3 Stars (out of 4)
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An open-and-shut murder case turns out to be anything but in Rustom, a movie based on a real-life case from 1959. Period costumes and decor give this drama a stylish flair.
The title character Rustom Pavri (Akshay Kumar) is a decorated Navy officer. His ship returns to Mumbai — then Bombay — ahead of schedule, causing him to catch his wife Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) in an extramarital affair with their mutual friend, Vikram (Arjan Bajwa).
Rustom returns to his ship to check a gun and ammunition out of the munitions cabinet, logging the withdrawal with the duty officer. He heads to Vikram’s mansion where he shoots the wealthy playboy to death, then turns himself into the police.
Chief Police Inspector Vincent Lobo (Pawan Malhotra) is immediately suspicious of Rustom’s calm demeanor, his refusal to be housed in a Navy jail, and his insistence on representing himself at trial. To Vikram’s bereaved sister, Priti (Esha Gupta), Rustom’s actions feed her hopes of an easy victory in court.
But Rustom has a few things working in his favor. Erach (Kumud Mishra) — a publisher from the same Parsi community as Rustom — uses his newspaper to run stories painting the officer in a favorable light, driving sales and tainting the jury pool at the same time. Erach’s contentious relationship with the trial judge (Anang Desai) provides the film’s comic relief.
Also on Rustom’s side is public sentimentality toward soldiers, a bias that Rustom himself exploits. When representing himself at trial, Rustom casually responds to the prosecutor’s (Sachin Khedekar) complaint about the symbolic impact of the officer’s uniform by saying that wearing his uniform is one of his unchangeable habits, just like breathing or defending his country.
Director Tinu Suresh Desai shows the power of the uniform in an early scene whose significance is easy to miss. Fresh off his ship, Rustom stops to buy some flowers for Cynthia from a street vendor. Just in the background, a pair of young women stare dreamily at Rustom, likely envisioning themselves the lucky recipients of a bouquet from a handsome man in uniform someday.
Writer Vipul K. Rawal draws from the way the jury was influenced in the real case of Officer K. M. Nanavati to make observations about the way blind veneration of the military can lead society to overlook the shortcomings of both individual officers and larger institutions. His story is critical, but not cynical.
Probably the biggest selling point for Rustom is its visual appeal. Costume designer Ameira Punvani showcases a stunning array of attire, adding ostentatious touches to the wardrobes of the wealthy siblings, Vikram and Priti. There are also loads of classic cars and furniture pieces to drool over among the set dressings.
Completing the period aesthetic is the cast, smartly assembled by Shruti Mahajan. Malhotra looks like he was plucked straight from a mid-century detectives catalog. Bajwa was born to play a rich, 1950s Lothario. The way he leers at Cynthia is positively nauseating, and I mean that as a compliment.
Gupta suits the film perfectly as well, poured into her glamorous cocktail attire, haughty expression permanently in place. I wish there were more to her character, but one can’t fault Priti’s single-minded drive to bring her brother’s killer to justice.
By necessity, Rustom has to play his cards close to the vest, so this isn’t one of Kumar’s flashier roles. Still, he fills Rustom with enough charm and intelligence to keep both the audience and the other characters guessing about his endgame.
D’Cruz gets to show the most emotional range as Cynthia, a woman overwhelmed by guilt and loneliness. There’s more to the story than she realizes, leaving her to suffer from a mistake that may or may not be entirely her fault. D’Cruz does a fine job containing Cynthia’s inner torment behind a brave public face.
Rustom is an entertaining movie, its vibrant style counting for a lot, given the relative dearth of period films in Bollywood. It’s also patriotic without being blindly so. Overall, it’s worth a watch.