Film review: Rustom

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Our first glimpse of Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar) is when he climbs onto the deck of the warship he’s commanding. Behind him, undulating against a saffron sky, is a large Tricolour. This early pairing of character and nation in Tinu Suresh Desai’s Rustom is extremely significant. After all, this is a film that asks viewers to not only condone but actively cheer on murder if it’s ostensibly committed in service of the country.
On 27 April 1959, Naval commander KM Nanavati shot Prem Ahuja, with whom his wife, Sylvia, had been having an affair, and surrendered to the police. In the subsequent trial-reported with muckraking glee by the tabloids-public sympathy was squarely in Nanavati’s favour, and he was acquitted by the jury. There’s already been a film made on the scandal: Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, with Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu. Despite its closeness to the actual events-or perhaps because of that-the 1963 film ignored the seamier aspects of the scandal, ending up a morally conservative weepie.
Though it’s just as prone to moralizing, Rustom does try and acquaint viewers with the many ins and outs of the trial. Returning from his mission a few days early, Rustom heads home to surprise his wife, Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz). She’s out; he finds love letters to her from his friend Vikram (Arjan Bajwa) instead. When she gets back, he confronts her. Rustom heads to the docks, procures a revolver, drives to Vikram’s home, shoots him thrice in the chest, and surrenders to inspector Vincent Lobo (Pawan Malhotra) at the police station.
With Rustom up for trial, editor Erach Billimori (Kumud Mishra)-the reference is to Blitz’s Russi Karanjia-sees an opportunity to promote his newspaper as well as help a fellow-Parsee. He sets about sensationalizing the already scandalous story, painting Cynthia as a wife led astray and Rustom as the upright officer who avenges her honour. He also attempts to put together a legal team, which results in a nice scene where Billimoria petitions a senior Parsi lawyer by telling him that the Sindhis -the community Vikram belonged to-have put forward one of their own as prosecutor. To complicate matters further, Rustom might know official naval secrets, which gives him a bargaining chip but also places Cynthia and him in danger. All this should have resulted, at the very least, in a reasonably diverting film. Yet, though Rustom uses all the sensational material the Nanavati case has to offer, the treatment is laughably bad, like an especially ridiculous episode of C.I.D. crossed with an especially over-the-top Balaji Telefilms production. The period recreation screams “period recreation”, as if 2016 is just beyond the frame. The background score keeps prodding us as if you to say, “Did you see that? That was an important scene.” As if anything pitched at this level of audience- pandering could escape us.

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