Remember those films from the Sohrab Modi era and before, when flaring nostrils, eyeballs popping out and an actor’s torso stiffening up to express shock, were the norm? When celluloid crowds were packed with really, really lousy extras who would nod their heads in an exaggerated fashion as a reaction to whatever the central performers said or did?
Rustom is not quite as bad, but there is enough poor quality, farcical acting going on here to remind viewers of an era gone by.
Since when did making a period film involve harking back to the unevolved acting of an earlier time?
I suppose it could be argued that this is a deliberate bid to remind audiences of the world of 1950s Mumbai in its entirety. Sorry, does not work. The strange performances surrounding the main actors dilute the film’s gravitas, thus giving our thoughts enough time to wander about and notice the glaring loopholes in the unfolding events.
The execution of Tinu Suresh Desai’s Rustom is inexplicable. The director has a talented primary cast in place, the costume, make-up, hair and production design departments appear to have worked hard, and it is loosely based on a real-life drama that is truly fascinating. Yet Desai fritters away all these advantages. His weak direction coupled with a screenplay that urgently required more thought, results in a silly, tacky, confusing film.
The pre-release promotions of Rustom have cleverly steered us to believe that the film is based on the infamous K.M. Nanavati case of 1959, but the text preceding the credits simply states that it is “inspired by true incidents”.
While the producers stay in a safe zone on that front, it is clear from the film itself that the idea is to tease the viewer’s imagination with the Nanavati case, yet draw on that to build a brand-new fiction. That is okay, I guess, since Rustom’s characters bear different names from those who peopled this well-chronicled episode in contemporary history.
The facts of the original case: In April 1959, Naval Commander K.M. Nanavati confessed to shooting his wife Sylvia’s lover Prem Ahuja at point-blank range. He was initially acquitted in a jury trial and later convicted by the higher judiciary (for details, click here). News archives show that the story captured the imagination of both the public and press at the time, and was the last jury trial in the country.
The media coverage of the case was a great example of abysmal tabloid journalism, and the support Nanavati received from his fellow Parsis is an unfortunate example of blatant parochialism by a tiny minority community that has given Mumbai and India so much else to be proud of. All this is rich fodder for any creative mind. Understandably, Nanavati has inspired several books and films, most memorably the Vinod Khanna-starrer Achanak.
The fiction: Rustom draws on Nanavati’s love triangle, but turns it into a saga of a patriot who deserved to be acquitted for a murder he did indeed commit because … well … he was a patriot. In the times that we live in, when the word “nationalist” is being worn as a badge of honour by dangerous, violence-prone elements in our society and polity, this is a very disturbing stance to take.
The film is set in Mumbai when it was officially called Bombay, and the handsome Commander Rustom K. Pavri (Akshay Kumar) comes home after a long assignment away, to discover that his wife Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) is having an affair with their friend, the businessman Vikram Makhija (Arjan Bajwa).
Pavri coolly collects a gun from the naval stores, goes off in search of Vikram, shoots him with that gun and then turns himself in to the police. A powerful tabloid editor (a nod to Russi Karanjia of Blitz newspaper) openly supports Pavri because he is a fellow Parsi and the city’s powerful Parsi community closes ranks to back him. But Rustom has his own plans. At the trial, he refuses a lawyer and pleads his own case. While women swoon outside, we discover from the courtroom proceedings and what remains unsaid there that he is, in fact, not a wronged husband but a conscientious Navyman who became a victim of circumstances.
Rustom’s messaging should perhaps not be surprising considering that it is produced by Neeraj Pandey’s Plan C Studios. Pandey directed that populist Hindi film offering A Wednesday, which glorified the notion of common people taking up arms to kill off those they consider enemies of the state. However ideologically debatable that film might have been, it has to be said that it was a polished production. Rustom is not.
Akshay Kumar’s performance is more trying-to-be-intense than intense, which is disappointing coming in the same year as his quietly dignified turn in Airlift.
As it happens, he is about 14 years older than Nanavati reportedly was when the murder took place. It is becoming exhausting to point out the sexism intrinsic to the casting of Indian films in which actors – especially male superstars – routinely play the romantic interests of actresses 10-20 years their junior, so I will not repeat myself, but do read my earlier articles on this subject here, here and here. In this particular case, D’Cruz is 20 years younger than Kumar.
The delicate-boned D’Cruz looks stunning in the film and does a decent job as the heartbroken, unfaithful wife, but her characterisation is troubling. She is painted as a helpless creature who cannot be blamed for cheating on her husband because, after all, what is a bechari innocent woman to do when preyed on by a sexy, amoral, non-middle-class hot bod like Vikram who has the audacity to not be committed to her?
This is a curious new Hindi film version of the ‘good’ middle-class Indian woman: she sleeps with another man but cannot be held accountable for her actions because she ultimately backs her husband in his wrongdoing. The film also juxtaposes her against Vikram’s heavy-smoking, cleavage-baring, snobbish sister Preeti Makhija (Esha Gupta) to remind us of Bollywood’s conventional notion of the evil woman.
Never mind the subtle moralising for a moment: the fact is that there is zero chemistry between Cynthia-Rustom and Vikram-Cynthia. The lovely Pavan Raj Malhotra plays the case’s investigating officer, Senior Inspector Vincent Lobo, who provides the film’s most suspenseful portion, but that twist is spoilt by a number of plot faux pas and a general lack of flair.
For instance, the morning after having suffered a sprained ankle that required medical attention, Cynthia does not have even a hint of a hobble in her walk. A waiter who recalls an act of violence involving Vikram, tells the lawyer in court that no one but Rustom, Cynthia and Preeti would be able to vouch for his version of the truth, when in fact we are shown other people on screen in that flashback. Besides, it turns out that the club conducted a detailed inquiry into the scuffle. Are we to believe that the waiter was not aware of that inquiry?
I am not even looking into whether the portrayal of the Navy or judicial processes in the 1950s is accurate or whether the look of the time is authentic. Just reacting as an ordinary member of the audience, it has to be said that the treatment of the film is lackadaisical.
This is genuinely sad because if you sift out the frills, the faff and the chaff in Rustom, the pivotal plot is actually interesting and could have made for a solid thriller.
The sensation-seeking public, the sensationalist media and the bizarre functioning of the Indian judiciary could certainly be a source of humour. It takes finely balanced writing and direction though to derive laughter from grim situations, and the team of Rustom lacks that finesse.
This is an opportunity lost.