The art of filmmaking is not on its last legs; it is dead and buried in India. Just because a few good films come out in a few years, one cannot deny that the majority of films have a formulaic story line that is devoid of any nuance, subtlety and life beyond their immediate release. There possibly cannot be many creative storytellers around because a lot of the old stories are being hurriedly rehashed, old films being ‘re and re and remade’, each time more convoluted than the past. I avoid watching new films generally but in very happy circumstances of meeting kindred spirits recently, was persuaded to watch Rustom with Akshay Kumar and Ileana D’Cruz in the lead roles. We had no expectations and the pre movie discussion was all about why the adultery of a high-class ‘military wife’ continues to fascinate filmmakers and audiences in India. This is not a film review per se but an account of what gender lens can reveal even when you are watching a ‘harmless’ movie.
So, Rustom is a remake of Ye Raaste Hain Pyar Ke from 1963, and a fresh new take on the famous K. M Nanawati case of 1959. The latter was a very interesting social, legal and juridical case involving a young Parsi Navy officer K. M. Nanawati who discovers the affair between his wife Sylvia and a friend. In moments of anger and altercation he shoots the friend. He is finally declared ‘not guilty’ after a jury trial, which was heavily influenced by the media and public opinion in his favour. He was sentenced by the Bombay High Court and finally pardoned by Vijaylakshmi Pandit, the then Governor of Maharashtra (the latter’s sympathies with the Navy officer and his wife perhaps emerged from her own experiences of complex relationships and romances as known in the public domain). The case was always seen as one of passion, legal juridical complexities, media campaign and community interventions both from Sindhis and Parsis. Very important to note that the man murdered by K. M. Nanawati was a Sindhi and the prosecution was led by none other than our very own and very young maverick lawyer cum politician, Ram Jethmalani!
In Ye Raaste Hain Pyar Ke, Sunil Dutt played the uniformed pilot and looked handsome, perplexed and lovelorn; Leela Naidu as the adulteress wife looked every bit the glamorous upper class woman she was meant to be; her attraction to Rehman was both exhilarating and sinful and her mastery over the melancholia made her performance exquisite. The film had beautiful songs by Mohd. Rafi and Asha Bhosle and Ravi’s music that still haunts. Sample these masterpieces.
This film chose to not be a happy ever-after Bollywood story as the wife who had ‘sinned’ committed suicide in the end to reclaim her honour and that of her husband and children. It was filmmaker R. K Nayyar’s evocative messaging to the postcolonial India of the 50s and 60s that when you transgressed gender norms and it was public news, you had to pay the price with your life. Society would not accept a woman in an extra marital relationship and she had to embrace self-induced death as the final act of redemption.
This is 2016 and Rustom is a leap forward. Here we not only forgive the adulteress but ensure that the narrative is about this beautiful, lonely woman who was easy ‘catch’ for a very scheming man (the latter’s motive was revenge towards officer Rustom for exposing his corrupt dealings with the Navy). So what do men do to avenge their masculinity and honour? They sleep with the unwilling or willing wives of their enemies! All too familiar?
The weeping Ileana (wife) with her wonderfully blow-dried hair is the perfect damsel in distress. She does not want the attention of the lover, but she is drawn to him because of the circumstances. She has no mind of her own and she is not making the choice if this film would have us believe. Men rape because of circumstances; women have affairs because of circumstances! She is deeply apologetic, remorseful, always teary-eyed and totally in love with her officer gentleman husband. Very important to point out that unlike her ‘reel life’ portrayals, the ‘real life’ Sylvia Nanawati was in love with her paramour and wished to marry him; it was only when he rejected her proposal and appeared to be only interested in an affair that she became disenchanted and her husband finally killed her lover.
When it comes to Bollywood, patriotism always rules and sells! In Rustom’s court room scenes ample ‘desh bhakti’ (devotion to the country) is introduced when the officer’s female domestic help justifies his actions because no good man serving his nation should have his wife taken away by a scheming loser. ‘What would you do?’ is her question to the lawyer and the judge in the court. The rapturous audience claps further when it is revealed that officer Rustom was fighting corruption in the navy to protect his beloved motherland; in the end he reclaims the honour both of his wife and the nation! And you won’t miss the hero’s screen entry in the backdrop of the ‘Tiranga’. Have they made the flag a must for films as well? Surely, the nation wants to know? 🙂
For feminists, this is such a familiar script that you could sue the director for excruciating boredom and predictability (by the way, why isn’t the film industry offering consultancies to feminists for good, ‘what women want’ stories?). Nation and women are always ‘honourably’ interwoven together for life. If you mess with either, you deserve to die. Oh, and while muscular, macho sexiness oozed out of men in this film who were either ‘uniformed’ (even when in prison) or ‘towelled’ with enough brawniness exposed, and who carried women to bedrooms to ignite passions in the Mills and Boons genre; women were either blow dried perfect even when they bawled (no messy hair or eyes) or smoked cigarettes wearing fashionable figure enhancing dresses in more vamp like roles. (I don’t think the high-class society of those times dressed anything like this film would have us believe).
We found the answer to our pre movie discussion question. The adultery of a high-class woman, a navy officer’s wife continues to fascinate India because patriarchal norms must make sense of her life choices. She must be reinstated as the woman who strayed not of her own accord, but because she was a gullible, naïve victim of a powerful scheming man. O, how could she think about it herself? She must regret those choices, hence the suicide of Leela Naidu as Neena in Ye Raaste hain Pyar ke (after her officer husband has been acquitted), and a valiant, chivalrous, incorruptible and patriotic husband in Rustom who accepts the wife in the end (thus, reclaiming ‘good’ masculinity, ‘desh bhakti’ and public goodwill). We must never believe that she was complicit in that affair, for our gendered social order will simply collapse! Please note that in real life, Commander Nanavati and his wife and children migrated to Canada after his release and lived happily ever after (or so we believe).
Cinema has always carried the burden of either providing a socio-cultural reality check, or being a powerful medium through which social and gender norms are further entrenched. In this case Rustom achieves both. It tells us what Indian audiences still prefer to watch and what is acceptable in 21st century India. It also ensures that the original story is sufficiently convoluted to ‘save’ both women and nation, apparently, in ‘three shots that shocked the nation’. This film was an ‘Independence Day’ gift to the ‘nation’. Nothing further to be said and NO, I am not watching MOHAN JO DARO! 🙂