"Eklavya" boasts a huge cast of eminent actors; how their services would be utilized has piqued my curiosity for some time. The glittering line-up features Amitabh Bachchan in the title role, along with Chopra regulars Saif Ali Khan, Sunjay Dutt, the exquisite Vidya Balan, Boman Irani, Parikshat Sahni, Jackie Shroff, Jimmy Sher Gill, Raima Sen, and an elegant cameo by Sharmila Tagore.
The film opens with the unmistakable voice of Amitabh Bachchan narrating the legend of Eklavya from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Eklavya, a child of undistinguished antecedents yearns to study archery under the tutelage of Dronacharya, the instructor of kings. Contemptuous of his low birth, Dronacharya refuses to accept Eklavya as a student. Undeterred, Eklavya builds a clay effigy of Dronacharya and ceaselessly practices archery before it. Soon after, Dronacharya is taken aback by Eklavya's proficiency, which has outstripped that of his princely pupils. As it wouldn't do for this commoner's skills to rival those of the royalty, the crafty Dronacharya demands a "dakshina" or teacher's fee from Eklavya. Whatever you wish, the devoted lad replies. Your right thumb--that is what I want as my "dakshina", commands Dronacharya. Without hesitation, Eklavya slices off the thumb, knowing full well it would end his prowess in archery. The story is meant to illustrate the notion of "dharma" or the fulfillment of one's sacred duty in any circumstance, regardless of cost. Off screen, the child to whom Amitabh recounts the story protests this outcome, and his shrill tones are the voice of reason.
Amitabh, like his dutiful namesake Eklavya, is the loyal manservant and bodyguard of a line of minor royalty in Rajasthan. Despite the family's tyrannical ways, he unswervingly stands by them. The film unfolds in the present, but this particular royal family still resides in a fog of past glory, entitlement, and unquestioned power. Their continuing nastiness has made the natives restless, and the worm is about to turn.
The Queen Mother's (Sharmila Tagore) deathbed revelation sets the somewhat baroque, overwrought plot in motion. The heir apparent (Saif Ali Khan), who had earlier fled the principality in disgust at the profligate ways of his relatives, is summoned home for her funeral. Before breathing her last, the Queen pens a letter to her son spilling the proverbial beans. This confession causes a domino effect of cross and double cross, intrigue and counter-intrigue.
The film has the look and feel of a stately epic, but Vidhu Vinod Chopra is not interested in the luxuriant pace associated with epics. There is a business-like economy in his approach. There is no waxing philosophical about the misdeeds that have brought this family to its present ugly impasse. He appears to say that was then, in the past, there's no time for that; let's simply watch how their karmic debts are collected now. Voice-overs and numerous brisk flashbacks provide just enough expository detail to follow the events unfolding in the present. The pace is breathless, as though generations of past injustices can wait no longer for expiation. Every now and then, there is a moment of stillness, which one wishes would be held a few seconds longer for the mood to be savored. An effective scene on the palace ramparts is reminiscent of the ghostly visitation in "Hamlet", and the wraith, despite no lines to declaim, has similar impact.
Amitabh Bachchan's magisterial performance as a man programmed for blind duty, having to suddenly distinguish between obligation and reason transcends the silliness of the plot. Saif Ali Khan impresses yet again; there is maturity and depth in his performance as the conflicted prince with the populist conscience. Unlike "Parineeta", Vidya Balan doesn't have a whole lot to do here, but is dignified and graceful in her few scenes as the commoner in love with a prince. Boman Irani, an actor of sweeping range and intelligence, is a hoot with his hissy fits and sloe-eyed ambiguity, while Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Sher Gill, as the wicked uncle and cousin, handle the villainy with lip-smacking gusto. Sunjay Dutt, fresh off his Munnabhai success, is a welcome presence as the investigating police officer with little patience for the anachronisms of fiefdoms and effete royalty. What a pleasure it is to see Sharmila Tagore, who retains her looks and glamor despite the passage of the years.
"Eklavya" displays a most un-Indian efficiency (in film-making terms, at least) and speed (a mere 105 minutes) in telling its tale that had me longing for a little more of some of the characters. It would be interesting to see just how much of the film was left on the editing room floor perhaps the DVD will have the deleted scenes. Music is used appropriately: there is a lone song, of which only a judicious snatch is used on screen. The cinematography makes full use of the gorgeous Rajasthani terrain, with its pitiless crags and sun-scorched sands. Clearly, Vidhu Vinod Chopra has an eye on international audiences for his film, and glowing endorsements from the likes of Ralph Fiennes enhance his chances. Here's to you, Mr. Chopra, and more power to you.
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