I'll confess - I knew very little about Eklavya before I went to see it. I didn't know much about the cast - just that it starred Amitabh Bachchan, and just that it was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Chopra is capable of either producing a real gem, as he did with Parinda & Mission Kashmir, but also very easily capable of producing what can only be described as bilge - as he did with Kareeb. It's like watching Sehwag go out onto the pitch - you can never tell at the start of the innings if he's going to knock a century or be out for a stupid shot in single digits.
Eklavya has to be one of the worst Bollywood movies I've seen in some time. I just knew that the good run I've had watching Hindi movies in cinemas over the past six months just couldn't last. After Omkara, Kabul Express, and even Dhoom 2, which at least qualified as a total time-pass movie, Eklavya will be my statistical correction. It has to be the single most reductionist, essentialising view of a world that is so unbelievably anachronistic as to be laughable. The entire movie is set in a royal palace (as a Rajput and someone with some genetic sense of what a fort actually is mean to be, I will NOT dignify the pleasure palace they filmed in with the term "fort", despite the insistence of the characters to do so) and is predicated on a great & terrible palace secret - that the heir to the throne is not the son of the King, but rather of one of the guards, Eklavya. The King opens the movie by reading Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" to his dying wife, in what seems to be an act of touching love, until we see him strangle her when in her dying delirium she keeps calling out for the guard, not him. Nice, isn't it?
Things steadily go downhill from there. There is palace intrigue, the King isn't impotent (as was earlier implied) but rather more interested in his stable boys than his wife (aha, that prediliction, do I hear you say) Saif Ali Khan emerges to play the London - returned heir apparent (i.e. pretty much playing the nawabzada that he is in real life), there is a love sick girl from a lower family (Vidya Balan, who is stunningly expressive & just gorgeous on the big screen, but has REALLY flabby arms!!!) and also a demented sister who paints her mother in broad oil strokes reminiscent of Anjolie Ela Menon & M.F. Husain.
Throw into this cocktail some long winded tirades about what dharma really means, a letter from a dying mother to her son explaining who his father is, and possibly the most ill-quoted phrase from the Mahabharata (Dharmah Matibhyah Utghratah - dharma is that which is born from reason & rationale) and voila - one orientalist fantasy with eerie Shakespearean intrigue thrown in for good measure. Eklavya, the title character, has been described as Bachchan's tour de force. Unfortunately, while Bachchan is definitely a good actor, even he cannot save his character from descending into what appears to be an almost Al Qaida like fanaticism of what his dharma truly is, and how dharma is above all reason, all question, all challenge. Besides, he's an incredibly weepy man!!
The real tragedy of the movie is that aesthetically it is quite beautifully shot. But to quote a fellow film goer, give a five year old a camera and some Rajasthani landscapes, and you'd get some amazing visuals. There are also some good performances from several characters - Boman Irani, a favourite after Don, plays an incredibly Shakespearean King, while Sanjay Dutt in his cameo as the untouchable who became a cop is a breath of fresh air. It was good to see Parikshit Sahani back on screen, but alas, even heavy hitters like these are unable to save Eklavya from becoming the hash that it truly is. I am truly surprised by the reviews that this movie has gotten from international critics - but I suspect in so many ways the movie becomes much more accessible to a western audience that is immediately able to relate to a film that can so easily help reinforce an Orientalist stereotype. There are palaces, there is royalty, there are long speeches about honour, there are evil landlords who annex the lands of poor farmers - all in all, welcome back to the Raj.
I won't even GET started on the factual inaccuracies, because we could be here for some time, and I feel terrible about having wasted three hours of my life on this movie already. So I will finish this post with the following two comments:
1. DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE unless you are totally mascochistic
2. DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE unless in the words of a fellow movie watcher you want to see if you will actually be forced to rip your seat off the floor to hurl it at the screen...
(PS - No images because I could not be bothered to waste my time looking for them on the internet. Go to the official film site, Eklavya The Royal Guard, if you're interested)