IN GUARD WE TRUST
The custodian of a royal family anchors a fascinatingly idiosyncratic art film gussied up in commercial-cinema clothes.
FEB 18, 2007 – AFTER THE TRANSFORMATIONS OF Macbeth into Maqbool and Othello into Omkara, youâd think it would be Vishal Bhardwaj whoâd recalibrate Hamlet into a Hanslal or a Harminder â but Vidhu Vinod Chopra has gotten there first with Harshvardhan (Saif Ali Khan). Eklavya invokes quite a bit of Shakespeare â the recital of one of his sonnets, a characterâs Lady Macbethish declaration that the blood on his hands can never be washed away â but itâs mainly Hamlet that you see played out. The parallels are unmistakable â right from the point the film kicks off, when a royal parent is murdered, following which the prince Harshvardhan mopes around in a gloomy castle, given more to introspection than any actual action. Besides, he admits to have contemplated suicide at one time, he may have just seen the apparition of his dead motherâs spirit, someone he loves is mentally unstable, and most of all, something is rotten in the state of Devigarh. With all this, I was half-expecting Chopra to devise a graveyard soliloquy for his prince as the latter stumbled upon a skull. (âAlas, poor Yogesh…â?)
This alone would have made Eklavya a grandly ambitious effort justifying the seven years Chopra took to return to directing â his last feature was Mission: Kashmir, in 2000 â but thereâs more to this movie than just literature: thereâs legend. Itâs the episode from the Mahabharata that gives this film â and the part that Amitabh Bachchan plays so resonantly â its name. A beautifully designed prologue narrates the story of the great guru Dronacharya and his not-quite disciple â a sombre mix of illustration and animation flickers over Bachchanâs baritone â and as Eklavya cheerfully slices off his thumb, the blood spatters across the screen and the redness reshapes itself into a nighttime view of the palace in this story. On one level, this clearly indicates the grisly continuity between past and present, but I also think that Chopra â at this point â is signalling that his Eklavya is as much myth as the original. (It may be no accident here that a characterâs home-entertainment collection includes a DVD of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, that other appropriation â and reworking â of Eastern mythologies.)
Because if we donât take this movie as myth â a modern-day myth â and if we treat it like a regular murder mystery (the film is an intricate daisy chain of killings), how could we not giggle at the silly, soapy plot points, or at the hysterical dialogues about dharma, or at the wildly overheated sequence where a blindfolded Eklavya severs the bells tied to the feet of a pigeon fluttering overhead? But viewed without earthbound logic and without expectations of reality, this stunt could be traced back to myths both contemporary and classical, whether Star Wars (Luke Skywalker wielding the lightsabre with the helmet that blocks his vision) or the Mahabharata (Arjuna wielding the bow-and-arrow in the darkness of night). Because Eklavya is a myth, we donât care that the characters are archetypal â they could just as simply have been named Rich Boy and Poor Girl and Evil Uncle and Gothic-novel Madwoman â or that their graphs are barely fleshed out for our involvement and understanding. We are not shown, for instance, how the romance develops between Harshvardhan and his chauffeurâs daughter Rajjo (Vidya Balan). Thatâs a given. It just is â because we donât question the myths, and we shouldnât question this reworking of a myth either.
And itâs because Eklavya is a myth that we donât buy Eklavya âspeakingâ? to his son through his diary entries (heâs not allowed to have emotions) or Harshvardhanâs inability to express love for Rajjo (heâs not allowed to have emotions either) or Harshvardhanâs musing that his insane sister (Raima Sen) may be the only âsaneâ? person around. This modern-day psychobabble has no place in a myth. Then again, maybe theyâre not so out-of-place, these excursions from mythical territory â because Eklavya wants to debunk its mythical roots. (This resulted in my one laugh-out-loud moment in this very grim drama, when the child listening to Bachchanâs narration of the Eklavya legend remarks that the act the boy should have performed with his thumb is a thenga. This film is nothing if not a thenga in the face of tradition.) âWhat is dharma?â? Chopra asks, âDoing what youâre expected to do, or doing what you think (or feel) is the right thing to do?â? And should we blindly accept things because theyâre ordained by centuries of tradition? Because if you try to think through concepts like the putrakameshti yagna â the one from the Ramayana, where children were obtained by propitiating the gods â wasnât the eventual conception more likely due to a stud on the sidelines? (The queen-mother in Eklavya has participated in one such yagna, because her husband â Boman Irani â is impotent. And the faintly campy way Irani plays this character, this king may also be something of a queen.)
But I donât want to make Eklavya sound like that most dreaded of things: a message movie â because I donât think there are that many of us today (at least from among those whoâd be expected to connect to something as artsy as this, however snobbish that sounds) who need to receive instructions along the lines of âThou shalt not blindly believe in tradition.â? Itâs simply the subversion of a myth thatâs interesting here â especially if you see this film as a myth, like I did; itâs a myth that debunks a myth â and this is almost as interesting as the subversion of commercial cinema. Chopraâs most perverse act may be the filling up of his screen space with some of the biggest box-office names in the business and then asking this cast to fit into parts more suited for non-stars. (And everyone â including Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Shergill â responds with impressively non-starry performances.) Thereâs so much in Eklavya that could be mined for more conventional, more commercial cinema â the rich boy-poor girl romance, the twist-in-the-tale ending, the crowd-pleasing cop played by Sanjay Dutt â but Chopra has moulded all of this into what could only be described as the most expensive art film ever made in our country.
Because Eklavya isnât about its glossy, beautifully-crafted surfaces. Itâs about, say, the falling droplets â of blood, of sweat, of tears â that you keep seeing throughout. Itâs about the heightened sound effects that appear to reflect Eklavyaâs heightened sense of sound. Itâs about the bindi on the forehead of the queen dissolving into a full moon, in apparent contradiction of the emblem of the royal house: the sun. Itâs about the surrealism in the shot of Bachchan in waist-deep water giving way to a watery flashback. Could this be a link to what those droplets are all about? Could that bit about the moon be the reason the only song in the movie â beautifully tuned by Shantanu Moitra â goes Chanda re? These are the kind of questions you kept asking of films of the parallel-cinema era, the kind of questions that tied you up in knots about the worthiness of a movie, and these are the kind of questions you thought youâd ask of Vidhu Vinod Chopraâs cinema â considering his FTII background and all. Instead, he went off and became known as a masala-movie maker (though an artistic one), and a rather self-indulgent one at that. The self-indulgence is still there â he references his own Parinda here â but with Eklavya, you also see that he needed all those commercial films to acquire the industry-insider clout to make his one grand art film. Could he have not taken this route and instead made a series of small, personal films, like his contemporaries did? Probably not â because this man seems incapable of anything small. (We are, after all, talking about someone who gifted his star a Rolls Royce.) Conventional wisdom is that offbeat filmmakers start by making the films they want to make and end up making the films they are lucky enough to find the finances to make, but thatâs another myth Chopra debunks with his Eklavya.
Copyright Â© 2007 The New Sunday Express