The shots you’ll hear fired on Friday have reverberated in our popular culture since the 50s
Commander Kawas Nanavati walked calmly up to the second floor apartment of Jeevan Jyot apartments off Nepean Sea Road on April 27, 1959. Loaded revolver wrapped in a brown envelope, he knocked on the door of Prem Ahuja. Entering the man’s room, a conversation ensued, and a few minutes later, three shots were fired. The shots reverberated through the firmament of 1950s Bombay society, and have continued to do so in the annals of popular culture ever since. When the Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom releases on Friday, it will hardly be the first to be spun off from the Nanavati case. Instead, it will join a long list of other works inspired by the episode. And with good reason: it was quite simply the most sensational case of its time.
When Nanavati discovered that his British wife Sylvia was having an affair with Bombay playboy Prem Ahuja, he arrived at the latter’s place and shot him. Shortly after that he drove himself to the nearest police station and surrendered. He came to be tried and acquitted by the jury, such was the tide of public opinion behind him. The judge refused to accept the 8-1 jury verdict of ‘not guilty’ of the offence of murder, and the matter made its way up to the high court where the jury verdict was overturned and Nanavati sentenced to life. The Supreme Court in 1961 upheld this decision, though after serving part of his sentence, Nanavati was pardoned by the governor and he then emigrated to Canada. The entire saga soon after led to the end of the jury system itself.
Neeraj Pandey, who has produced Rustom has said that the film’s storyline was “only loosely inspired” by the case. “For us, it was an interesting story to tell today as it was a landmark [case] and the jury system has since been abolished,” he told Mumbai Mirror in an interview. The case is covered in rich detail in one whole chapter in former cop John Lobo’s book Leaves of a Policeman’s Diary, with the narrative authority of a policeman who was one of the principal players in the drama. “It was an explosive case,” said Deepak Rao, a Bombay police historian. “A naval officer, an English woman, a known playboy; love, sex, murder – this was a potpourri of everything.” It also came at a very particular moment; a country newly independent, the state of Maharashtra as yet unformed, a city coming into its own. “Ask anyone who didn’t even read,” said Rao. “Everyone knew about it. Somehow it caught the imagination of the Bombay public.”
The first film dealing with the incident came out soon after. Yeh Raastey Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), starring Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu was possibly written before the incident took place, but the plotline and premise are similar. A pilot returns home to find his wife has had an affair, goes to shoot her lover and lands in court. The film carried a disclaimer saying the characters were fictitious, but for audiences, the similarities were only too obvious.
“I believe that Leela Naidu was very embarrassed about the film reflecting the Nanavati case; she went to the same yoga class, she said, as Nanavati’s sister and so she would not have had anything to do with an exploitative film,” said Jerry Pinto, who co-authored Leela: A Patchwork Life with Naidu. “However, in those days as now, a film script is a fluid thing and that it was written before the film was shot is neither here nor there. Bollywood’s attitude to the script is well known and I am sure that there was some tweaking going on.” The film didn’t succeed at the box office. Perhaps it came out too soon after, perhaps the audience was already sated on reality itself.
But this was only the beginning. It was now the turn of the seventies. In 1973, Gulzar helmed Achanak, another film believed to draw from the case. In that, Vinod Khanna, a soldier returning home, finds his wife has cheated on him and shoots both her and her lover. The film then takes a completely different direction. These films have the same opening premise: an officer with an adulterous wife. But the narrative arc is less than closely faithful to reality as it transpired.
Part of this could have been because the characters were still alive at the time. Moreover, as critic and journalist Rafique Baghdadi points out, the cinematic trope of the soldier away from war and returning home to a less than faithful wife, was itself not unique. “In such films, the woman is depicted as a nice lady who has been misguided,” he said. Not so much a fallen woman, as a less than fully realised character serving as a reference point for the story of the upright, wronged male protagonist to play out.
The real-life players themselves were ripe for easy typecasting: the dashing officer, the hapless wife, the incorrigible lady’s man. Murder might have been a crime, but the crime against morality itself made killing exculpatory in the court of public opinion. Simply put, a good man had been wronged. Upcoming films like Rustom and Pooja Bhatt’s production Love Affair, widely understood to be returning to the same Nanavati story for inspiration, are being made long after all the real life personae have died and a new audience can be told a compelling story. As films continue to mine the past and give in to nostalgic impulses, returning to the 60s is in itself not surprising. “Filmmakers are going back in time to refashion and redefine old stories,” said Baghdadi. “The world has changed and now we have a greater distance from that episode itself.”
Not just cinema, it has also inspired a Kannada play later performed in Konkani. Aside from the stage, it has found place on the page too. In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the incident is revisited and rechristened the Sabarmati case. To some extent it echoed the Ramayana’s epic drama – the good woman kidnapped by the demon – in a new form. In a Deccan Chronicle interview from 1983, Rushdie said of the case: “India found itself having to choose between the rule of heroism and the rule of law”.
British Indian writer Indra Sinha published The Death of Mr Love in 2002, drawing on the same episode. “It was an interesting story and I had access to the Blitz archives,” he said on the phone from France. But he found little appeal in the non-fiction approach. “That didn’t interest me,” he said. “I was more interested in developing characters.” On the enduring interest in the case, he said: “People are prurient and like to stick their nose into other people’s lives.”
The incident was of course covered in all its salacious glory in Blitz, a paper which took the unabashed stand of righteous indignation in supporting the cuckolded husband. The Times of India was somewhat more staid in its coverage. The media madness around the case is closely analysed in Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables, a cultural history of the city, and the Nanavati incident becomes the lens with which to narrate Bombay’s newspaper scene. “… Blitz audaciously framed and broadcast the case of a murder in the city as an event of nationwide importance,” he writes. “Splicing lurid details and courtroom drama into a moral and patriotic storyline, it staged the Nanavati case as a media event, the first of its kind in India.” Then there was the element of patriotism built into the proceedings. “Blitz seized the opening and framed the trial as a titillating urban drama of national significance,” writes Prakash. “…The tabloid presented the story as a moral and political scandal, as a case of the nation’s betrayal by the seductive and corrupt influence of the rich.”
The case marked a watershed movement for the criminal justice system in India. “(T)here was its strange gloss of elegance, as if suddenly the noir had come alive and come to India,” said Pinto. “Here was a brave officer, an errant wife and the man who had done her wrong, lounging at his ease in a bath-tub, sneering at the battle-scarred and sincere cuckold, “’I do not marry every woman I sleep with,’” or words to that effect.”
Wrapped up in the courtroom drama, the love triangle and the ensuing murder were all sorts of legal, moral and ethical questions. A kind of morality play encased in a public spectacle. “The result was quite electrifying and the case will always divide society down the middle. There are those who argue that Nanavati should have been found guilty of premeditated murder because he went back from Ahuja’s flat, took his children and wife to a movie, went back to his ship, picked up his gun, and shot Ahuja,” said Pinto. “This has all the marks of premeditation and none of those of ‘la crime passionnelle’. This debate – to what extent am I allowed to protect the integrity of my marriage? Is it indeed my marriage if one party to it is already straying? – will always cause heated debate and this I think is the reason why it has such a hold on the popular imagination.”