Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Eklavya brings a breath of fresh air in the Bollywood chaos. It may not be an exemplary film but Chopra presents a personal viewpoint in style, more importantly within the framework of commerical cinema.
Using the motif of Eklavya - the epitome of sacrifice in the epic Mahabharata - Chopra weaves a story of a selfless royal guard, who in the course of his duty comes to terms with the fact that Dharma sans intellect can prove self-defeating. Not as subtly as one would have liked it, but Chopra does succeed in questioning the tradition of glorifying sacrifice in the name of Dharma.
This is undoubtedly one of Amitabh's greatest performances till date, at par with his roles in movies like Alaap, Saudagar, Anand and the recent Black. Whether it's his matter-of-fact acts of unmindful loyalty or the tug of war between royal duty and parental love - Amitabh breathes his character to lift the pathos of Eklavya to a level rarely scaled on Indian celluloid. It's heartening to lose the trademark Big B embossing his stardom at the cost of the theme.
Chopra's admiration for Ritwik Ghatak is well-known. In many ways, Eklavya comes closer to Ghatak's obsession with mythological motifs layered with deeper meanings lurking in tragic situations. But this proximity does not produce the same magic that Ghatak spun time and again with his cinematic folklore. Unlike Ghatak, Chopra tries to simplify an imagery that's simple in essence but very much like Ghatak , he takes a big risk with an offbeat theme. It would invariably take a Ralph Fiennes to appreciate the effort.
Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt - both Chopra favourites for long - are absolutely fascinating - the scene of a turban-tying Jackie swearing his frustration under his breath with a scowling Jimmy Shergill for company is amazing. Even lyricist Sadanand Kirkire in his debut comic avataar is endearing.
The lenght of the film is apt - one could have been easily tempted to exploit the desert in true Bollywood style - but not Chopra. His use of a Shakespeare sonnet against the backdrop of Rajasthan is a masterstroke. Bachchan and Parikshit Sahani with their innocent stares at the king's pompous recital of a phirang composition complement the sonnet's magic.
On the flip side, the child voice-over at the start of the film seems an overt simplification of the theme, probably with the audience in mind. With the exception of Bachchan, all players struggle with the taxing pronunciations and intonations and some of Bommon Irani's loud gestures - a needless underlining to convey deceitful endeavours - could have been checked.