Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s film as director after a gap of seven years is a weak storytelling effort, and all the colour and style in the world cannot save this strange film. One uses the word ‘strange’ because in its efforts to conjure up memorable imagery, it completely ignores the dramatic hooks that every scene offers (which are plentiful but all are passed over). In the film’s image construction, one sees the influence of visual masters like Akira Kurosawa; though this is an achievement by itself and kudos to Chopra and cinematographer Natrajan Subramaniam, it doesn’t do much for the story and rarely fuels the dramatic strength that this kind of material presents: you have the king, the queen, the grand palace, the royal guard, a mentally unwell daughter, a rebellious son with little faith in royal customs and beliefs, the king’s envious brother, his disgruntled nephew andâ€¦ treachery all around; you have assassinations and you have revenge; you have son versus father, loyalty versus love, duty versus justice. But all this does little for the fil,.
You have a modern-day setting with time-warped players, especially the aging eponymous royal guard played by Amitabh Bachchan. A flawless performance by the veteran actor is always expected but this time around he is playing an old loyal of the king who is slowly losing his eyesight and can barely see in the blinding sun. A rather difficult character to enact, the saving grace of this old loyal is the spice added by the writers in terms of an almost sixth sense like power to detect sound and position, coupled with an accurate aim that has to be seen in the film to be believed. This rather fantastic power is difficult to digest and almost laughable in a key sequence that establishes the character’s strength. But Bachchan shines right through. You then have Boman Irani as Rana Jaywardhan who, in stark contrast to Bachchan, is miscast and delivers an over-the-top performance. Saif Ali Khan plays Harshwardhan, Rana Jaywardhan’s son, and is subtle and understated in his enactment of the young prince living in London, as far away as possible from the extreme customs of his royal ancestry, who returns to home soil on learning of his mother’s (Sharmila Tagore in a guest appearance) demise. Opposite Saif is the Vinod Chopra find, Vidya Balan, this time around unimpressive versus her debut of high regard in Parineeta. Balan plays Rajjo, childhood sweetheart of Harshwardhan, who he suddenly has a desire to meet (???), on his return after a long gap. Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Shergill are the envious relatives who want their pound of flesh, and deliver able performances. But after Bachchan, the show belongs to Sanjay Dutt as police inspector Pannalal Chohar, who is extremely amusing as the lower caste but arrogant cop who now has a score to settle with the royalty who caused unjust grief to his ‘untouchable’ ancestors.
The problem with Eklavya lies in its basic hook of an impotent king in dire need of his progeny to continue the royalty name. Such a premise is not that easily acceptable, and the drama that results around this is also inconceivable (pun intended!). Without getting into the Mahabharata and the parallel drawn by the filmmaker in the prologue, one feels the material has been trimmed down from a larger version, either on paper or on film in order to add pace to the story. This itself is the film’s greatest flaw as its less than two-hour-length unwinds at a laborious pace owing to the lack of involvement in the dramatic twists and turns of the characters for want of information on their relationships and history. Furthermore, a film like this decidedly needs to explain itself at every step to involve the viewer in the proceedings, since the numerous characters and manifold twists leaves the viewer at sea, often at critical points of the screenplay. Without getting into the story and spoiling the suspense for the audience (the film does play as a suspense thriller with murder, revenge and an investigation as its central plot towards the second half), one wonders if a linear explanatory screenplay would have worked better than the film’s present structure.
The music by Shantanu Moitra is average, and the background score does little for the drama that unfolds. The almost Shakespearean structure of the plot makes one wonder whether the maker was really attempting to work towards outputting a masterpiece and in that very endevour found defeat, owing to a lofty, unattainable set vision. The writing could have been so much better and helped the maker in succeeding in this exercise.
The credits of the film were also a bit weird because though Vidhu Vinod Chopra takes credit of producer and director, Pradeep Sarkar takes the credit of visual director?(??) And Rajkumar Hirani and Vir Chopra take credit of creative producers? (??) Does this mean that Vidhu Vinod Chopra is not a creative producer nor a visual director?
At the end, the royal guard is left standing alone, wondering whether he can save the film; Eklavya will die a rather uneventful death at the box office, very much like the king he risks his life for.