I hadn’t heard of the Nanavati trial until I watched Bombay Velvet, and then I realised I’d seen two films loosely based on it: Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke and Achanak. These films – like Rustom, the latest iteration – don’t really try to recreate the sordid (and sensational) case. They are content being fictions sprouting from the mere germ of the real-life story, that of a man in the armed forces (the army in Achanak; the navy in Rustom; the air force in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke) who discovers that his wife has betrayed him. The lover, a good friend, ends up dead. The man is accused of murder. Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke and Rustom focus on the ensuing courtroom drama (quite brilliant in the former, with Ashok Kumar and Motilal in full “mere kaabil dost” form). Both films portray the wife as a woman wronged, giving her a “reason” to stray. In Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, the lover caddishly slips a pill into her drink before seducing her. In Rustom, we see that the husband may have to share part of the blame. Had he not left for another long stint in the seas, had he stayed back like she asked him to (doe eyes pooling with tears), she may not have felt lonely and sought the lover’s company. Achanak, on the other hand, is startlingly unapologetic about the wife’s behaviour. She has the affair because she wants to.
The older films – Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke was released in 1963, Achanak in 1973 – were about relationships. They could afford to be. The audiences were different. Films did not live or die on the basis of the first-weekend business on five thousand screens across the country. And big, macho heroes (Sunil Dutt in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, Vinod Khanna in Achanak) could get away playing against type. With Akshay Kumar – who’s red hot in the trade today, and who’s more star than actor (meaning that even his “risks” are within a relatively safe zone) – you cannot make a story about a man who loves his wife and yet struggles to forgive her for what she did to him. At one point, the Sunil Dutt character nearly throttles his wife. A good chunk of Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke is about a couple learning to redefine a relationship. In the film’s best scene, Sunil Dutt weeps in front of his father, seeking advice. “Stay for the children,” the father says. Better yet, when, in a fit of rage, Sunil Dutt asks Leela Naidu (the wife), “Kya tum usse pyaar karti ho? Kya woh tumse pyaar karta hai?”, she cries out, “Mujhe kuch nahin maloom.” This must have been something in 1963 – a wife confessing to her husband that she’s not sure where the relationship with the lover stands. (It’s another thing, of course, that she eventually has to “pay the price.” She wears a contrite white. She cries. She testifies. She dies.) In Achanak, Vinod Khanna strangles his wife, but then remembers that, upon her death, she wanted her mangalsutra immersed in the Ganges. He sets about fulfilling this wish, even if it means escaping the cops who have captured him. This, again, cannot show up in an Akshay Kumar movie.
All of which is to explain why Rustom is more about courtroom fireworks than what happens between Rustom (Akshay Kumar) and Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) after he finds out about her tryst with Vikram (Arjan Bajwa). The film opens in a rush. We see a bit of Rustom wooing Cynthia. Soon, he’s off on duty, and when he returns, he finds Vikram’s letters in her cupboard (conveniently in sight, all bundled up neatly). He barges into Vikram’s house and shoots him dead. Or does he? But we do know he’s not going to kill his wife. Akshay Kumar operates in two modes these days. He’s either the buffoon in brain-dead comedies, or the patriot in flag-waving action-dramas. (Republic Day and Independence Day are to this actor what Id is to Salman Khan.) And patriots come in saffron, white and green – not shades of gray. Rustom is so noble that he won’t talk about his wife to the tabloids (even if that could bolster his case), he won’t take up the navy’s offer to stay with them during the trial (he won’t claim special privileges; like any other Indian, he will remain in police custody), and he won’t even cross-examine a woman who’s lying about him (if he proves she’s lying, she’ll be discredited in public, and patriots don’t do that). In these films, Akshay Kumar isn’t a man. He’s a monument.
And because of this, his fans don’t get to dwell on the fact that their hero has been emasculated – that he’s essentially a cuckold. When the hero is a patriot, there are more pressing matters than dealing with a wife whose needs he’s clearly not fulfilling. Vikram isn’t just a philanderer; he’s a traitor to the nation. As far as Rustom and Akshay Kumar are concerned, homeland trumps home. Cynthia, thus, barely registers as a character. Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke made a big deal about the Leela Naidu character being raised in France, for the prosecution sought to establish that she was made of looser morals than the average Indian woman. Here, we get a mention about Cynthia’s British background, but nothing comes of it. The big seduction scene is right out of Aradhana. It rains. They get wet. Before you can say “Roop tera mastana,” they’re making out.
None of this would have mattered if the director Tinu Suresh Desai knew how to make a movie where the tension thickened as time went on. There’s one deftly rendered passage, where an interrogation keeps cutting smoothly between the cop and the various people being questioned. But elsewhere, the staging is in your face, superficial – the frames have no texture. The actors – save for Anang Desai, playing a judge with a bone-dry disposition – are always a beat or two off (and some of them seem downright embarrassed at being used just to register reaction shots). The characters are either one-note and loud, or perplexingly underwritten. In the hands of Salim-Javed, Pawan Malhotra’s Inspector Lobo would have crackled with antagonistic fire. He’s just a courier boy here. And what about the tabloid editor (Kumud Mishra) modelled on Russi Karanjia? The man sounds promising at first. He rubs his hands with glee when he gets an exclusive tip-off about the Rustom affair (newspaper sales will go through the roof!), and yet, he volunteers to help Rustom, a fellow Parsi, find a lawyer. But the character is soon banished to a running gag that keeps putting him in prison. The problem isn’t the transformation of what appeared to be a nuanced character into a comedian. The problem is that the running gag (a great one, on paper) just dies on screen.
That could be said about a lot of Rustom. It’s vaguely watchable – but nothing is alive, nothing moves. The deliciously gaudy decor (pista-coloured walls, yum!) just sits there, as though freshly painted and waiting to dry. The period costumes – swimsuits with little bows in front; jackets with checks – look like costumes, not clothes. People seem to have slipped into them; they’re not wearing them. And the “touches” are embarrassing. This is the kind of film where two opponents sit down on opposite sides of a chessboard and begin to talk, making one move per rim-shot of dialogue. Even Akshay Kumar, who can usually be relied on to save bad films, is underwhelming. His idea of an irreproachable patriot is a man whose face won’t move a muscle. There is, however, some fun to be had watching Esha Gupta, who plays Vikram’s sister. Hers is easily one of the campiest characters of all time – she doesn’t shed a tear when her brother is killed. But she makes up for it by dressing up in couture clothes from 1950s Hollywood, waving around a cigarette holder, and uttering every word as though it were “Dah-ling!” I left the theatre wanting her to marry Kabir Bedi from Mohenjo Daro. If their babies inherit their hamming genes, that’s at least something to alleviate boredom in future films.
- Bombay Velvet = see here
- Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke = see here
- Achanak = see here
- “mere kaabil dost” = my learned friend (Hindi-film legal jargon)
- “Kya tum usse pyaar karti ho? Kya woh tumse pyaar karta hai?” = Do you love him? Does he love you?
- “Mujhe kuch nahin maloom.” = I don’t know.
- mangalsutra = see here
- Aradhana / “Roop tera mastana” = see here
- Mohenjo Daro = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.