A picture-perfect naval officer, highly decorated principled patriotic and deeply in love with his wife, comes ashore quicker than expected and catches his wife cheating with his best friend.
Since the husband is played by the remarkably evolved Akshay Kumar we are mercifully spared the hysterical aftermath of an inherently melodramatic crime of passion that shook and stirred Mumbai’s beau monde in the year 1959.
That was the celebrated Nanawati case, known to change the way we look at the laws regarding crimes of passion. Rustom plucks the core of the crime, unplugs the theme of infidelity from its original context and plays deviously around with the facts to create a semi-fiction ‘what-if’ scenario where the characters hurl towards what the film’s writers would like to think of as an unexpectedly shocking ending.
It’s like watching a true-life crime story from Shyam Benegal done in Walt Disney Studios. The passion and drama FEELS real, thanks to a solid sincere central performance. But the manner in which the story unfolds suggests that no harm can come to this world of fragile blemished but unbreakable Utopia.
Director Tinu Suresh Desai, who last visited London in the year 1920 in London 1920, takes to Mumbai in 1959 with a ferocious fulsomeness. There is a cardboard voluptuousness about the sets, including the courtroom where most of the drama in the second-half unfolds. The accents are exaggerated and excitable, and the makeup is lush and accented ripe and crimson, as though to highlight the theme’s deep rooted affinity to Hitchcock and Brian de Palma’s film noir.
Tinu tackles the tender and powerful moments in the plot with all the skill at his disposal. Many of the potentially powerful moments suffer from the want of respite. The pace is breathy and anxious. The idea is to grab the restless audience’s attention without inundating them in periodicity. The plot is therefore pulled forward with an urgent tug where we are led to believe that there is more to this crime against infidelity than meets the eye.
By the time the shock end bounces into the stylized courtroom (more akin to B R Chopra’s Kanoon than Subhash Kapoor’s Jolly LLB) we are not left with much room to absorb the enormity of the ‘revelation’.
The makers of Rustom were right. This is not the Nanawati case that shook Mumbai in 1959. The 1963 film Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke was much closer in spirit to the real crime. And the bewitching Leela Naidu as the unfaithful wife…ummm…killed it. Ileana d’Cruz’s wife is distressfully apologetic and sniveling. Why must her infidelity be seen as an accidental slip and why she be the hand-wringing lip-biting penitent wife who worships her husband for being such a pillar of strength during times of marital adversity?
If only the script had the guts to say that what we all know – that women with absentee husbands do stray from the marital fold – this film could have been a powerful voice for a spouseless wife’s sexual needs the way Aruna Raje’s Rihaee was so many years ago. Instead in Rustom Ileana D’Cruz is shrill and repentant like Reena Roy in Bezubaan after ‘photographer’ Naseeruddin Shah seduced and blackmailed her.
It is all the randy philanderer Arjan Bajwa’s fault, you see. Why oh why did he seduce the wife?
Some of the supporting roles such Bajwa’s philanderer, Esha Gupta as his vengeful sister, Pavan Malhotra as the investigating cop and Kumud Mishra as Russy Karanjia – modelled tabloid editor throw forward interesting possibilities but remain shadowy figures meant to contour the heroic dimensions of the main protagonist.
Rustom is unmistakably a vehicle to showcase Akshay Kumar’s power to portray spiritual transparency during times of stressful betrayal and deception. He does so with a sincerity that is at times heartbreaking and at other times reassuring. After Airlift this is one more performance from Akshay that proves he can hold the camera without making overt attempts to get our attention.
Most of the second-half of Rustom is a courtroom drama with Akshay fighting his own case.
Indicative of the film’s battle ahead.