It’s 1959 all over again! In Hollywood, the 1959 classic Ben Hur remake got a wide release at about the same time as Rustom, which is based on a sensational true life high society murder case set in what was then Bombay. While Ben Hur recreates Roman era chariot racing, Rustom opts for slightly more sedate pacing. And what pace it is! Served up as a polished period piece thriller mindful of socio-economic realities and sensibilities of that era, Rustom is a sumptuous reenactment of a tangled murder mystery.
A decade after Independence, India had fully come of age and a free press was thriving. A murder that would normally go unnoticed captures the popular imagination because the principal figures involved are very wealthy, belonging to the upper crust of society. The accused is Commander Rustom Pavri, (Kumar) a highly decorated officer with the Indian navy. Returning home from an extended stint out at sea, Rustom discovers an affair between his wife Cynthia Pavri (D’Cruz) and the couple’s long-time friend Vikram Makhija (Bajwa). What exactly happened before, during and after three famed gunshots that killed Makhija at his palatial home might as well have been three shots heard around the world.
This entire framework would fall flat on its face if not for Santosh Thundiyil’s excellent cinematography that places Rustom and Cynthia smack in the middle of society ball rooms or Rustom at shipside on the high seas. Color filters create a mood of intrigue in the navy parlors where a behind-the-scenes high stakes arms race to acquire India’s first aircraft carrier is played out as a tangent to the main narrative. The sets come alive to inject a dose of realistic make-believe. Just don’t look too far into the distance or a computer-generated period auto rickshaw may pop up out of thin air.
The real life 1959 case had massive implications for India’s legal system. Amazingly, the original case became the very last Indian court case tried by a jury. After this case played out, India did away with jury trials in favor of a sole judge or a small group of judges deciding all cases, including capital murder. And small wonder. The sensation created by the case and its hold on the popular press at a time when the jury had full access to all media while the trial was ongoing, effectively meant that the verdict was issued by the tabloids long before the case went to the jury.
The pudgy paparazzi Billimoria (Mishra) prints anything and everything to create a line of “reasoning” that will sell more papers. His playbook includes baiting ethnicity into the case. The Pavris like Billimoria and his media barons are from the Parsi community, while the murder victim is from the Sindhi community. There is also the maid Jamnabai (Nadkarni) whose loose lips could just about sink ships. Preeti Makhija (Gupta), the murder victim’s conniving sister, meanwhile, is up to no good at all. It is up to the chief police investigator Vincent Lobo (Malhotra) to read through the tarot cards of evidence that don’t seem to add up.
As a cuckold decorated navy officer in sailor whites, Kumar comes across as a wronged man numbed by court proceedings—in other words, a victim. Strangely, the empathy factor swings away from him, and we feel more for D’Cruz who plays the anguished wife fending loneliness. In roles where the social stigma of adultery burns heavier on her than murder does on him, D’Cruz manages to keep tears to a minimum, and she is restrained in her portrayal.
Desai’s Rustom is not the first feature based on the famed original case. R.K. Nayyar’s Yeh Raste Hai Pyar Ke (1963) with Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu and Gulzar’s Achanak (1973) with Vinod Khanna and Lily Chakravarty both touched on this story. As a time capsule with critical and box office validation however,Rustom breaks refreshing new ground. Three gun shots, three figures and a two and a half hour big screen joyride. We are guilty as charged, my Lord!