Recent films like Baby, Holiday and Airlift are all proof that few defend India and Indians quite as well as Akshay Kumar. The start of Rustom’s trailer invokes a similar patriotism. Looking dapper in a crisp naval officer’s uniform, we hear the actor deliver dialogues that are by now familiar. That uniform, he says, is for him a habit, much like breathing or protecting his nation. (So far, so nationalistic.) The actor’s filmography teaches us that saving one’s country has its perks – typically, a love track and a ballad. And so we see Kumar and Ileana D’Cruz get hitched. He even goes down on one knee in the snow. But there’s a catch. Rustom Pavri’s wife soon cheats on him. The naval commander is a cuckold. All this may seem novel, but the film is inspired by an incident only too real.
If you were reading newspapers in 1959, chances are you’d remember well the case of Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati. One day in April, the naval officer returned home to hear a devastating confession. His wife Sylvia admitted to having an affair with his friend Prem Ahuja. When heading to confront Ahuja, Nanavati took with him his pistol. Three shots were fired and Ahuja was found dead.
Rustom, played by Akshay Kumar, discovers love letters that were sent to his wife
Though the trailer of Rustom stays true to this chronology of events for most part, it does dramatise them with a trademark mainstream obsession. Rustom, for instance, discovers love letters that were sent to his wife. He breaks a photo frame or two. Rain pours down when he sees his wife embrace another man in a car. At one point, D’Cruz pleads with Kumar. “Rustom please, I can explain.” With a stern resolve which Kumar has rendered almost vintage, he replies, “Trust me, darling. You cannot.”
Much of Bollywood is predicated on not just the boy getting the girl, but the girl staying with him. Men are allowed to be philanderers, but women are confined by the shackles of monogamy. Going by the trailer, it is unclear if Rustom will offer D’Cruz the kind of agency that, say, a Tabu had in Astitva, but the actor’s husband in that 2000 film, Sachin Khedekar, does inadvertently make clear Rustom’s narrative trajectory. Playing a prosecutor here, Khedekar argues that Rustom’s act cannot be dismissed as some “heat-of-the-moment” aberration. He insists it was “pre-determined murder”.
When hearing the case of ‘K M Nanavati vs Government of Maharashtra’, a jury – India still had a jury system in those days – spent much time wondering if the naval officer should be tried for culpable homicide. Run by RK Karanjia, the tabloid Blitz defended Nanavati publically. Ahuja’s sister fought for justice, and they each surface in the Rustom trailer, but only as caricatures of themselves. Assembled in the courtroom where Rustom is being tried, a crowd cheers from the aisles and the accounts of witnesses are applauded animatedly. Legal proceedings become public entertainment.
The hope is that Rustom will tell a story that goes beyond the headlines we have already read
With all its intrigue, the Nanavati case has inspired several fictioneers over time. Gulzar, for instance, based his 1973 film Achanak on the predicament of the naval officer. Salman Rusdhie disguised Nanavati as Commander Sabarmati in Midnight’s Children. Pooja Bhatt hopes to make a film called Love Affair which will base itself on the premise of Sylvia’s adultery. The hope is that Rustom will tell a story that goes beyond the headlines we have already read. The trouble is that the three-odd minutes of the film we have been given a peek into only deflate our optimism. They don’t amplify it.