“HOW IS MY CHILD DOING IN CLASS?”, ASKS MY HAPLESS AND AGONIZED PARENT OF MY CLASS TEACHER. THE CLASS teacher looks at my parent sympathetically, then turns her gaze on no-less-hapless-and-agonized-me, and sighs, “He has so much of potential. All he has to do is work hard.” End of flashback. I’d never quite understood if my class teacher said so every year because she didn’t like me or because she had a perverse streak that came into full force, stabbing my parents’ happiness and my peace with a single academic skewer. But with a movie like Rustom, I get what the teacher was trying to say.
Don’t get me wrong. Rustom isn’t a bad movie. Directed by Tinu Suresh Desai, written by Vipul K. Rawal, and based on the 1959 K. M. Nanavati versus State of Maharashtra case, the movie gets off to a flying start – director Desai swiftly introduces Naval Commander Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar), whose ship rolls back into Bombay earlier than expected; his wife Cynthia Pavri (Ileana D’Cruz) who’s not at home when Rustom arrives, and has, instead, spent the night at his friend Vikram Makhija (Arjan Bajwa’s) house. After confirming the worst, the devastated Rustom goes to Makhija’s residence and fells him with three gunshots. And then amazingly, he walks into the Gamdevi police station and surrenders to cop Vincent Lobo (Pawan Malhotra.) This kicks off the trial, even as Vikram’s sister, Priti Makhija (Esha Gupta) gets in top lawyer Lakshman Khangani (Sachin Khedekar) to fight the case. At the trial, Rustom announces his intentions to defend himself without a lawyer, and up until then, the movie moves with the swiftness of a lithe antelope, bounding into the arms of the interval calling card with promise of more smarts.
Post-interval, I’m sorry to report, the movie slowly comes undone. And again, it’s not to say it’s badly done – the audience was roaring with laughter in some scenes, and therein lies the rub. But ever remember those days when you scored high in your prelims and came a cropper in the finals? That final is Rustom after the popcorn break. And that’s because of how the story is shaped out in the court; instead of a gripping, dramatic, slowly unravelling court room drama highlighted by crisp dialogues and crackling bon mots, we get the archetypal prosecutor hemming and hawing; we get some mighty corny jokes about infidelity being the motive for murder; we get courtroom jokes and comedy, that suddenly takes away all the drama and staggers dangerously close to farce. And to top it all, a mystery layer of espionage, and an oily Rear Admiral (Parmeet Sethi, looking mighty chuffed and puffed.) This is exactly what’s wrong with Rustom. The original material was so full of twists and curves, there was no need to add these liberties. There is Kumud Mishra playing Erach Billimoria, the owner of a tabloid, who, belonging to the Parsee community, takes it upon himself to use his paper to generate public sympathy for Rustom. In court, unfortunately, Billimoria is reduced to a comic caricature, subjected to daily reprimand by the judge (Anang Desai.)
In real life, R.K. Karanjia used his tabloid Blitz to do the same for Nanavati. He also began selling his paper for a princely sum of Rupees Two, instead of the usual 25 Paise. There was also some amazing merchandise such Nanavati revolvers and Ahuja (the real-life victim) towels , the latter being sold with the promise of “never coming undone”. The movie shows us all this. But where the movie fails to focus on is the polarization of the Sindhi and Parsee communities. Of how, Nanavati’s wife’s letters to her lover exposed his true intentions; of how, finally, a back-channel quid pro quo coup was struck by the then Governor of Maharashtra, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, and both communities were assuaged. None of this material is used, and instead, the patriotic angle is injected rather clumsily to prop up Rustom as a hero. That, the watered down courtroom scenes, and another critical aspect which this piece will come to in the end, make Rustom a what-could-have-been rather than what-a-wow-it-is.
To be fair, director Gandhi has some superb tricks up his sleeve – especially, when, with editor Shree Narayan Singh, he deploys a deliciously snappy interrogation technique to show Pawan Malhotra’s Lobo questioning all the characters, that also takes the investigation story forward. And another scene, where, Rustom and Lobo play a game of chess, even as they try to outsmart each other in word play. How you wish he’d done something similar with the courtroom pieces.
Rustom has a bevy of song composers – Arko, Ankit Tiwari, Raghav Sanchar, and Jeet Gangulli. Of the lot, Sanchar’s Rustom Wahi is sheer fun – sounding like a happy cross between Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s Main Hoon Don and Aaj Ki Raat (both from Don), the latter itself basing a goose-bumpy tune twist on Seal’s snowy, chillingly haunting Kiss From a Rose. The Rustom number has some superb trumpets, jazzy drums and zesty vocals by Sukriti Kakar. And there’s Tere Sang Yaara that’s composed by Arko – it’s actually quite a nice tune – but Atif Aslam’s creaky, wailing vocals make you pine for Sonu Nigam. Surender Sodhi’s background score is pretty effective, although amidst all this, I cannot help but think of Rahul Dev Burman, and what he’d have done with this material and story.
That brings us to the cast – as the wife whose actions set into motion a historic courtroom case, Ileana D’Cruz is strictly okay – but I suspect it’s as much the writing of her character. Playing the Parsee editor and tabloid owner, Kumud Mishra is lots of fun – he has a ball playing the fool, though one can safely assume Mr. Karanjia isn’t amused, wherever he is now. As the investigating cop, Pawan Malhotra is superbly vulpine and sleek, bringing to his character a snoop-dog toughness that crackles in every scene. As the victim’s sister, Esha Gupta has not much to do, except glower and show us how to hold a cigarette holder at an angle that’s perpendicular to the neck. The usually superb Sachin Khedekar, ostensibly playing Ram Jethmalani, is hemmed in by the hawing dialogues, and is over-the-top most of the time – except in the scene when Rustom announces he’ll fight his own case. There, Khedekar looks at Akshay Kumar with a surprised catty anticipation of easy meat – that’s how good he is. Anang Desai as the judge commands most of the scenes with his smooth and crisp voice that fills the courtroom with some much needed heft. Arjan Bajwa as the rakish friend is very good, though I couldn’t help admiring his brilliantly made up hair – truly giving all us folically challenged men a complex as high as Lokhandwala. There’s also the eminently suave Kanwaljeet in a cameo as the defense secretary – why don’t we see more of him, more often?
In the title role, Akshay Kumar is the foil to all the script’s weakness – he is simply outstanding. Balancing the toughness and upright honesty of the character he portrays with the anguish of betrayal, he pivots between a smart plotter to a devastated husband – note the scene where he cross-questions his wife – his eyes brim with pain, all the strength suddenly seems to melt away. Once again, Akshay Kumar brings in an intelligent performance that’s also this movie’s highlight.
And finally, the Nanavati case was the reason the jury system ended in India. This aspect of the story too, is skimmed over by the director, and that is simply disappointing. I wasn’t expecting 12 Angry Men, but the jury deliberation scenes deserved so much more than a lazy cinematic flick off the screen’s sleeve. Which is why, Rustom, in the end, with all its snazz and gorgeous costumes leaves you with a crime that’s less passion, more fashion.
Watch the trailer of Rustom here: