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SHANTANU BASU | 28 AUGUST, 2016

Rustom: The Real Faces One Saw in The Celluloid Reel


NEW DELHI: Bollywood’s repertoire of off-beat themes is confidently growing by leaps and bounds. Jaded themes are traded for stories from the pages of history, sports, education, police investigation , skillfully woven with fiction, suspense drama and all other bells and whistles. including good music and mounting.

I recently watched Akshay Kumar’s ‘Rustom’ primarily because my law graduate son would discuss this landmark case with me very often, oblivious of my non-legal academic background.

The movie was slick, had great background music, appropriately limited but good lyrics, flashbacks inserted in court hearings and reasonably good re-creation of Mumbai of the 1950s.

The Sindhi-Parsi communal hostility in this case was amply captured.

The title “Three Shots That Shook the Nation” in the tabloid Blitz, which was founded by the late Russi Karanjia, barely disguised his identity and jacking of prices of his scandalous weekly as this case progressed. Was the prosecution lawyer, young Ram Jethmalani, again thinly disguised?

There were many small failings, such as Akshay appearing in court and in jail in his naval regalia when he should have been suspended from service and uniform and decorations taken away.

Ileana d’Cruz was in a cameo role to cover for Cynthia (Sylvia in real life). Akshay, like his previous movies like Special 26, anchors the movie superbly and looks imposing in his naval uniform but for an evident age mismatch with Ileana.

However, what was intriguing was the weaving of a large scam relating to the purchase of an aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy from the UK, one that involved the FOC, WC and even the Union Defense Secretary.

Middlemen like Ahuja (Vikram) made Rs. 5 crore then! There is a scene in which the WC’s Provost Marshal requests the court for Rustom’s custody but he refuses and shrewdly opts for police custody instead. Rustom may have ended up a dead duck had he not opted for police custody.

Coincidentally, India’s decision to buy a never commissioned INS Hercules (later Vikrant) after it lay in the dock for over a dozen years happened in 1957 whereas the Nanavati case happened in 1959.

What is intriguing is a scene in which Rustom marks hugely corroded areas (shown as close-up) from the purchased aircraft carrier with a chalk stick and then uses it to blackmail his bosses without filing a formal report.

In the closing sequences of the movie, Rustom admits to Vincent Lobo that he made no such report. The infiltration of the Defense Ministry by middlemen like Vikram (Prem Ahuja in real life), disguised in the movie as a fabulously rich automobile dealer, figure prominently, but at a critical juncture, in the movie in just one scene.

VK Krishna Menon, already under successive clouds in scams over the purchase of the Indian High Commission’s Aldwych chancery building in London and the jeep case, was Defense Minister (1957-62) when INS Vikrant and INS Mysore were purchased from the UK.

It is also interesting that Nanavati was the first second-in-command of INS Mysore (also shown in the movie without a change of name) to Captain (later Admiral) SM Nanda who, post-retirement, became one of India’s most successful foreign munition representatives.

Indubitably, Nanavati would have been involved in the closing stages of commissioning of INS Mysore for which he spent several months in UK as shown in the movie when his wife was making merry with Prem Ahuja (Vikram). Was the ship in the movie therefore, INS Mysore that joined the Indian Navy in Mumbai on Sep. 29, 1957 or the INS Vikrant (Nov 3, 1961), or both?

The closing scenes of Rustom confirm that Cynthia’s (Sylvia) ensnaring by an arms middleman in Rustom's absence from India was part of a larger conspiracy to blackmail Rustom and prevent him from standing in the way of the purchase of the aircraft carrier and more ships (mentioned by Vikram in passing in a scene), among other ongoing defense purchases.

Vikram even suggests specific munitions to Rustom quoting their lethal potential for the Indian Navy. Rustom obviously had access to the corridors of the Defense Ministry. Why else would an arms middleman make purchase suggestions to him?

The movie insinuated that the Rs. 5 crore that the then presumably ICS Defense Secretary received, was transferred to Rustom's Swiss bank account as a bribe to keep the Secretary safe and place a lid on the wannabe scam.

Which Secretary would do this were it not for his political masters’ hush-up dictate? Or was the Secretary mere eyewash for bigger fish that remained unnamed in the movies, presumably to evade the censor’s scissor?

Was Rustom left out of the commission collections or dealt a raw deal? The movie seems to make the insinuation that the Rustom (Nanavati) case had more to do with sharing of commissions in naval deals and was way beyond a mere case of a naval officer’s wife being caught in adulterous flagrante delicto with another man.

This is amply proved in the movie when Cynthia meets the FOC, WC and asks for Rs. five crore as Rustom’s legitimate share of the takes and raises serious doubts about her links with arms middlemen and insinuates that being caught in flagrante delicto was cold deliberative action on her part as well.

Another scene shows the recording of a telephone conversation between the Secretary and Rustom being handed over a deliberately recorded incomplete spool tape to the Investigating Officer, Vincent Lobo, by the Secretary himself, removing the carpet from under the prosecution’s feet as the incomplete tape embarrassingly plays out in court.

What is left to the audience’s imagination is how a junior naval officer Rustom (Nanavati) had access to a powerful ICS Defense Secretary, that too on telephone. Evidently, Rustom had access to then then Defense Minister and beyond which is why the Secretary took his call. A very serious charge bordering on treason for both Rustom and his bosses!

Of course, the middleman's socialite floater sister essayed by sexy siren Esha Gupta (Mamie in the Nanavati years) who appears to have had an incestuous relationship with her brother in the movie must have kept her brother's share of another at least Rs. 5 crore.

The cold-blooded business relationship between brother and sister in their seductive and opulent lifestyle reflects the sleaze in the political system that thrived on such couples (remember Abhishek and Anca Verma of the Scorpene submarines deal?) with immense political clout, that no officer could resist.

In passing, if one were to assume a conservative simple non-compounded inflation rate of 10% from 1957-2016, Rs. five crore would perhaps be in a contemporary value range as the AW scam pay-offs or even more, Bofors being a poor and distant cousin.

The unseemly manner in which Vijaylakshmi Pandit, then Governor of Bombay State, manipulated Nanavati’s exoneration by shrewdly clubbing it with an appeal for clemency of a Sindhi businessman sentenced, like Nanavati, to a life term is equally intriguing.

The only reason I can locate is that both communities controlled big business of the time, and logically would have been major funders for the Congress regime in return for sweetheart deals in many sectors, including defense purchases.

Nanavati’s acquaintance with the Nehrus was well-known. Incidentally, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit took delivery of INS Mysore as India’s High Commissioner in the UK in 1957, although this may not have had any direct connect with the Nanavati case later.

Nanavati's exile to remote Canada, in quick succession to his exoneration, where two heavyweight ICS officers with openly Congress leanings were High Commissioners in succession around that time, may have facilitated Nanavati's move and subsequent resettlement in that country.

Upon superannuation, one of these High Commissioners became the longest serving Governor of a Congress-ruled state.

The movie closes with a video of the Nanavati family in Canada living in an evidently sprawling home. How did the Swiss bank money get transferred to Canada without eyebrows being raised?How much more was paid to Rustom’s bosses?

The skillful narration of Rustom and the underlying darker anti-national theme seems to have been missed by film critics and the media. If it was the intent of scriptwriter and the director to have used the Nanavati case to camouflage malfeasance in the nation’s largest defense deals, they succeeded brilliantly in their endeavor.Rustom is the most damning indictment of the pernicious Indian political ecosystem that Bollywood has produced to date.

Neither was Rustom (Nanavati) the heroic paragon of virtue with a pretty English wife nor was the political dispensation that ruled India then.

(The author is a senior public policy analyst and commentator)

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