After watching Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya – The Royal Guard, my lips are humming Chanda Re Chanda Re. As the only song in the entire film, it leaves a forbidding echo. The staging of the song is so simple – a lullaby that Rajjo (Vidya Balan) sings to her beloved Prince Harshwardhan (Saif Ali Khan) as she tangles with a kite - while in the distance, another man’s (Amitabh Bachchan) highly attuned sense of hearing picks up the sound and allows it to reverberate in his heart. His involvement changes the dynamics of the meaning behind the song. The song is not just about one romantic relationship, it becomes a reminder of other relationships that could not blossom – the relationship between a queen and her royal guard, the relationship between a father and his son.
Fractured relationships is a theme that recurs in Chopra’s gothic thriller (which marks the end of a seven year hiatus in Chopra’s directing career, a long time by Bollywood standards) and the connection between Eklavya and Harsh acts as the central epitome of it. The plot itself is quite Shakespearean with little hints of Macbeth thrown in. Actually, Macbeth is an appropriate play to refer to – even though Eklavya may not have much in common with the play at first glance – because it tells us that power corrupts and turns men into split personalities. Harsh refers to this when he tells his new bride that he is not the same person that she earlier knew. His twin sister Princess Nandini (Raima Sen) is mentally passive and her behaviour is more child-like. These twins reveal two different faces of the same coin. She resembles the innocence that has been taken away by the fort and twisted and thwarted into something else. Harsh is constantly caressing her during her sleep as if he wants his darker subconscious to disappear and turn into the innocence that his sister represents. The fact that Harsh could not have a twin who is on the same adult level as he is shows that nothing is ever really developed in the haveli – relationships and personalities do not flourish, they remain stunted for years.
Perhaps, I am reading too much into this but I believe that this is the main element that Chopra borrows from Shakespeare. The story is actually quite disappointing in an odd way. The queen’s (Sharmila Tagore) death sparks off a series of feuds and members of the clan (which also include Boman Irani, Jimmy Sheirgill and Jackie Shroff) contrive to outwit each other. Murder and deception is planned and, add to this, a major revelation about Harsh’s and Nandini’s true ancestry. There is an engaging history and back-story to some of the characters. Sanjay Dutt appears as the policeman whose ancestors were considered to be low-caste and subsequently tortured by the royal family. He resembles the democratic India that is at odds with the ancient customs that the royal family still abide by. Yet, not much is made of this, Dutt is there to make a point and little else. Same could also be said for the talented Sheirgill who could surely have been given a meatier role to get his teeth into.
With these supporting characters, you expect to see a little more depth in the political intrigue that envelops this gloomy mansion. But the characters make their exit rather early and seem to fall victim to the tight editing by Raviranjan Maitra. At least, they get dying scenes to remember. The confrontation between Bachchan and Sheirgill is worth a mention as are the impressive sequences staged near the train that passes by at high speed (while also seemingly tagging camels along with the carriages). These scenes are brilliantly shot and directed but in other scenes, the camera never seems to stay still. It lingers and wavers and such camerawork becomes rather tiring early on. The chilling score is another ingredient that adds to this recipe of a gothic melodrama. One other thing is that there seems to be an awful lot of whispering going on except for Boman Irani who seems to be relishing his role of a vengeful madman. Princess Nandini’s drawing of him highlights and mocks the pantomim-ish quality of his get-up.
This fragile concoction could easily descend into a pantomime but Amitabh Bachchan’s towering performance lends the gravity that the film needs. I may complain about the lack of depth in the supporting characters but the truth is that Bachchan as Eklavya is all we really need. Not only do we get to see the interesting history behind this character but we also delve into his current insecurities and fears. Before the Chanda Re number, Eklavya explains that he would love to hold Harsh in order to expel his loneliness and grief but he cannot. This is the anchor, the soul, that weighs him down throughout the entire film. In his feverish loyalty to the royal family, Eklavya has denied himself the chance of love and family bonding. Bachchan’s sad bloodshot eyes convey all this and much more.
It all comes to a happy ending though and Eklavya finds a reason to smile. The protagonists come together to create a new family, and continue the legacy of the royal order. I can’t help wondering though that perhaps remaining within the blood-drenched walls of that haveli is the worst thing that could happen to those characters. As they say, absolute power corrupts….
Running time: 150 mins
Directed by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Boman Irani, Vidya Balan, Raima Sen, Jackie Shroff, Jimmy Sheirgill and Sharmila Tagore