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I recently watched Rustom, a film loosely based on the KM Nanavati case which changed the Indian legal system with the abolishment of the jury system. For those who might have not heard or read about the case, Nanavati was a naval officer, married to London born Sylvia and based out of Mumbai. Whilst on one of his missions, Sylvia fell in love with their friend, Ahuja and exchanged letters with him which highlighted the socially alleged fact that Ahuja was an unattached man when it came to his relationships and that Sylvia was unsure of his intentions towards her or the seriousness towards relationships. It was after this that Nanavati comes back home and gets to know this from his wife. After hearing this, he decides to take things in his hands and straighten things out with Ahuja. By straightening things out, it meant a conversation between him and Ahuja about the latter marrying Sylvia and also taking in their (Nanavati and Sylvia’s) children post marriage. Ahuja denied having any plans of marriage which enraged the naval officer who ended up shooting Ahuja to death in his own bedroom. When tried at the Sessions Court in Bombay, he was acquitted by the jury by a vote of 8:1 with a major part of the decision and media gimmicks using communitarian politics to get a judgment. The judge of the sessions court was taken aback and the case moved to the HC where Nanavati was convicted, charged guilty of murder and as part of the legal reform, the jury was removed from the Indian legal system. I read somewhere that later on, someone from the officer’s community had appealed to the then PM Nehru to acquit Nanavati since he was a defence officer and had served the nation. As part of a deal between Ahuja’s sister who was fighting the legal battles on his behalf, Nanavati was then let out some years later while the MH government let out another prisoner from Ahuja’s community as part of a sentence and acquittal community barter.
Now, this case has held the country’s imagination for years. Rustom is not the first film to be made based on the case. There are quite a few others which were blockbuster hits. Rustom only has the Sessions court judgment covered in its story with community politics displayed fantastically. Even the city from that time is projected beautifully, making one almost long to have been born then instead of now. However, despite of all these good things in the movie, watching it left me squirming with discomfort at a few things in the film, more so the overtly lengthy court proceedings captured with sheer ridicule. That brought me to question the ordinary citizen’s take on the Indian legal system – for something as simple as wearing a seat belt and paying tolls. Reminds me of the time when entering MPT territory where one cop offered to let me go past after paying 10 out of the 30 bucks charge, with no receipt of course. Hope was risen again when the driver offered the same option to the next cop who refused stating others might do this, he did not.
Before I digress further, my point here is that a majority of the population in our country continues to swear by trends and brands advocated by film stars, across all socio-economic sections. Even crimes committed by some are inspired from Bollywood. With such great impact, I feel it is quite scary the way the semi fictional story is presented here ridiculing the proceedings of law and order, just like another old Akshay Kumar starrer did. Yes, I agree that even dictatorships are systems and laws and a coup overthrowing a dictator is actually doing good in the larger schema of things but, saying that would just be an adarsh public’s excuse to yet again not see the mirror.
Firstly, in showing the film only upto the Sessions court’s verdict where Nanavati walks scot free and more like a hero makes me wonder if we, as a nation, have issues accepting that our ‘hero’ (righteous male, avatar of righteous principled lord from Hindu mythology) can ever be wrong? Can we not accept that each one of us, even those who are otherwise impeccable in being, can commit acts which can be wrong and harmful to one or many? Also, why do we, as a nation of a 102 billion people, need a hero? Why can’t we choose to find that hero(ine) within our own selves?
The second thought or question that I had swimming in my head after watching the film is the idea of absolute right and wrong, moral black and white and the grey areas of human existence; and the intersection of the same with the legal system in place. While the case highlights the absolutes of right and wrong in terms of fidelity and patriotism versus selling your land for personal gain and favour making the act of murder by the protagonist as an absolute right! But, does this not make the entire case / story / incident grey afterall? You excuse a murderer because he is a loyal country server and husband (how can we forget multiple scenes of him staring at her picture?). And like all Bollywood films that resonate with commercially viable thinking at the writer’s part, this one too falls flat in its face when the hero is yet again made to let go of the love of his life, in order to work towards the greater good, making personal sacrifice the necessity for greater good.
Yes, there are a lot of good things in ther film but, my problem is that it is films like these that resonate the larger Indian mentality and also that films (and TV) have the power of changing things as they have unbridled access to the common (wo)man’s household. I think this film could have been far better at dealing with a lot of more subtle concepts of patriotism, masculinity, honour, integrity. While I like the portrayal of the human strength of being able to do the right thing when life is difficult but, the film just completely misses the point and loses the opportunity of using the most powerful tool in media to leave a better impact. Nanavati’s act of murder signifying honour over respect for human life and dignity was portrayed too casually, especially in politically charged times like these. Quite unfortunate.