Catching you off guard
A chap called Abraham Maslow once said that as humans meet their basic needs, they seek to satisfy higher needs that occupy a set hierarchy – first, physiological, then safety and social needs, then esteem and finally self-actualisation.
If Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Eklavya’ is any indication, the man who gave us ‘Parinda,’ ‘1942 – A Love Story’ and ‘Mission Kashmir,’ seems to tell us that he’s done fulfilling all the first four needs including esteem.
Only a filmmaker who does not care a hoot to what anybody thinks about his films would set out to do something like ‘Eklavya’ – an exercise in self-actualisation. Quite understandably, given that his own protégés like Rajkumar Hirani and Pradeep Sarkar are today among the most esteemed filmmakers in the country.
Eklavya’s story goes that the dying queen Rani Suhasini Devi (Sharmila Tagore) utters the name of the royal guard Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) on her death-bed, much to the rage of the king Rana Jaivardhan (Boman Irani). The guard is the keeper of a secret about the birth of the queen’s children Harshvardhan (Saif Ali Khan) and Nandini (Raima Sen). As the queen dies, the stage is set for a drama that would’ve made Shakespeare smile.
Chopra’s ‘Eklavya’ is that legendary thumb a student of cinema would offer his masters, for everything that cinema has taught him. A fearless tribute to the spirit of filmmaking with all the right things. A Shakespearean script laden with heavy-duty drama (Duty also because it’s about the Royal Guard and his dharma), a top-notch ensemble ranging from stars to actors, indulgent story-telling and a world very painstakingly etched out with elaborate cinematography on a lavish canvas, with larger than life grandeur and opulence, stylishly edited and composed visually and aurally with great passion.
No surprise then that it is an expensive art film to make. But a filmmaker has to do his duty. His dharma is to tell a story without giving in to anybody’s diktats – not the stars’, not the market’s, not the critics’. The actors deliver. Every single one of them, in their limited roles.
Bachchan, of course, anchors the movie with great restraint and simmering intensity, with his eyes depicting his inner turmoil and steely resolve. Saif is splendidly effective in yet another serious role, holding his own against the veteran, with natural flair and underplayed majesty.
Cinematographer “Nutty” Subramanian’s camera makes the most of the huge cranes, giving us some of the most spectacularly framed visuals seen in recent times, with due credit to the locations and art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai. Chopra camp regular Shantanu Moitra turns in just one song and props up the rest of the film with a magnificent score to punctuate the visual poetry.
But then, this is also not the kind of parallel cinema associated with Ray, Benegal, Adoor or Nihalani. This is more of Tarantino-ish celebration of pop cinema and everything that we love about it with complete conviction, indulgence and John Woo-ish flamboyance.
So even if Chopra turns to Shakespeare for inspiration, he ensures that anything borrowed from the bard’s classic plot-devices wear his own signature – nods to elements from his own movies, cross-referencing, repeating old favourites and even a direct insert of a clip from ‘Parinda’. Chopra has made this movie for himself.
“Cinema has taken away my eyes,” he said in a recent interview. That’s also probably why we have Eklavya, the royal guard with failing eye-sight, discoursing on dharma and the need to do what is right. Chopra clearly believes he has done his duty and the right thing for Indian cinema.
Agreeing or disagreeing with the ending he provides is based on individual tastes but if Shakespeare was what he was aiming at, Eklavya falls just a little short because it just about shies away from the bloody final act that had all the potential to sign off with tragic irony and poetic pathos. Chopra, instead, plays it safe to settle for the classical “and-they-lived-happily-everafter” ending. Or again, maybe Shakespeare was just to adorn the quintessential Raja-Rani bedtime story about right and wrong.
Hence, you can’t help but get the feeling that commerce might have just got a little better of Chopra. The pre-release marketing sent out all the wrong signals. The slickly cut trailer promised a racy thriller. Big stars meant bigger theatres. The result has turned out to be disastrous at least as far as the crowd response goes. As the few first days in the halls have demonstrated, the restless crowds in the theatres aren’t exactly patient enough to appreciate the indulgence. It is really high time that theatres employed staff to escort people using mobile phones to the gate. At least, during films like these.
Eklavya is clearly an up-market multiplex film for a niche audience.
If you plan to go for a movie, take a rain check. For, you will find in Eklavya, the second most thrilling graphics sequence (next only to the Superstar’s Baba ‘kite’ scene) when Bachchan, with his eyes closed, throws his dagger to snap the bells tied to the leg of a flying pigeon. Whistling and cheering might just disturb the rest of the crowd.
But, if you’re in the mood for serious cinema, make sure you just don’t miss it.