In Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet there’s a reference to the Nanavati Case in the song Sylvia. A song wondering out loud about the cardinal sin Sylvia had committed – an extramarital affair in the Bombay of 1950s, in an India that hadn’t even entered its teenage angst. The affair led to murder, the murder led to a high profile case, possibly the first in a string of cases in India that could be defined as trial by media – birth of a nation left by the British, picking up the pieces, one of the pieces being tabloid journalism. In Rustom, Kumud Mishra plays – with a wig that makes him look like a bad cosplay of Einstein – the editor of one such tabloid, intent in helping out fellow Parsi man, Commander Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar).
Rustom could have been many things. It could have dealt with the complex nature of the case, the media flaring up the public, the character assassination of a woman to bring a nationalist to the forefront, the steadfast naval commander fighting his own case. But director Tinu Suresh Desai is interested in none of it. He’ll play it all straight. This happened, then this happened. They used to wear clothes like this, the cars looked like that, men went to clubs like these, women’s fashion was questionable, their way of holding a cigarette was objectionable. Rustom reduces a high profile case that’s ripe for extracting drama into a fancy dress walkabout.
Initially there is hope. Tinu Suresh Desai brings up the Parsi community and its tabloid sympathizing with Pavri and interested in planting a defense lawyer for him. It pits the Parsi people against the Sindhi community of Makhija and the public prosecutor Khangani (Sachin Khedekar). The tabloid goes a long way in establishing the righteousness of the man accused of murder and doesn’t care if his wife is collateral damage in the process. Desai even stages a fairly interesting questioning session between Vincent Lobo (Pawan Malhotra), the investigating officer and all the characters involved. But we go nowhere from there. Lobo, one of the more interesting characters partly thanks to Malhotra is comfortably veered off the plot. The characters are mostly stick figures. Pavri can do no wrong, he’s even prepared his case and arguments till the very moment he rests. If you didn’t get that already, Desai shows him playing chess in his cell. Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) is judged for her adultery, which further strengthens Pavri’s case and her “redemptive” arc or whatever that is turns out to be a farce. The bigger farce is how Desai ends up extracting comedy out of the public prosecutor. While the case made for great entertainment for the public, Sachin Khedekar’s Lakshman Khangani reduces it to a parody. Akshay Kumar is a talented actor, one of the finest we have in the mainstream space and also someone who can do comedy well. He’s an actor who uses his face a lot even if it is ironic that he is known for his physique and stunts. But the role of Pavri requires him to be poker faced throughout. A poker face with no costume budget because Pavri is always in his uniform. Kumar is miscast here. But then if your film was a fancy dress competition to begin with, who cares about casting?
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)