Crime on the screen

Akshay Kumar’s ‘Rustom’ is only the latest movie to be inspired by the 1959 Nanavati case

Before ‘Rustom’, ‘Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke’ and ‘Achanak’ had brought to the screen KM Nanavati’s murder of his wife’s lover.

In 1959, Indian Navy officer Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati killed his British wife’s lover in Mumbai and surrendered to the police. His murder trial was avidly covered by the local media, and the case was dramatised by at least two Hindi movies. A third title has now been added to the list. The August 12 release Rustom has been directed by Tinu Suresh Desai and stars Akshay Kumar as Rustom Pavri alongside Ileana D’Cruz and Arjan Bajwa.

The trailer of ‘Rustom’.

The Nanavati case both scandalised and perversely fascinated India. It was widely reported by Mumbai newspapers, especially the tabloid Blitz. Public sympathy was heavily stacked on Nanavati’s side even though he admitted to having committed the crime. Nanavati had learnt of his wife Sylvia’s affair with his friend, Prem Ahuja. On April 27, 1959, Nanavati dropped off Sylvia and their three children to the Metro Cinema in South Mumbai and went to Ahuja’s home to ask him if he would marry Sylvia. When Ahuja declined, Nanavati shot him and surrendered to the police.

The jury system that was in place in India in those years declared Nanavati to be innocent of premeditated murder at the Sessions Court level. The matter was referred to the Bombay High Court. Since it was widely believed that the jury had been influenced by media reports that had painted Ahuja as an irresponsible playboy, the Indian government abolished the jury system.

The Bombay High Court trial led to a life imprisonment term, and an appeal in the Supreme Court too went against Nanavati. Given the strong public support, a relentless media campaign, and Nanavati’s alleged contacts in high places, Prem Ahuja’s sister, Mamie Ahuja, was persuaded to pardon the officer. He left India and migrated with his family to Canada, where he died in 2003.

The headline-grabbing case was first adapted for the screen in 1963 by RK Nayyar as Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke. Sunil Dutt, who also produced the film, plays pilot Anil, who is married to the Paris-bred Neena (Leela Naidu), with whom he has two children. Anil’s friend Ashok (Rehman) seduces Neena when Anil is away from the country. When Anil returns and found out what has happened behind his back, he is shattered. He confronts Ashok and the two men have a scuffle, during which Ashok is killed.

Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu in ‘Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke’.
Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu in ‘Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke’.

Despite the sensational material, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke fails to make a strong impact and has not held up well either. Though regarded at the time as a bold and courageous movie about adultery, the screen events are highly watered down, probably keeping the morality of the period in mind. Neena is not shown as responding to Ashok’s overtures, and her seduction is blamed on a spiked drink. A final preposterous twist reveals that Anil is not even the killer. The diluted story works against the film and weakens its premise, especially since the actual events were still fresh in the minds of the public.

The title song of ‘Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke’.

Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke is also badly let down by Leela Naidu’s poor acting skills. Even though she looks right for the role of the sophisticated and Westernised Neena, she gives a cringe-worthy and stilted performance that all but kills the film. Sunil Dutt is not in top form either despite a few strong moments. The movie’s highlights include Ashok Kumar and Motilal as rival lawyers who enliven the courtroom scenes, Ravi’s music and KH Kapadia’s cinematography.

The other movie to loosely fictionalise the murder came a decade later. Gulzar’s Achanak (1973), based on a story by KA Abbas, also has a love triangle that leads to murder. Army Major Ranjeet Khanna (Vinod Khanna) returns home to find that his wife Pushpa (Lily Chakraborty) is involved with his best friend Prakash (Ravi Raaj). Khanna kills them both and is sentenced to death. He manages to escape to immerse Pushpa’s mangalsutra in the Ganga river, only to be grievously wounded during a police manhunt. Ranjeet miraculously recovers in the hospital, but since he has already been convicted, he is sent to the gallows.

The story appears simple enough, but in true Gulzar fashion, it is multi-layered and unfolds in a non-linear manner. The movie opens at the hospital where efforts are on to save an almost fatally wounded Khanna. Several flashbacks – and flashbacks within flashbacks – fill us in on the rest of the story. Achanak doesn’t dilute events or evade the issue of Pushpa’s infidelity. She is depicted as a willing partner to Prakash.

There is some deft editing in the murders of Pushpa and Prakash. In each of the scenes, Ranjeet reaches the crime scene, the film cuts to a flashback of his Army superior giving instructions on how to kill the enemy (which in a way has now invaded Ranjeet’s home), and we then cut back to the murder, which has been committed off camera. However, the prevalence of 1970s techniques such as the terrible use of the zoom lens makes this movie too look pretty dated today.

Still, Achanak is the more morally ambiguous and richer of the two films. Strangely enough for a Gulzar production, Achanak has no songs apart from strains of the tune “Sun Mere Bandhu” from Sujata (1959), which appears in two versions.

The most recent reference to the Nanavati case was in Anurag Kashyap’s period film Bombay Velvet (2015). The song “Sylvia”, which is crooned by Anushka Sharma’s nightclub performer character, refers to the tabloid frenzy sparked off by the murder.

‘Sylvia’ from ‘Bombay Velvet’.
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