The 1959 Nanavati trial that resulted in the abolition of the jury system in India has been adapted at least twice for the screen, but neither Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) nor Achanak (1973) captured the complexity of the event. However, the latest production, Rustom, isn’t even trying. Tinu Suresh Desai’s film, written by Vipul K Rawal, is unabashedly tacky and unintentionally hilarious, though it does have its moments. To the familiar love triangle between a naval officer, his philandering wife, and her reprobate lover, the filmmakers add a new angle: conspiracy. It is darkly hinted that there’s more to the actions of the Nanavati-inspired Rustom than the facts suggest. By fanning a preposterous theory popular among Mumbai residents of a certain vintage as the motive for Rustom’s crime, the filmmakers have given the cause célèbre a new lease of life.
On April 27, 1959, Commander Kawas Maneskshaw Nanavati shot dead Prem Ahuja, who was having an affair with the Navy officer's British wife Sylvia. He then surrendered to the Mumbai police. A hysterical campaign by the local tabloid Blitz pumped up public support for the handsome Indian naval officer, and when the jury declared him innocent despite his confession, it was clear that the Indian judicial system needed a rehaul.
Convicted despite the jury verdict and eventually pardoned, Nanavati reunited with his wife and migrated with their three children to Canada, where he died in 2003.
In historian Gyan Prakash’s masterful set of essays Mumbai Fables, a whole chapter is dedicated to the manner in which Blitz orchestrated a campaign for Nanavati’s release. “The morality tale was set,” Prakash writes. “On the one hand was an upright naval officer and on the other, a liquor-drinking Don Juan. Caught in between was a remorseful wife duped into sexual intimacy by the immoral playboy’s false promise of marriage.”
One of Blitz’s memorable headlines, “Three Shots that Shook the Nation”, has been appropriated as Rustom’s tagline. Akshay Kumar’s Rustom Pavri is a literally upright man with a straight back, a starched uniform, and the unvarying expression of “polite indifference”, as was noted by a New Yorker reporter covering the trial in 1959.
Rustom unearths his wife’s betrayal when he returns early from a naval mission. Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) has spent the night at the home of Vikram (Arjun Bajwa), a playboy with Dev Anand mannerisms and a taste for lurid dressing gowns. When the perennially wet-eyed Cynthia quivers, “I can explain,” Rustom replies, “Trust me darling, you cannot.”
Rustom’s surrender after killing the towel-clad Vikram kicks off a trial that is presided over by a bemused-looking judge (Anang Desai) and accompanied by hysteria fuelled by the tabloid Truth (the movie’s version of Blitz). Kumud Mishra’s overweight editor Eruch Billimoria is nothing like the patrician Blitz editor Russi Karanjia and has more in common with Joe Pesci’s bumbling lawyer from My Cousin Vinny. The recurring gag of the judge sentencing Eruch to prison for contempt of court is straight out of the Hollywood comedy. In one of the best gags, Eruch is joined there by Rustom’s maid (Usha Nadkarni), who upsets the judge by suggesting that he too would have resorted to violence if his wife had been indulging in hanky-panky with the wife of the public prosecutor Khangani (Sachin Khedekar).
The witty repartee in the courtooom that was the highlight of Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke is absent from Rustom. The contest between Rustom, who fights his own case, and Khangani, is as one-sided as the whole movie. Pavan Malhotra has a thankless role as the Mumbai police inspector Lobo, who realises that the murder accused is the “chuppa Rustom”, or the dark horse, of the tale.
The late 1950s period setting, aided by clever cinematography (by Santosh Thundiyil) and visual effects, is heavy on props and gadgets (vintage cars, telephones) but is off the mark when it comes to the way people of that era dressed, moved and behaved. Nobody embodies the movie’s love for anachronism more than Esha Gupta, playing Vikram’s lusty sister Preeti. Whether she’s sucking deep on her cigarette holder or flashing her cleavage from low-cut dresses, Preeti personifies Rustom’s attitude towards period detail, which seems to have been borrowed wholesale from Blitz: being accurate is not as important as grabbing attention.
Never one to take itself too seriously, Rustom trots along at a brisk pace and occasionally stops to send itself up. The judge warns the public prosecutor against repeating witness depositions for his benefit (the movie is certainly guilty of this), while a lovelorn moment between Rustom and Cynthia in the courtroom causes much eye-rolling by Preeti and all those else on the other side of the screen who fail to detect any ardour between the couple.
D’Cruz’s constant sniffling competes with Gupta’s pantomime pouting in providing unintended giggles, while Akshay Kumar doesn’t even make an effort to play a convincing upper-crust Parsi. Rustom’s recreation of an iconic trial echoes the narrative style of the lesser films of the period in which the actual crime occurred – it throws out the facts in favour of a simplistic and crowd-pleasing solution, glosses over its hero’s criminal behaviour, and paints its characters in black and white. What the movie does get right is the luridly tabloid quality of the case. The price of the Truth tabloid rises with each new trial date; crowds throng the courthouse and buy tickets from touts to get in, and towels purporting to be of the same make as the one worn by Vikram in his dying moments sell briskly. Those three shots evidently still have the ability to shake the movie theatre.