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 – physiological, safety, social, 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 so, given that his own protégés like Rajkumar Hirani and Pradeep Sarkar are today among the most esteemed filmmakers in the country.
When dying queen Rani Suhasini Devi (Sharmila Tagore) utters the name of the royal guard Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) on her death-bed, the king Rana Jaivardhan (Boman Irani) is enraged. 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 thumb a student of cinema would offer his masters, for everything that cinema has taught him. A fearless tribute to the spirit of filmmaking that gets most things right. 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, an old-world setting very painstakingly etched out with elaborate cinematography on a lavish canvas, stylishly edited, and composed visually and aurally with great passion.
It’s an expensive 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, using his eyes to depict 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 churned out with complete conviction, indulgence and John Woo-ish flamboyance.
Despite what he’s been inspired by, he makes sure the film wears 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’.
However, when you see how he ends the film, 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. As the few first days in the halls have demonstrated, the restless crowds aren’t patient enough to appreciate the indulgence.
Eklavya is clearly an up-market multiplex film for a niche audience.
If you plan to go for a movie, take a rain check. If you’re in the mood for serious cinema, make sure you just don’t miss it.