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Rustom is not the first film inspired by Nanavati case

Sunil Dutt's Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) and Gulzar's Achanak (1973) also drew from the controversial story of the former Indian naval officer.

Mayur Lookhar

‘3 shots that shocked the nation’. That is the tagline of Akshay Kumar's upcoming film Rustom, whose trailer was launched on YouTube at 9 am today.

There is a great deal of anticipation among fans as the film is said to be based on a true story. The current generation may not know it, but the true story that inspired this film is the case of Commander Kawas M Nanavati of the Indian Navy, who shot dead his English wife Sylvia's lover Prem Ahuja on 27 April 1959. Interestingly, Nanavati did not kill Ahuja in a fit of rage; according to the prosecution, he did so after the playboy businessman refused to marry Sylvia.

The case shocked the nation not just because of the adultery and murder, but also for the intriguing relationships among the trio. Ahuja was known to Nanavati for 15 years, while Sylvia, despite confessing to cheating on her husband, backed him at the subsequent trial.

The media, the public, and the Parsi community, all lent their support to Nanavati. He was found not guilty by a jury in the Greater Bombay sessions court, but the judge threw the verdict out as perverse and referred the case to the Bombay high court, which found Nanavati guilty and sentenced him to life in prison. The tremendous outpourring of public support eventually led to the officer being pardoned and he migrated to Canada with his family where he died in 2003. This was the last case in India to be tried by jury and the central government abolished jury trials thereafter.

An intriguing tale, but this is not the first time a Hindi film is being made based on these events. Turn back into history and you will find at least two films – Yeh Rastey Hai Pyar Ke and Achanak – that were based on the Nanavati case.

Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963)

This was Sunil Dutt’s debut production. Dutt played the lead in the monochromatic film while Leela Naidu played his wife. Those were the days when filmmakers found it tough to make films based on real-life incidents. The film begins with a disclaimer that all characters are fictitious and bear no resemblance to anyone living or dead. Dutt played it safe, but the resemblance to the Nanavati case could not have been purely coincidental.

Dutt played Anil Sahni, a commercial pilot who is tried for the murder of his wife Neena’s alleged lover Ashok Srivastava (Rehman). For over two hours, the plot goes along the lines of the Nanavati case, but the suspense in the final seven minutes, when defence lawyer Byomkesh Mukherjee (Ashok Kumar) and prosecutor Ali Khan (Motilal) summon Ashok Srivastava's ghost, turns the case on its head. You must watch it to find out the killer.

Achanak (1973)

A decade later, the Nanavati case inspired writer-lyricist Gulzar to helm Achanak, a rare film in which he did not pen any songs. Major Ranjeet Khanna (Vinod Khanna) kills his wife Pushpa (Lily Chakrvarthy) and her lover. Like Nanavati, Khanna surrenders to the police, but then he escapes to the Ganga to fulfil his wife’s wish of immersing her wedding necklace in the river. He is shot by the pursuing policemen and taken to hospital. There, he gets close to Dr Chaudhary and nurse Radha (Farida Jalal). Khanna repents his actions, but all his attempts to escape the noose are futile. The film earned Gulzar a Filmfare nomination for Best Director.

Making a film that is faithful to the original sequence of events can be tricky and filmmakers prefer to avoid legal tangles. Rustom director Tinu Suresh Desai has also played it safe, creating fictitious characters while underlining that the story is based on real life. However, as opposed to the earlier films, he has cast Akshay Kumar as a naval officer. And in the posters, there is a resemblance to the handsome Commander Nanavati.

More than five decades on, Hindi cinema is set to reopen the Nanavati case. Perhaps, GenNext will be treated to a film that tells the tale with greater fidelity.