do have some creative license.” For Sabrina and her family, character depiction seemed secondary, as long as the story of the trial and the events surrounding it was told truthfully.

To ensure that they were, Sabrina was consulted extensively during the scripting of the film. First approached with the idea of making a film on the trial in 2007, Sabrina had long conversations with Rajkumar Gupta about the case and about Jessica. The script was presented to her in last year. The flashback, she says — eyes gleaming with affection, were entirely constructed out of the things she narrated to Rajkumar and his team.

Spotting the photographer leaving the room to make a phone call, she lights a cigarette and admits that she and her family and friends were apprehensive about the movie and how it would treat the case. But once they watched it, their anxiousness faded. “We were all very moved by the movie and it just stirred a lot of memories for all of us, brought everything back in a flash.”

The poised instincts - of not smoking in front of camera, for instance - are now second nature to Sabrina. But they didn’t always come so easily to her. “I remember it was a reporter - one among the fifty that were in my house the day of the acquittal for a statement - who asked me to put my cigarette out. I had instinctively picked one up, you see, and we were on camera!” she says. And it is incidents like this that define Sabrina’s relationship with the media throughout the trial. “The media has always been nice to us, I’m not sure if it was the nature of the case that made them so but I never got asked a single offensive, absurd question. In fact, the media in this case has been nothing but helpful,” she adds.

Perhaps, that has a role to play in how outspoken she has been on other cases like the Nitish Katara murder case and the Priyadarshini Mattoo case. “Neelam [Nitish Katara’s mother] and I would be at the court at the same time very often so we got to talk a lot. Knowing her personally made me want to speak for her all the more,” says Sabrina. It was, perhaps, a rare kind of connection that only two people in circumstances as unique as those can possibly establish. Jessica’s was a landmark case, one that still stands as a testament for public intervention for justice. That is a pretty huge responsibility and, in Sabrina’s case, an opportunity to speak up and demand justice.

With such visibility and power comes the chance of numerous tellings and retellings of the family’s landmark struggle for justice. There will, in all likelihood, be books and more movies that use Jessica’s name and her legacy.

“Jessica, in her death, has become a public figure and as long as depictions of her are truthful an accurate, I have no reservations about them.,” Sabrina says calmly.

“You know, when we were younger, Jessica used to love going to astrologers and tarot card readers, etc — from the most expensive to the man sitting under a tree on the side of road, she’d go to them all”, Sabrina reminisces. “They would all mostly tell her the same thing — that one day, she will be really really famous.”

Life’s ironies can be cruel.