There’s something about a man in uniform. Akshay Kumar’s captain Rustom Pavri of the Indian Navy is testament to that. But putting Kumar is a crisp white naval uniform is not enough to overcome the problems with this period drama inspired by the true life Nanavati murder case of 1959. It was a story that shook Bombay and polarized people by community. It became a matter of Parsi versus Sindhi pride when K.M. Nanavati was tried for the murder of businessman Prem Ahuja, believed to be his wife Sylvia’s lover.
In ‘Rustom’, written by Vipul K Rawal and directed by Tinu Suresh Desai, Arjan Bajwa plays the lover Vikram Makhija and Ileana D’Cruz the hapless wife Cynthia. When Rustom returns a month early from his long overseas tour he is surprised to find that his wife has not been home since the previous day. His suspicions lead him to surmise that she is with Vikram. A crime of passion follows as the hurt Rustom fires three shots and kills Vikram, who is just wrapped in a towel. He then marches straight to a police station and confesses his crime.
The story becomes front-page news and is studiously followed by Truth newspaper, owned by Eruch Billimoria (Kumud Mishra). How obsessed people became with the story is cleverly shown in the way the newspaper vendor keeps upping the cover price and the way props like plastic guns and bath towels are sold as souvenirs. Makhija’s sister Preeti, played by Esha Gupta, is like the curvaceous Jessica Rabbit from cartoon movie ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’. She’s all about the curls, curves, cleavage and cigarette holder. It’s characters like this and Billimoria that make you wonder whether Desai was intentionally making a spoof.
By the time you get to the court case – which you hope will capture the passion, frenzy and tension of the real case – you find the scenes degenerating into farce. Sachin Khedekar as the prosecuting attorney Khangani is mocked constantly and Preeti’s grimacing is just hilarious. Add to this a housemaid who suddenly adds comic relief and a limp defense of his own case by Rustom. As a side bar, one investigating officer is taking things a bit more seriously, including unearthing a corruption angle.
So fact and fiction have been blended for cinematic appeal, how else do you explain an incarcerated Rustom’s uniform never losing its crispness or getting sullied in the lock-up? And well, Kumar hardly pulls off the part of a Parsi.
This is a powerful, fascinating and layered true story that is a huge opportunity lost. Many dramatic elements have been glossed over and several of the characters are cutouts. D’Cruz’s Cynthia cries through most of the film while Kumar is poker-faced and poised with nominal tremors of emotion. Bajwa, Gupta, Khedekar and Mishra are caricatures.
There is great attention to style, production design and a leaning towards cinema of the 70s. It’s either very attractive or too gauche, but neither works. It might have if the script and its execution had been closer to the riveting and historic real life tale rather than an attempt to make an outwardly commercial Bollywood hit.