ALTBalaji’s latest offering The Verdict: State Vs Nanavati deals with the most sensational court case of 1959 when a decorated Naval officer KM Nanavati shot down Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover, and then turned himself in to Mumbai police. On the surface, it may appear to be a simple case of murder, but it enthralled Bombay for three years.
Like any other historic event, the Nanavati case also inspired three Bollywood movies before Ekta Kapoor conceptualised it as a web series for her digital platform ALTBalaji. However, none of the three movies are similar.
So, before we watch Ekta Kapoor’s interpretation of the most debated case in India’s judicial history, we look back at the actual case and how it has been presented in Gulzar’s Achanak (1973), R.K. Nayyar’s Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963) and Tinu Suresh Desai’s 2016 film Rustom.
Before the cinematic versions, a brief on the actual case. In 1959, Parsi naval commander Kawas Nanavati shot dead his English wife Sylvia’s lover Prem Ahuja. He went on to confess his crime to the police. During the trial, he was supported by the Parsi community which dominated the city. They rose with one voice to defend their man, a much-admired naval officer and joining them was Russi Karanjia, Parsi owner of the Blitz weekly, who wrote several articles in support of Nanavati. His defence team claimed it was a crime of passion and the Naval officer went to Ahuja’s home only to confront him and ask him if he would marry Sylvia. But it was Ahuja’s response, “Am I to marry every woman I sleep with?” that led to a fight between the two and Nanavati accidentally fired shots killing Ahuja. Eventually, Nanavati was declared ‘Not Guilty’ by the jury.
But, Justice RB Mehta set aside the verdict and referred the case to the high court. He pointed out that there were gaping holes in the defence’s theory of accidental shooting. The high court gave Nanavati life imprisonment and the Supreme Court abided by HC’s judgement. It also scrapped the jury system in the country. However, Nanavati’s life imprisonment was later reduced to three years by then governor of Bombay, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. A year after his release from prison in 1964, Nanavati and his family left for Canada. There, he became a pillar of the Parsi community and took up the job of an insurance salesman, while Sylvia worked in a bank.
Coming to the movies, R.K. Nayyar’s directorial Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963), scripted by Aghajani Kashmiri, starred Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu. The climax of the film is far from reality and portrays a morally conservative take on infidelity where the woman commits suicide for being attracted to another man. Dutt essayed the role of a commercial pilot who is a man of honour and after killing his wife’s lover, not only defends her honour but also the institution of marriage. But many still fail to comprehend why does his wife, played by Naidu, die in his arms as soon as he is pronounced not guilty.
Nanavati and his wife were also the subjects of Gulzar’s 1973 release Achanak. The 90-minute song-less narrative took the audience back and forth in time. Taking inspiration from the real-life incident, Gulzar formed his story around army officer Ranjeet (Vinod Khanna) who murders his wife Pushpa (Lily Chakraborty) and his friend Prakash (Ravi Raj) after he comes to know about their affair. After killing them, he surrenders and is given the death penalty by the state.
Akshay Kumar and Ilena D’Cruz starrer Rustom on the same subject took a very Bollywood-ish turn and it appeared the director was hell-bent on giving the film a happy ending. Critics found the movie overly dramatised with Rustom Pavri (Kumar) fighting his own case and his wife Cynthia (Ileana) sitting with inclined head depicting shame and guilt.
The plot of the movie revolves around Naval officer Rustom who returns from his mission a few days early and finds his wife Cynthia at his friend Vikram’s (Arjan Bajwa) house. In a fit of anger, he heads to Vikram’s home, shoots him thrice in the chest, and surrenders to the police. But later in the film, it’s revealed he killed him not for having an affair with his wife but for being greedy, corrupt and a danger to the nation’s security. The film ends with Rustom being acquited and living happily ever after with wife Cynthia.
After three different cinematic interpretations of a landmark case, it remains to be seen if ALTBalaji’s The Verdict: State Vs Nanavati will make the audience support a murder, pass moral judgements or will stick to the actual facts instead of dramatising the already spiced up subject.