The ‘NANAVATI’ case: ‘Real’ vs ‘Reel’


Sharada Iyer

Circa 1959 : The trial of Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati  for the murder of his colleague Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja

The Nanavati case attained a lot of prominence at the time and is said to have rocked the city of Bombay for many reasons:

The case is said to have had such a massive impact on the Indian Judiciary that the ‘Jury system’ which had been prevalent till then albeit under the scanner for quite some time was abolished forever from the country after this case.

– Media trial  played a huge part for the first time in such a high-profile case. Russi Karanjia, the then editor of the daily, Blitz, sensationalized the news by projecting Nanavati as the victim who had done the right thing to protect his honour.


– Further Nanavati was a decorated officer of Indian Navy and had been awarded several medals by the British for his fights during World War II. He thus had the full support of the entire Parsi community as well as the entire Naval Force and thus there was a lot of public outcry demanding his pardon. On the other hand Prem Ahuja, a suave, rich Sindhi businessman was known for his philandering ways and playboy image.

– The heavy impact of media and public outrage had a heavy influence on the Jury who ended up declaring him innocent.

– However dissatisfied with the judgement, Ahuja’s sister appealed to the higher courts and both both the High Court and the Supreme Court found him guilty without doubt and sentenced him to Life Imprisonment.

-Ram Jethmalani who was the Public Prosecutor for the case came into prominence  for the way he handled the case defeating his senior colleague who was the Defence lawyer.

-But things did not end there as not only had Nanavati been a worthy officer, he was also very close to the then Prime Minister Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. As luck would have it, his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit happened to be the Governor of Bombay at that time.

– Another twist in the case came from the Sindhi community -It so happened that at the same time there was a Sindhi businessman Bhai Pratap who had been arrested for some fraud and an application for his pardon had been sent to the Governor by the Sindhi community as he had been part of the country’s Freedom movement.

– At that time the Governor had the power to pardon any accused if there was a legitimate reason. To appease both the Parsi and the Sindhi Communities, Nanavati was pardoned after just three years of imprisonment and the same day Bhai Pratap was also set free.

-After this Nanavati left the country with his wife and children and settled in Canada and was not in the news till his death in 2003.

For those interested, here are a few YouTube videos highlighting the case:

A look into the events that led to the brutal murder:

Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati was a Commander in the Indian Navy who was often away for several months at a stretch on Naval assignments which meant leaving his wife Sylvia (who was of British origin), and their three children back home in Bombay for long periods. After one such trip when he returned home he was shattered to learn from his wife Sylvia that in his absence she had been having an affair with his close friend Prem Ahuja. He loved his wife so much that though he was heart-broken, he wanted to set things right for her.

 He took his wife and their three children to Metro Cinema, Bombay for an afternoon show. He dropped them there, went to his Naval Ship docked in the Bombay Harbour, signed out a semi-automatic pistol from the armoury, and left for Peddar Road to his friend Prem Ahuja’s office. On being told he was not there, he proceeded to Ahuja’s residence. Ahuja had just come out of his bath and was still in his bath towel when Nanavati confronted him by asking him whether he would marry Sylvia and also adopt the children as his own. Ahuja laughed it off by saying that he could not be expected to marry every woman he slept with. Enraged with this retort, Nananvati lost his cool and fired three bullets straight into Prem Ahuja point blank leaving him dead on the floor. He then walked out of the house and went straight to the Officer of the Western Naval Command to confess his action who in turn advised him to turn himself in to the authorities. Nanavati then confessed everything to the then DCP of Bombay Police, John Lobo, who is incidentally still alive!


The story of this sensational love-story had enough juice for our film industry to attempt celluloid versions of the same, yet none of the three versions remained true to the story and made such stark deviations that the original remained just a thin lifeline on which the makers added their own imaginative incidents thus taking away the essence of the real murder

The three ‘on-screen’ Nanavatis

The First Cinematic Attempt: YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAR KE (1963)

Starring- Sunil Dutt, Leela Naidu and Rahman as the main protagonists

Supporting Cast – Ashok Kumar, Motilal and Shashikala

nanavati-case5When Sunil Dutt turned producer this is the first film he decided to produce under the banner of Ajanta Arts and had the guts to choose such a  bold theme as his subject. The idea of showing a married woman and that too a mother, having an affair willfully in her husband’s absence would have been too shocking. So alterations were made.

Firstly, Sunil Dutt is shown to be a commercial pilot and a Hockey player of international repute having represented India in several matches. Strangely instead of three children in the original they are shown to have two children. Also the wife in question is shown to be ‘foreign-returned’ which explained her behaviour of mixing freely with her husband’s male colleagues and had no qualms going out with his close friend to the club and for dinners to while away time in her husband’s absence. However, on her birthday, a party was thrown and she was tricked into drinking heavily and in this inebriated condition the villain is shown to take advantage and established physical intimacy with her.

Later, though the guilt-ridden Leela Naidu was not able to face her loving husband after his return, she was honest to confess the whole incident to him. Understandably, Sunil Dutt found it difficult to forgive her initially but proceeds to Rehman’s house (who incidentally was fully dressed and not in towel) and requests him to marry his wife. But Rehman who had just finished fighting with another lover Shashikala was in no mood to marry all girls he was sleeping around with. It was a rainy stormy night with thunder, lightning and a lot of darkness and in the ensuing scuffle between the two, shots are fired and the next minute Rehman falls dead on the ground. Sunil Dutt runs away from the scene of crime and pleads innocent.

Now the story undergoes more deviations from the original. The bullets had never been fired by Sunil Dutt as the real culprit turned out to be Shashikala who had been hiding in the house.Taking advantage of the heated exchanges between Sunil Dutt and Rehman, she did not hesitate to shoot her lover who had just a few minutes before scorned her for suggesting marriage. Further, the virginity of the heroine being of utmost importance in early sixties, Leela Naidu filled with remorse for her role in the sequence of events decides to ends her life as she felt she had ‘sinned’ by engaging in the physical act even though she had been an unwilling partner. Our ‘honourable’ hero though willing to forgive her conveniently never really gets to ‘take’ her back!!!

The director R K Nayyar managed to keep the interest in the film thanks to some brilliant courtroom drama which ends up being the highlight of the film. The film is worth seeing just for the terrific confrontation scenes and repartees exchanged between the two stalwarts Motilal, who played the Public Prosecutor and Ashok Kumar, who played the Defence lawyer . The film also had a couple of melodious songs.

The Second Cinematic Version: ACHANAK (1973)

Starring- Vinod Khanna, Lily Chakravarthy amd KamalDeep

Supporting cast- Ifthikar, Om Shivpuri, Farda Jalal

achanak1Written by K Abbas and directed by Gulzar, this one was a taut and riveting song-less thriller. Here Vinod Khanna is an Army Officer and there are no children involved. When he finds out about the affair, he is so consumed by anger and hatred that he uses the very techniques learnt during his Army training to kill both his wife and close friend in a cold and calculated way.  He is pronounced ‘Guilty’ by the Court and given Death Sentence for his cold-blooded acts. He does attempt to escape in order to fulfill his wife’s last wish but gets injured by the police firing. He is then given medical treatment until he fully recovers and then ironically taken to the gallows to be hanged.

The film’s drama is heightened by brilliant performances from Vinod Khanna, Ifthikar and Om Shivpuri. Further Gulzar’s masterely use of the ‘flashback’ technique lends a unique touch to the narration and in the end the audience is left pondering over the wisdom and necessity of giving medical treatment and then hanging the accused when he is in the best of health…

The most recent version: RUSTOM (2016)

Starring- Akshay Kumar, Ileana d’Cruz, Arjan Bajwa

Supporting cast- Pavan Malhotra, Sachin Khedekar, Esha Gupta

rustomWhen the trailer was released, it was intriguing to think just how much Akshay Kumar would have had to deviate from the plot to project a murderer as a hero.

Though the initial part of the story-line  about the year (effort had been taken to recreate the Bombay of 1959), him being in the Indian Navy and being a Parsi and the involvement of the media was kept intact, stark deviations soon entered. Firstly the couple is shown to be younger and without children. Secondly, there is a new angle of ‘traitors’ which is added. Thirdly being the hero, he decides to defend the case himself in the Court. Fourthly the angle involving  the Government is not shown at all. Finally, here the confession from the wife is replaced by the ‘Hero’ discovering about the affair.

Apparently, his colleague and philanderer played by the complete non-actor Arjan Bajwa (why was he chosen!) is shown to be in cahoots with some of his seniors and  the Defence Minister himself over some shady deals reeking of betrayal and deceit towards the country. They approach Akshay for a small favour which our patriotic hero obviously turns down. Now to get even with Akshay, Arjan befriends his beautiful wife and takes advantage of her vulnerability during his long periods of absence. Once again the rain plays an important role and on one such rainy stormy night all barriers are broken and physical intimacy is established.

Here again the wife is shown to be guilty and on the day she chooses to tell the friend that she wants to end the affair, unknown to her Akshay lands in the house earlier than he is expected. Finding her missing and listening to his maid’s ramblings he puts two and two together and even discovers some gifts and a set of love letters arranged neatly and kept between her personal belongings almost as if they were waiting to be discovered!

Akshay who is suspended from Navy during the trial period somehow refuses to remove his uniform which is uncannily spotless throughout his stay in Jail. The courtroom scenes headed by Sachin Khedekar as the prosecutor and Akshay himself as the defence lawyer are surprisingly laced with a lot of humour with the Judge also joining in the fun at times! Meanwhile the sister played by Esha Gupta overacts and wears weird dresses to emphasize her modern lifestyle.

In the end he is pardoned and  goes home scot-free with his wife in tow thus making him the most ‘heroic’ of our on-screen Nanavatis… 🙂

Here is a nice song from the film-

In Conclusion:

Maybe the Indian male is not yet ready to accept that his wife can like someone other than him and actually end up having a physical relation willfully because if she does she will either be killed as in Achanak or driven to commit suicide as in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke or made to feel guilty as hell as in Rustom !!!




11 thoughts on “The ‘NANAVATI’ case: ‘Real’ vs ‘Reel’

  1. I think this is the only film among those you’ve written about in this blog that I’ve had the honor of watching with you, as your brilliant thoughts were forming in your head. Very enjoyable read. Also, Esha Gupta underacted, in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic analysis as usual. Of the three versions, (I’ve not seen the third), only Gulzar’s version is subjective and explores the turmoil in the mind of the hero. Though I think it’s hardly based on the Nanavati case. Both the other versions are objective and judgemental. It would be interesting to see a version from the point of view of the officer, or wife or even one of the jury…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot Mala…for that matter as a man Vinod Khanna was the most unforgiving…he kills them both… 🙂 🙂
      And yes it would be interesting to see a version from Sylvia’s point of view …after all she was the one who dared to have the roaring affair… 🙂 🙂


    1. Thank you Arjun… 🙂 Yes! Our filmmakers just make their fertile imagination run amok and change the real story at their will… But all three films on their own were quite enjoyable… 🙂


  3. Excellent comparison of the real and the reel versions!

    I do not believe Achanak was based on this affair, though it is a pleasure to see this lovely movie being remembered, whatever the excuse.

    YRHPK remains a favourite of mine, what with its melodious songs and the presence of Leela Naidu, Ashok Kumar and Motilal!

    I would therefore give R a skip, unless it just falls into my lap one of these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks AKB! Though none of the three followed the real life story and added their own imagination to interpret and justify the hero’s action, all 3 were entertaining! 🙂
      Now maybe some director should come up with a version from Sylvia’s perspective ! After all, she is the one who had the affair… 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t watched any of the three movies reviewed above based on the same subject. I like the last paragraph on your piece – the conclusion. Reminds me of my precise feelings after I walked out of the cinema after watching Pink.

    Liked by 1 person

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