(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)
The story of K M Nanavati, a dashing naval officer who killed his wife’s lover in 1959 but was acquitted by a jury (he was later convicted by a higher court but pardoned by the government) is one of the most debated verdicts in India and part of Mumbai folklore. An oft-repeated tale that acquires newer hues and aspects even after all these years, it is a story that isn’t just limited to the three people at the centre of it all – it signaled the rise of tabloid journalism in Mumbai and caused the Indian state to undertake a major judicial reform by banning trial by jury.
Tinu Desai’s “Rustom” is another attempt at re-creating those times and the crime. Akshay Kumar plays Rustom Pavri, an honest naval officer who is smitten with his half-British wife Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz). When he discovers that Cynthia has been seeing his friend and industrialist Vikram Makhija (Arjan Bajwa), Rustom’s world is shattered.
The next day, Makhija is shot dead, and Rustom is found standing over his body with a gun in his hand. The case causes a furore, in part because a decorated naval officer is at the centre of it, and also because tabloid editor Erach Billimoria, (Kumud Chaudhary), a character obviously inspired by Blitz editor Russi Karanjia, uses the opportunity to drive up sales - printing and magnifying every bit of salacious gossip he can get his hands on.
Desai’s film stays true to its time, at least on the surface – the clothes are poofy; the hair even poofier. But Desai and writer Vipul Rawal expend too much energy on painting Rustom as a hero to ever delve deep into the moral and social fabric of Mumbai’s high society during the time. It is no surprise then that Rustom is always dressed in his impeccable white naval uniform even in jail with not even a speck of dust defacing it. Rawal and Desai’s hero is not a flawed man who couldn’t deal with betrayal, and that is a significant failing in the script.
For a story that is replete with so many layers, Desai handles the narrative with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop. His actors are loud, the set design is garish, and courtroom scenes are devoid of any drama. There are weak attempts at humour in the form of an indignant judge and his rather unruly audience, but the real (unintended) humour comes from Esha Gupta, who plays Makhija’s sister. Impeccably made-up and dressed in the most outlandish clothes, Gupta wriggles her eyebrows, overstates every dialogue and along with veteran actor Sachin Khedekar, who plays her lawyer, forms a comedy pair that will be hard to beat this year.
The story of KM Nanavati is shrouded in mystery even after all these years, and it is difficult to point right from wrong. But predictably, Bollywood would prefer painting its heroes white or black rather than taking the effort to look at the shades of grey that colour us all. That is the biggest failing of “Rustom”.