About the story: Rana Jaywardhan (Boman Irani), King of Devigarh in Rajastan, is sterile. Therefore once, following an old tradition, he had sent his wife Suhasinidevi (Sharmila Tagore) to a sage who should father an heir to the kingdom. But only when the Queen many years later is dying, the King learns that her twins Nandinidevi (Raima Sen) and Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan) had not been fathered by a sage but by his "worthless palace guardian" Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) whom the Queen had trusted completely. The King kills his wife and threatens Eklavya’s life. However, he himself is murdered by his younger brother Jyotiwardhan (Jackie Shroff) and his brother’s son Udaywardhan (Jimmy Shergill); Eklavya, nowadays nearly blind, doesn’t succeed in saving his worshipped King from being killed. While the irreverent inspector Pannalal Chohar (Sanjay Dutt) invests the case, Eklavya is banished by his own son, Harshwardhan, who dreams of starting a new life with the love of his youth, the servant Rajjo (Vidya Balan). But Eklavya is determined to fulfill his duty to the Royal House and to avenge his King’s murder...
Mahabharata meets Shakespeare. Tradition collaborates with presence. And above all reigns ethical and religious duty, the dharma. Eklavya (originally named Yagna) is a film about values and contrasts and narrates in powerful and beautiful pictures a story seemingly taken from a historic, fairy-tale-like past and nevertheless playing today, in a time where kings have no reigning power anymore but still can cause trouble to their subordinated peasants while untouchables like Pannalal Chohar manage to work their way up to top police jobs und therefore now approach their former rulers with disrespectful self-confidence. The scene in which Pannu to the King’s arrogant "We’ve been reigning here for 2000 years" blithely answers, "And we’ve been suffering here for 5000 years" is one of the most sustainable in this film.
The film’s visual language is strikingly beautiful. Magnificent colourful locations and strong detail shots – cinematographer N. Natarajan Subramanian conjures pictures as if Santosh Sivan had made Paheli II. They emphasize Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s quiet and concentrated narrative style which sometimes, however, is too concentrated. How often do you wish in other films that details would not be rolled out too much – but Chopra mostly didn’t even apply the roll which was harmful above all to the characters of the envious king’s brother and nephew whose enmity against the king is just given for granted but not explained or developed. That the intriguing Jyoti thus didn’t become just an average villain is thanks to the acting skills of Jackie Shroff who in his little screentime even manages to add to his character a touch of humanity. Jimmy Shergill, however, fails in his negative role; he tries to look gloomily, but you just don’t want to buy that he’s an evil swine.
A clearer profile got the King by Boman Irani (skillfully reciting Shakespeare sonetts) as an inscrutable and indecisive but subliminally dangerous character. Sharmila Tagore as his wife has only little screentime and unfortunately got no scene together with her son Saif Ali Khan. He left an ambivalent impact, mostly giving just a solid performance, especially to be seen in his scenes with the two strong actresses Vidya Balan and Raima Sen who as good as outacted him. (A special praise goes to Raima Sen for her interpretation of the mental disabled princess Nandini – convincing and without overacting.) But in his scenes and disputes with Amitabh Bachchan, Saif was in top form and showed the kind of performance you nowadays simply may expect from him.
Amitabh in the title role is, of course, the film’s linchpin. He plays the ageing, nearly blind and completely in the past living palace guard with his usual aplomb and with strong intensitiy. Often Chopra is relying just on the creative power of Amitabh’s voice, be it the letter scene in the beginning, the narrative sequences or the reckoning with Uday (where Chopra – a little insider gag – in the background shows scenes from his yesterday’s success movie Parinda). Thanks to Amitabh’s eloquence, even the scenes pontificating about dharma and fulfilling of duty are not exaggeratedly didactic, and fortunately Saif takes up Amitabh’s tone so that their final controversy avoids concisely but savely the border to kitsch.
And anyway, Chopra’s secret weapon against every possible touch of kitsch in this film is Sanjay Dutt. An untouchable who shows his side-kick the palace wall where his grandfather once had been immured alive as the kings’ lucky charme, and who does so not full of sopping emotions but hiding behind a dry-as-dust humour, as if not caring about anything – that’s something only a Sanjay Dutt can do. The only one whom this selfmade-man grants his unconditional admiration, is Eklavya whom he approaches with a refreshing childlike excitement, giving their later controversy an all the stronger effect. Sanjay’s role is small but loveable, and he plays it perfectly, so it’s just fair that it is he who is granted to finish the story with a delightful gesture. (Surely Sanju didn’t care about his role’s length as, due to his friendship with Vinod, he supposingly even would hace played a camel driver in this film without grumbling.)
It’s really a pity that after 107 minutes everything is over. I would have liked to know more about this story and its people, and to see more visually wonderful scenes like the one with the dove or Eklavya’s flashback out of the water. But this diminishes the pleasure just a little bit. Eklavya is a quiet, beautiful film with great pictures and a star cast hardly leaving anything to wish. A mixture of Paheli and Parineeta. And at any rate worth watching.
Produced and directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra
107 Min.; DVD: Eros, English Subtitles (including song)
P.S. Eklavya has been nominated as India's official entry to the Oscars.