Bombay Showcase

Three films and a murder

DIFFERENT TAKES: Of the three films based on the Nanavati case, Achanak (1973) is the only one that takes the controversial subject head-on, Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) and Rustom (2016) come up with utterly absurd excuses for both the affair and the murder. Special Arrangement  

A respected commander of the Indian navy guns down his wife’s paramour and turns himself in to the police. It’s the kind of gasp-inducing real-life story that’s almost begging to be filmed. And filmed it was, no less than three times – first as Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963), then Achanak (1973) and now the recently released Rustom.

There are two ways of looking at the infamous Nanavati case. One, as a sizzling scandal; the other, as an interesting marker of social attitudes to concepts like honour, patriotism and marital infidelity that, in filmic interpretations, are likely to evolve over the years. And so, after watching Rustom (and surviving it), I followed it up with Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke and Achanak — to see how those films had fictionalised the subject, and whether the stance they took was significantly different.

But, first a précis of the actual case. In April 1959, K.M. Nanavati, a decorated naval officer, returned after a stint at sea to learn that his British wife Sylvia was in a romantic liaison with his friend Prem Ahuja. Furious, he collected a gun and six bullets from his ship under a false pretext, shot Ahuja dead, and proceeded to the police station to confess. During the trial, Nanavati was supported to the hilt by fellow Parsi Russi Karanjia’s tabloid Blitz, cheered on by an adoring public and eventually declared Not Guilty by a clearly partisan jury vote of eight to one. None of the Nanavati films showed the rest of the story — that the shocked judge, dubbing the jury decision “perverse”, referred the case to the Bombay High Court, which sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment (though he was pardoned after three years by the then governor of Maharashtra, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, on account of ethnic-political machinations). The larger outcome of the Nanavati case was that the jury system in India was scrapped forever.

Given the confession, the case hinged on a single important point: was it a crime of passion (an act committed “under grave and sudden provocation”) or pre-meditated? Nanavati’s defence team, to save him from the harsher punishment that the latter charge attracted, attempted to prove that it was accidental. Nanavati, they said, had gone to Ahuja’s house only to confront him on whether he would marry Sylvia and look after his children; it was Ahuja’s sneery response, “Am I to marry every woman I sleep with?”, that led to a scuffle in which the gun accidentally went off, killing him. The Supreme Court judgment, two years later, pours scorn on this constructed tale of incredible nobility. It also demolishes Sylvia’s statement, made to save her husband, that Ahuja was going to renege on his promise of marriage; indeed, it states that the two were possibly on the verge of marrying.

In the battle that was fought out in the Bombay sessions court in 1959, Nanavati’s lawyers used his gentlemanly nature, his remarkably honest act of surrendering to the police and, yes, his stature as a member of India’s armed forces to sway the jury (Nanavati was always in uniform in the dock like the protagonist of Rustom — the latter, of course, goes a Bollywood step further and wears it even in jail). The idea was to portray Nanavati as an ‘honourable’ murderer whose house had been invaded by a villain even as he was defending the country’s territorial integrity. Given the freshly minted Indian nation’s fierce allegiance to patriotism and its traditional outlook on fidelity and marriage, it was a brilliant idea. Blitz and the Indian public gave it full support to effect Nanavati’s victory.

Dramatic adaptations

And, now to come to the films. The biggest insight that I got from watching all three was not about the Nanavati case but about Hindi cinema. Let me explain. Of the three, Achanak, a non-mainstream movie, is the only one that takes the controversial subject head-on without pussyfooting around it — it shows the wife as cheating on her husband and the husband shooting both her and her lover. Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke and Rustom, on the other hand, come up with utterly absurd excuses for both the affair and the murder; Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke, in a typical vintage Bollywood rigmarole, even has a third person attempting to kill the fictionalised Prem Ahuja at the time of the fight between him and Nanavati. Clearly, the main aim of Bollywood then, and much of Bollywood now, is to keep the hero and heroine looking good, however inconducive the subject may be to this aim.

So how do the films deal with the Nanavati case and its characters? Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke sticks to the ‘gentleman of honour versus scheming playboy’ tack (Ahuja’s playboy image, incidentally, comes from the defence lawyers and Blitz, and was perhaps exaggerated or even constructed like the rest of the mythology around the case). In the film, the protagonist, played by Sunil Dutt, is the principled man fighting for not just the besmirched honour of his better half but also, at a subtextual level, for middle-class values and the institution of family. However, as the character is a commercial pilot (a choice made perhaps to steer clear of legal action), the film does not bring in a patriotic angle.

Rustom (note the ‘warrior’ title) is different. Fifty-seven years after the case, and totally in keeping with the political-populist ethos of today, it sports overblown patriotism as its chief ingredient. Director Tinu Suresh Desai makes no bones about it, lensing Akshay Kumar against the backdrop of the Indian flag, having him mouth bombastic dialogue about the sanctity of the uniform and ending the film on his resounding though morally grey victory. As a further justification, there’s a cock-and-bull parallel plot about defence ministry corruption that shows up the fictional Prem Ahuja as not only a womanising cad but also a desh drohi wheeler-dealer who deserves to die. Indeed, after the trial, Rustom even admits to the investigating officer that the murder was pre-meditated but still retains the halo around his nationalistic head. Why? Because, in addition to shooting a traitor, he has saved the honour of the Indian Navy by not publicly exposing “the few bad elements” involved in the scam. Shorn of all this idiotic grandstanding, though, the subliminal message of the film is clear: blanket approval of what was essentially an honour killing.

The women

That the film-maker’s primary intention is to project Akshay Kumar’s heroism by pitting him against more than one baddie becomes particularly clear in the portrayal of one character — Ahuja’s sister Mamie. Played by Esha Gupta, the character is a cigarette-smoking, sexy-pose-striking caricature who shows no emotion whatsoever for her dead brother — her endeavour to get his murderer prosecuted is portrayed as a vamp’s determination to defeat the hero, and thanks to Gupta’s loony get-up and performance, ends up as a comedy track. In real life, Mamie was in the house when her brother was murdered, fought staunchly for him in court, but eventually signed the no-objection letter that cleared the way for Nanavati’s release from prison. Whatever her compulsions at that point, it was an act of undeniable grace. Granted that a film-maker has the right to choose how to fictionalise his characters but Mamie’s portrayal in Rustom betrays bad taste and a lack of imagination.

How is Sylvia Nanavati portrayed? Neither film damns her though both render her terminally lachrymose, which, by all accounts, she wasn’t in real life. Indeed, Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke, for a 1963 film, is amazingly non-judgmental of her lapse: Agha Jani Kashmiri’s screenplay begins with the Biblical tale about who has the right to cast the first stone; Leela Naidu’s father-in-law is an exemplary character who entreats his son to forgive his wife; and Sunil Dutt, after his initial silence, backs her in court when the public prosecutor accuses Naidu of being “too liberated like all western women” (it is Naidu herself who mouths some ridiculously regressive lines). But for all that, the end is, sadly, a comical cop-out — as soon as her husband is declared Not Guilty, Naidu, for no good reason, drops dead in his arms.

Shading in the nuances

Contrasting completely with these potboilers is Achanak. This nuanced narrative, written and directed by Gulzar (story credit: K.A. Abbas), dispenses entirely with the courtroom drama and focuses instead on the conflicting emotions within the protagonist. The fictionalised Nanavati here (played by Vinod Khanna) is a cheerful, gregarious army officer who loves his wife dearly, yet does not spare her for her infidelity — in a chilling sequence, he murders her and her lover exactly according to the army training manual before giving himself up to the police. Achanak does not say it overtly but its subtext is that a soldier’s inculcated notions of honour, accompanied by the deadening of his mind to violence, can lead to such quasi-robotic acts of violence, however emotionally painful the aftermath. The code of honour is, disturbingly, upheld by another unlikely person in the film — the protagonist’s commanding officer who also happens to be his dead wife’s father, yet does all he can to save him from the gallows.

Achanak touches on two other paradoxes — the state saving a convict’s life only to hang him, and the irony of a soldier being executed for murder. “A bravery medal for killing so many people but the death penalty for killing two,” the doctor tending to the protagonist tells him wryly in an echo of Monsieur Verdoux’s famous line: “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify.” Achanak is a layered, thought-provoking film that goes way beyond the outer trappings of the Nanavati case; it is a prime example of what can be creatively accomplished with a real-life subject. And given that real-life subjects, mostly unimaginatively handled, are the rage these days, Bollywood could benefit from a lesson or two.

The author is a freelance editor and writer

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 3:10:27 PM |

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