Dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Murderous monarchs, shady princes, royals of questionable parentage, duty-bound guards hell-bent on revenge - Eklavya's first act is Shakespearean in tone. Unfortunately, despite a few very well-crafted elements, the payoff is superficial and unsatisfying.
King Rana (Boman Irani) is a figurehead monarch in modern-day Rajasthan; occupying a resplendent fortified palace, he has wealth and land but no real power. In the film's opening scene, he is comforting his ill wife (Sharmila Tagore); when she calls out for his royal guard Eklavya, though, Rana strangles her in a jealous rage. Learning of the queen's death, her prodigal son Harsh (Saif Ali Khan) returns from London, and receives a letter his mother had left for him before she dies, telling him that his father is not King Rana, but Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan). Meanwhile Rana plots to have Eklavya killed, with the help of Rana's bitter, envious brother Jyoti (Jackie Shroff) and Jyoti's spoiled, ambitious son Uday (Jimmy Shergill). From there the story winds grimly through a series of double-crosses and vengeful confrontations.
There is potential in this set-up. Eklavya, named for a character in the Mahabharata who cut off his own thumb when his guru demanded it, is so blinded by duty and loyalty that he cannot perceive that his King has betrayed him. There is potential, too, to illuminate the privileged yet bleak world of the impotent figurehead monarch, distinguished by nothing but noble birth and centuries of tradition, his opulent palace really little more than a house of cards. And there is potential for the prodigal prince Harsh, educated in the modern world, away from the ancient ritual trappings of kinghood, to effect some kind of change in the palace, or to offer a psychological study as he struggles against the new knowledge of his parentage, or of his mother's murder. But none of this potential pans out. As my friend Darshana put it so succinctly, "The grid is laid out, but nobody really walks on it."
The film has its strengths. It is mind-bogglingly gorgeous, in both interior and exterior shots; the intricacies of the palace and the red-yellow glow of the Rajasthani desert present a visual feast. There are also some fascinating shots with lingering focus on tiny details - a tear dripping off of a character's face; a scarf billowing in the wind. One conceptual detail that is handled quite nicely is the disconnect between the royal sanctum and the modern world. Outside the palace, we have a few hints of modernity - a helicopter, an SUV, a screening of a modern movie. Inside, though, the royal world is completely cut off from the technological evidence of the progress of time. There is not so much as a television set; all of the palace's residents wear traditional clothes. Even the royal automobiles are of ambiguous vintage. The excellent effect of this is to convey two things: first, the ancientness of the venerable royal traditions, and second, the isolation and disconnect of the royal family from the rest of the world. They are above society and apart from it, completely, not even beholden to the march of its time.
Also, Eklavya demonstrates that Bollywood studios can use modern filmmaking technology - synch sound, quality film, up-to-date special effects - without turning out films that are imitation-Hollywood. Eklavya, despite its brevity - it clocks in at 100 minutes - and almost complete absence of songs, is still a very Indian movie. Its use of melodramatic devices - heightened rather than understated acting, a swelling, occasionally bombastic background score - enhanced and magnified emotions in a fashion that is distinctly Bollywood. Eklavya is at times quite suspenseful, and even that suspense is slower and grander than the same story would have been in a Hollywood film.
Still, despite these strengths (along with an outstanding performance by the astonishingly talented and rangy Boman Irani), Eklavya ultimately amounts to little more than a violent revenge fantasy capped by a facile and inappropriate concluding scene. Eklavya dives in to an ugly and fascinating world - men scheming at one another, men challenging one another, men yelling at one another, men insulting one another, men praising one another, men killing one another - but comes up with little of substance to say about what really drives men to do these things.