Direction: Tinu Suresh Desai
Actors: Akshay Kumar, Ileana D’Cruz, Esha Gupta
Rating: 2 / 5
Rustom is a baffling movie. The plot is taken from the sensational Nanavati case, which unfolded in Mumbai in 1959. The real-life story had love, heroism, betrayal, murder, honour, adultery. It also had such moral complexity and power that it has been reworked through the decades for screen, stage and books. Two Hindi films – Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) and Achanak (1973) – have already been made on it. Nanavati, rechristened Commander Sabarmati, even made an appearance in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But director Tinu Suresh Desai’s take on this landmark crime is flat and uninspired.
Rustom begins by proclaiming that it’s a work of fiction, but writer Vipul K Rawal unabashedly borrows the dramatis personae from the Nanavati case. We have Rustom Pavri, the decorated officer who comes home and discovers that his beautiful wife is having an affair with his friend. Just like Nanavati, Rustom fires three bullets into the man’s chest and then surrenders. He is tried before a jury. But public opinion, whipped up by a newspaper publisher, is on Rustom’s side. He is, one of the jurors says, an honourable murderer.
Even details in the film come from the real-life crime. Nanavati’s wife was Sylvia. Rustom’s wife is Cynthia. Like the real-life lover Prem Ahuja, Vikram Makhija in the film dies wearing only a towel. The officer in charge in the film is Vincent Lobo – the real guy was named John Lobo. The phrase honourable murderer was actually used in an interview by a juror on the Nanavati case.
Tinu and Vipul take the framework of the Nanavati case and add a generous dollop of fictional tadka. It’s a compelling idea but the result is a half-baked drama.
Rustom has flashes of power, which peter out too quickly. To begin with, the screenplay is inert, especially in the first half. The second half, which is set almost entirely in a courtroom, has more vigour. Usha Nadkarni, playing Rustom’s maid, gets a standout moment. But the world in Rustom never fully comes to life because the characters don’t feel authentic.
The women – Ileana D’Cruz and Esha Gupta – flit around in Fifties fashions. I spent some time marvelling at the rigid curls in their hair. Esha, playing Vikram’s sister, keeps narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips. I wonder if her inspiration was Angelina Jolie in Maleficent. For reasons I couldn’t figure out, the film is saturated with lurid colours. Walls are bright green and blue, cheeks are red. Everyone looks a little ripe.
Still, Akshay cuts a dashing figure in his naval uniform. His erect spine is shorthand for a man of duty and determination. But his character doesn’t have vulnerability or an arc. There is one nicely done jail scene when Rustom meets Cynthia for the first time after the murder. He grips his own arms so that he won’t hug her. It’s sad and moving.
The film is brave enough to give us a man who is so evolved that he understands and forgives his errant wife. But instead of exploring the dynamics of this, we get lost in heroism, corruption and courtroom dramatics. And truthfully, the only thing Parsi about Akshay is his character’s name.
Rustom is an opportunity lost.
Watch the trailer here