On 27 April 1959, Sylvia Nanavati confessed to her husband, Navy Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, that she had been having an affair with their friend Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja. What happened next led to the sensational Nanavati court case. As documented by Gyan Prakash, author of Mumbai Fables, via India-Seminar.com:
After lunch in his Cuffe Parade home, Nanavati dropped off his wife, his two children, and a neighbour’s child at the Metro Cinema for the afternoon show of ‘Tom Thumb’. From there, he proceeded to his ship ‘Mysore’ where he obtained a revolver and six rounds of ammunition, and then drove to the Universal Motors office on Pedder Road. Upon learning that Ahuja, the car dealership’s manager, had not returned from lunch, Nanavati drove to his wife’s lover’s flat in ‘Jeevan Jyoti’ (The Flame of Life) on Malabar Hill. The naval officer entered the flat, an argument followed, three shots rang out, and Ahuja lay dead.
Soon afterwards, Nanavati drove to the naval authorities, and surrendered. In the trial, Nanavati claimed that Ahuja was killed unintentionally when the two men struggled for the gun. The jury acquitted him, but the Sessions Court judge, dissatisfied with the verdict, referred the case to the High Court. The High Court convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment, a decision that the Supreme Court confirmed. Eventually, he was pardoned by the President, and the Nanavati family migrated to Canada.
While the screenplay doesn't live up to the story surrounding the actual event, the film does effectively depict the influence that a newspaper had on public perception during the trial.
In 1941, journalist and editor Rustom Khurshedji Karanjia ("Russi Karanjia") founded the Blitz. The Mumbai-based weekly newspaper ran for four decades.
Taking advantage of the freedom of speech and press in India after independence in 1947, Russi Karanjia published whatever drew his attention. He focused on tabloid investigative journalism that humanized, dramatized, pictorialized and sensationalized the news. His slogan for the paper was that it was "free, frank and fearless". In The Hindu, former Blitz journalist P. Sainath described Russi Karanjia as a "chronicler of revolutions" with an unrivalled instinct for a good story.
Karanjia was above all a great storyteller. He spoke even better than he wrote — and he was an excellent writer. He had a wicked sense of humour, too. He once sent me — underlined and with exclamation marks — an aphorism from Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”
Russi Karanjia saw a great story in the Nanavati court case.
The case featured a cosmopolitan cast of characters. Commander K. M. Nanavati was a decorated and highly respected Parsi naval officer. His beautiful wife Sylvia was English. The final player was the rich playboy Sindhi bachelor, Prem Ahuja.
A Parsi himself, Russi Karanjia saw a story rife with compelling drama and an opportunity for the Blitz to support a member of his community. Beginning with the bold, front page headline "THREE SHOTS THAT SHOOK THE NATION", the Blitz covered the case in great detail.
Photos and bold headlines told the story of the love triangle. The handsome naval officer Nanavati was characterized as the wronged husband who was protecting his family. His wife Sylvia was portrayed as a woman seduced by a relentless playboy. The victim, Prem Ahuja, was vilified as a womanizer and home wrecker.
The Blitz coverage drew quite a bit of attention to the trial. Soon huge crowds gathered outside the courtroom to show their support for Nanavati and his family. In Arab News, Farouk Luqman wrote:
Millions of Indians thought that he [Nanavati] had done the right thing and Russi took the side of Kawas. The story or crime and its attendant scandal occupied the nation and its saloons for sometime since the Parsees were a prominent and wealthy community in India and had done a great deal of constructive work for the nation. The famous house of Tata belongs to them. So Blitz split the nation, good for itself as far as sensational reporting went.
The Blitz coverage is credited with helping to influence the "not guilty" verdict of the jury. Interestingly enough, the Nanavati court case was the last to be heard as a jury trial. With an already unfavorable view of the effectiveness of a trial by jury and the judge himself calling for a retrial of Nanavati in the High Court, jury trials were abolished in India.
The film Rustom pays homage to the Blitz founder and editor by naming the main character "Rustom" Pavri. While Akshay Kumar plays this character with appropriate stoicism, Illeana D'Cruz is convincing as his remorseful wife, and Arjan Bajwa easily carries off the playboy image, they don't manage to save the film from a less than stellar screenplay.
The most engaging performance comes from the stand-in for Blitz editor Russi Karanjia. Keep your eye on Kumud Mishra who gleefully plays newspaper editor Erach Billimoria. It is his performance that transforms the meandering and heavy-handed drama-cum-conspiracy into something worth watching.
The following playlist features the trailer and behind-the-scenes videos for Rustom and an interview with Russi Karanjia.
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