EKLAVYA . Director: Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Players: Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Boman Irani, Jackie Shroff, Sharmila Tagore. Music: Shantanu Moitra. Theatrical release.V.V. Chopra is in an elite fraternity of Hindi filmdom’s power brokers who can afford to “experiment” with gargantuan bankrolls and even bigger casts. Catching Chopra in that playful—hence carefree—mood, Eklavya spins a clever plot—and the biggest-ever cast for a Chopra movie—into an unusually short, 115-minute movie. The brevity and sharp editing add well-paced tension to this top-notch, neo-feudal, all-star murder mystery.
The titular Eklavya (Bachchan) is a faithful royal guard to the landowning Wardhan clan. The ruling Wardhan clan’s patriarch Jayawardhan (Irani) is a Shakespeare-quoting, seedy opportunist who will go to great ends to jealously protect his scandal-ridden family’s many secrets. Chief among these scandals are the cryptic circumstances surrounding the death of the Wardhan matriarch Rani Suhasinidevi (Tagore). As fate dictates, the royal steward Eklavya holds the key that will not only decide the future of the Wardhan clan but also the ascendancy of the royal scion Harshwardhan (Khan) to succeed his father.
Staged amidst imposing, wind-swept fortresses and lofty pavilions that are home to the remnants of Rajasthan’s fabled royalty, Eklavya is also a first-rate costume drama that crosses an elevated character study. Sharply contrasting colorful palace interiors against darkly lit commoner abodes is a clever trick that allows Chopra to play off good against evil. The former includes palace interior scenes featuring Eklavya, Prince Harshwardhan, his paramour Rajeshwari (Balan) and his mother, while the latter is anything touched by Jayawardhan’s treacherous and seedier younger brother Jyotiwardhan (Shroff).
What Eklavya lacks is a solid musical score. Moitra’s work is reduced to heavy-handed, but not boring, background pieces and only one complete song. Chopra obviously decided to forego a longer score in favor of a quicker ending. The shorter soundtrack, fortunately, is nicely counterbalanced with some terrific performances.
While Khan captures the brooding prince ready to open the royal treasury to seek out what he thinks is the truth, Eklavya would not succeed without the interplay between Bachchan’s chivalrous, old-school bodyguard and Dutt’s village constable who strong-arms his way into the palace in attempt to solve the murder.
While the aging Eklavya is haunted by mortality angst evidenced by his failing eyesight, Dutt’s cop is weighted down by an ancient class-warfare score he wants to settle. The great romantic chemistry, an able supporting cast (especially Parikshit Sahani as the royal car driver), a do-or-die stunt or two, and one brilliantly photographed camel stampede, all add up to a recipe for celluloid alchemy.
Chopra’s immensely successful recent raids at the box office (Lage Raho Munnabhai, Parineeta) have emboldened the award-winning filmmaker to hitch his wagon to offbeat scripts. His recent successes only raise the stakes for his upcoming psychological chessboard thriller 64 Squares. 2007 could well again be Chopra’s year.
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.