The most accurate retelling of the murder case that held the entire nation in its thrall

Review of The Verdict: State vs. Nanavati – By far, the most entertaining, enthralling and realistic version of the infamous case

On 27 April 1959, dashing and decorated Indian Naval Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati calmly walked into the lavishly appointment Mumbai home of his flamboyant businessman friend, Prem Ahuja, and pumped three bullets into the towel-clad Ahuja, who had just stepped out of his bathroom after enjoying an after-work bath. For the commander, Prem Ahuja was the villain of the piece who had seduced his young, pretty, and lonely, wife into carrying on a salacious extra-marital affair with him, and so, deserved to die. After shooting Ahuja dead, the first words uttered by Kawas Nanavati were, “I have shot the b*****d”.

Kawas Nanavati then turned himself in, and was later convicted of culpable homicide amounting to murder, but not before the case went through the most stunning twists, turns and thrills that could ever take place in a simple case of murder. The case became immortalised in Indian legal history as the Nanavati murder case.

So potent is the lure of the scandalous Nanavati murder case that it automatically lends itself as an explosive script for the entertainment world, with the potential to ignite passions in every era. Is it any wonder then that the case has spawned numerous movies and books over the years? Jeez, one flick released even as the case was still being fought in the courts!

Such was the fascination with the case.

And it is this fascination that has compelled ALTBalaji and ZEE5 to create The Verdict: State vs. Nanavati, a ten-episode web series on the Nanavati murder case. The show is produced by Irada Entertainment, directed by Shashant Shah and written by Pooja Tolani and Rahul Patel. It streams on ALTBalaji and ZEE5.

While you may question the rationality behind making a show on a subject that is but an oft-repeated one, especially so close on the heels of the Akshay Kumar hit, Rustom, all your misgivings will vanish the minute you start watching The Verdict. In fact, by the time you’re immersed deep into the show and its complexities, you’ll very well have admitted to whoever cares to listen that this version of the convoluted case is nothing like any other version to have ever graced a screen in the country.

While the 1962 Sunil Dutt-produced Yeh Raastey Hain Pyaar Ke took the moral high ground, absolving its hero of the crime and making its leading lady drop dead in the end, the 1973 Gulzar-directed Achanak was a slow-burn, where the hero shot dead both, his adulterous wife and her lover, and then was hanged for his crime. The 2015 Rustom, of course, was high on patriotic jingoism, giving its hero a larger-than-life image and a sanctimonious halo to boot.

The Verdict, however, is different. It shows every happening in the sordid saga, exactly as it occurred. The telling of the tale is unbiased, unprejudiced and unabashed; it doesn’t take sides, none whatsoever, neither condoning nor condemning a single stakeholder. Not only has the narrative stuck to the real names and personality traits of the characters, but, astonishingly, it has used most of the actual dialogues that were uttered by the various players back in that period from 1959 to 1965.

In fact, quite commendably, it has not made a single attempt, not even a half-hearted one, to vilify the other man, the philandering Prem Ahuja.

The narrative lays bare, in exquisite detail, the myriad subtleties and nuances that made this case infinitely intriguing and, in a way, titillating. Starting from the three shots that Kawas Nanavati fired, to the day the Naval Commander walked free, it is a study in precise storytelling, accurate down to the last detail.

It shows how those three shots have been eternalized in the history of the country, more importantly in its legal history, as an urban legend. And how the legend became famous, or infamous – depending on which side you are on – as the case that led to the scrapping of the jury system in the country, and changed the narrative on the role of the media in sensationalising an already sensational case forever.

The story delves deep into the way the Blitz, run by the incorrigible Russi Karanjia (played by the superb Saurabh Shukla), ran a parallel court, out on the streets, where the verdict had been delivered even before the first salvo had been fired. The role of Blitz in the proceedings and the jury decision, made this the first case that earned the tag of ‘trial by media’, something that has become commonplace today.

The Verdict shows how it was the first time that the Indian public rooted for a convicted murderer, with nary an iota of sympathy for the dead victim. Even though the murder was a clear case of cold-blooded murder, the narrative shaping up on the streets said otherwise. On the streets, outside the honourable courts, the murderer was romanticised as the hero, while the poor victim was condemned as the villain. The analogy with Ram, Sita and Ravana gives the series a hilarious touch, but again, this was how the Blitz and Kawas Nanavati’s defence had actually depicted the three stakeholders then.

The story begins on the fateful morning when Kawas Nanavati (Manav Kaul) discovered the devastating truth that his young and beautiful English wife Sylvia Nanavati (Elli AvrRam) had been engaged in an extra-marital affair with the debonair Prem Ahuja (Viraf Patel). Honorable man that he was, Nanavati gave Ahuja the chance to redeem himself by agreeing to marry Sylvia and take care of their children. Reportedly, Ahuja retorted, “Am I to marry every woman I sleep with?” The good commander saw red, and three shots rang out, shattering the afternoon quiet, and with it, the peace of the country.

“Three shots that shook the nation”, screamed the Blitz.

“Nanavati is not a murderer; he’s a hero”, screamed the Indian Navy.

“Nanavati Zindabad”, screamed the Indian public that was staunchly behind the young and handsome naval officer.

Kawas Nanavati was the blue-eyed boy of the Indian Navy, which put its considerable might behind the Commander. It hired the services of the best defence lawyer of the time, the utterly flamboyant Karl Khandalavala (Angad Bedi). The defence then proceeded to cook up a narrative that had the jury firmly on Nanavati’s side.

The prosecution consisted of Public Prosecutor, Chandu Trivedi (Makarand Deshpande), Prem Ahuja’s sister, Mamie Ahuja (Kubbra Sait) and an immensely unanticipated addition – the wily criminal lawyer, Ram Jethmalani (Sumeet Vyas) as a ‘watching brief’.

The series shows how Ram Jethmalani piloted the case from the side-lines, manoeuvring Chandu Trivedi to say and do the right things. The interactions between the two make for some of the best scenes in the show. In an over-the-top albeit hilarious scene, Chandu Trivedi brings a skull, fresh from the crematorium, into the court room, in an attempt to persuade the jury to grant justice to the dead Ahuja. Shockingly, that is exactly how the scene had played out in Sessions Judge R B Mehta’s (Swanand Kirkire) court room, all those decades ago.

The series is replete with so many such incidents that most of us have no clue about. Like, did you know that it was the first time ever that a personality no less than the Admiral of the Indian Navy, Admiral Katari (Ivan Rodrigues) took the witness box to give a character certificate to the Navy’s wonder boy? Or that, when the time came to sign the mercy petition that was being readied for Kawas Nanavati’s demand for release, his own defence lawyer, Karl Khandalavala had desisted from adding his name to the signees?

The series is also chockfull of fringe players that were of considerable gravitas in those days. Pooja Gor plays Vidya Munshi, a fiery feminist journalist, who was staunchly in favour of Sylvia’s right to choosing whom she wants to spend her life with. There’s also an actress called Tabassum (Lopamudra Raut) through whose portrayal the writers of the series acquaint us with the rabid misogyny and patriarchy that was rampant in those days.

It was the case that brought Ram Jethmalani to the forefront and made him a force to reckon with in the Indian judiciary. It was also a case that pitted the judiciary against the executive in a showdown of gargantuan proportions. And finally, it was a case that had the entire country openly taking sides based on the religions of both parties – the Parsis against the Sindhis.

Phew, The Verdict is brimming with such gems of information that have gone down in the annals of history, only to be brought out under public glare by this nuanced, compelling show. What makes the show a splendid watch is the sparkling humour and the terrific writing. The humour, in fact, is the over-riding element of the narrative.

Another standout element of the show is its ensemble cast. Every character has been etched out with such finesse that the final result is simply breath-taking. Makarand Deshpande as Chandu Trivedi is simply superb. Likewise is Angad Bedi, as Karl Khandalavala. Sumeet Vyas makes a captivating Ram Jethmalani and Kubbra Sait renders a subtle and refined performance as Mamie Ahuja. Saurabh Shukla, as already mentioned earlier, is outstanding. The rest of the cast is equally good.

The ensemble cast, comprising some of the finest actors from the world of theatre, television and films, lends teeth to the spell-binding story.

For five years, the infamous Nanavati case held the nation in thrall, gripping people’s imagination like nothing before or since. It was a ‘crime of passion’, the likes of which had never before been witnessed in the young nation that was India.

On the face of it, it was simply a case of adultery, betrayal and revenge. But the high-octane drama that rose from its shadows had far-reaching repercussions that none could have contemplated. The jury system was abolished forever, high-level constitution benches deliberated on the case, public hysteria reached a deafening crescendo, and finally, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to intervene, to settle the matter once and for all.

But that was then. Little did the players of this captivating drama know that the thunderous reverberations of the high-decibel spectacle would be felt even sixty years after the case reached its unusual conclusion. The thrilling twists and turns, coupled with the mass hysteria, ensured that the case entered the annals of history and stayed put, taking on the proportions of an enduring legend that is as riveting today as it was six decades ago.

And The Verdict: State vs. Nanavati is by far the most entertaining, enthralling and realistic version of the infamous case. For us, it is a must-watch.

In the meanwhile, 3.5/5 is our rating for The Verdict: State vs. Nanavati