Never mind that it’s already inspired at least two Hindi films, the Nanavati case of 1959 remains an inherently fascinating story. Naval Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati shoots his wife Sylvia’s lover, Prem Ahuja, in cold blood, then proceeds to surrender. The ensuing trial to determine whether it was a crime of passion or premeditated murder receives unprecedented media coverage, turns the Parsis and Sindhis against each other, and results in a shocking jury verdict that is subsequently overturned by higher courts.
Alas, all of that drama is reduced to a farce in Rustom, which frankly is about as enjoyable as a toothache.
Akshay Kumar, although sincere, is never convincing as a Parsi. He plays Rustom Pavri, a character evidently based on Nanavati, but the script (by Vipul Rawal) takes several liberties with the truth.
The first half of the film has a few interesting moments, but director Tinu Suresh Desai spends ways too much time setting up the affair between Rustom’s wife Cynthia (a mostly comatose Ileana D’cruz) and playboy businessman Vikram Makhija (Arjan Bajwa).
Post interval, the action shifts to the courtroom where, for no discernable reason, Rustom has decided to defend himself in the ongoing investigation, while everyone from the prosecutor (Sachin Khedekar), to key witnesses (Usha Nadkarni, playing a domestic servant) and jury members, crank up the shrillness quotient. Kumud Mishra, in a role inspired by Blitz editor RK Karanjia, who campaigned vociferously for Nanavati’s acquittal, shows up purely to provide comic relief.
What was a sensational case in the early sixties that polarized a city is ‘dumb-ed’ down to the point of silliness. Esha Gupta, playing the slain victim’s revenge-seeking sister is a real hoot as she puffs away at the end of one of those long cigarette holders, dressed in off-shoulder blouses and sporting a single, stock expression.
There’s also a pointless subplot involving blackmail that culminates in a ho-hum twist. What links Rustom to A Wednesday and Special 26, both films directed by Neeraj Pandey (who is one of the producers here), is that it asks us to root for a law-breaking protagonist. But this isn’t half as thrilling a film as those were.
Period details are hit and miss, facts are distorted for the sake of convenience, and technically the film is no great shakes. But most unforgivably, the film sacrifices the complexities of the Nanavati case for the sake of facile drama.
In the end, Pavan Malhotra is typically dependable in the role of the investigating police officer, and Akshay Kumar shows some flair. They are the sole bright spots in Rustom, which is too long, wholly disappointing, and feels like an opportunity lost. I’m going with a generous two out of five.