Our first glimpse of Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar) is when he climbs on to the deck of the warship he’s commanding. Behind him, undulating against a saffron sky, is a large tricolour. This early pairing of character and nation in Tinu Suresh Desai’s Rustom is extremely significant. After all, this is a film that asks viewers to not only condone but actively support murder if it’s ostensibly committed in service of the country.

On 27 April 1959, Commander K.M. Nanavati shot Prem Ahuja, with whom his wife, Sylvia, had been having an affair, and surrendered to the police. In the subsequent trial—reported with muckraking glee by the tabloids—public sympathy was squarely in Nanavati’s favour, and he was acquitted by the jury. There has already been a film made on the scandal: Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, with Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu. Despite its closeness to the actual events—or perhaps because of that—the 1963 film ignored the seamier aspects of the scandal, ending up as a morally conservative weepie.

Though it’s just as prone to moralizing, Rustom does try and acquaint viewers with the ins and outs of the trial. Returning from his mission a few days early, Rustom heads home to surprise his wife, Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz). She’s out; he finds love letters to her from his friend Vikram (Arjan Bajwa) instead. When she gets back, he confronts her. He then heads to the docks, procures a revolver, drives to Vikram’s home, shoots him thrice in the chest, and surrenders to inspector Vincent Lobo (Pavan Malhotra) at the police station.

As Rustom’s trial approaches, editor Erach Billimori (Kumud Mishra)—the reference is to Blitz’s Russi Karanjia—sees an opportunity to promote his newspaper as well as help a fellow Parsi. He sets about sensationalizing the already scandalous story, painting Cynthia as a wife led astray and Rustom as the upright officer who avenges her honour. He also attempts to put together a legal team, which results in a nice scene where Billimoria petitions a senior Parsi lawyer by telling him that the Sindhis—the community Vikram belonged to—have put forward one of their own as prosecutor. To complicate matters further, Rustom might know official naval secrets, which gives him a bargaining chip but also places Cynthia and him in danger.

All this should have resulted, at the very least, in a reasonably diverting film. Yet, though Rustom uses all the sensational material the Nanavati case has to offer, the treatment is laughably silly, like an especially ridiculous episode of CID crossed with an especially over-the-top Balaji Telefilms production. The period recreation screams “period recreation", as if 2016 is just beyond the frame. The background score keeps prodding us as if to say, “Did you see that? That was an important scene." As if anything pitched at this level of audience-pandering could escape us. This is a film so desperate to explain that it follows an argument by Pavri in court (he argues his own case) with murmurs of “But he’s right" from onlookers.

The performances add to the campiness of the production. Esha Gupta, as Vikram’s glamorous sister, appears to be parodying a vamp rather than playing one. Bajwa makes Rehman’s sleazebag from Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke look positively suave. Even reliable character actors such as Sachin Khedekar, Kumud Mishra and Brijendra Kala are defeated by the clichés of their characters. The leads are more reined-in: Kumar trying (and failing) to give the impression of deep thought, D’Cruz alternating between getting ready to cry and actually crying (until someone writes a complex, motivated Sylvia, we may never have a worthwhile movie on Nanavati).

The film’s late pivot from questions of honour and morality to those of national pride may seem perplexing, but actually makes some sense if you see it in the context of Kumar’s career of late. A fair amount of his recent film work—Holiday, Baby, Airlift—has been concerned with patriotism in one way or another. Rustom could be seen as another step in Kumar’s ongoing reinvention as the honourable, supremely capable all-Indian hero. It’s worth noting that the film, which mirrors the Nanavati case closely, fails to mention that the euphoria of acquittal was short-lived, that the decorated war hero actually went to prison after the Bombay high court overturned the lower court’s verdict and was only pardoned three years later. It would be the last trial decided by a jury in India.

Rustom released in theatres on Friday.

Close