So Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya—right from the opening scene of a king reading Shakespeare sonnets to his dying wife—has that self-conscious show-offy feel, of a filmmaker trying very hard to aim at an epic quality. And he might even have pulled it off, but for the tame, crowd-pleasing end. It’s like setting the stage for grand operatic tragedy and having the plug pulled out.
Chopra sets the film in the huge candle lit palace (they must have had electricity of course, candles just look more poetic) of Rana Jaywardhan (Boman Irani), who discovers at his wife’s deathbed that his twin children were sired by his loyal guard Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan), after some ancient ritual to get an heir, when the king fails at the task. Eklavya, whose father had died saving the life of the Rana, believes in all sincerity, that any disloyalty to the royal clan will result in nine generations of his family going to hell.
But after the secret tryst with the queen (Sharmila Tagore), Eklavya has remained unmarried, eyes and shoulders eternally bowed in servility. He has no intention of blowing the possibly gay Rana’s cover, but the Jaywardhan, with the help of his brother Jyoti(Jackie Shroff) and nephew Uday (Jimmy Shergill) plans a revenge that backfires. Because his London-returned son Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan), also discovers the truth about his parentage, when his mother breaks her promise and reveals it in a letter.
The Rana is killed, Eklavya sets out for vengeance and with a twist in the plot, has to confronted his own son and patron; now his loyalty and his honour will be put to the test. In the Mahabharat Eklavya had kept his promise to his guru and cut off his thumb as gurudakshina, because that is what dharma entailed. But as Harshwardhan argues, true dharma is what the mind ordains. So the modern-day Eklavya can get a way out by breaking his word.
Chopra sets up some brilliantly shot ‘items’ like a show of Eklavya’s mastery of the dagger, and the assassination of the Rana in the desert amidst stampeding camels, but otherwise shoots the film in claustrophobically opulent palace rooms, which tend to keep the outside out. There are rumbles of change felt in still-feudal Rajasthan—there is a peasants’ revolt brewing somewhere, kept mostly off-screen; and the lower caste are getting defiant, as personified by the cheeky cop (Sanjay Dutt) who is sent to investigate.
In his hurry to wrap up the almost songless film in less than two hours, Chopra keeps the real excitement away and constructs the film in a series of lengthy semi-profound dialogues between characters, as a result of which even the romance between the prince and the commoner (Vidya Balan) is tepid.
The film needed to end on a tragic cathartic note, that would have justified its setting and characters – no matter how sketchily written they are. The film sways between medieval and modern in terms of attitudes, and does not do justice to either.
To do a Shakespearean tragedy today takes courage, and Chopra deserves kudos for trying, but the film ended up as a very beautiful painting (Nataraja Subramanian’s camerawork is exquisite), which lacks soul.