At the surface, the idea behind Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Eklavya may seem terribly anachronistic. After all who talks about the outmoded concept of Dharma in this time and age? But that's precisely the point. The philosophy of Dharma is as relevant today as it was during the time of the mythical Eklavya. Only, its definition has changed. Through Eklavya, Vidhu Vinod Chopra tries to debunk the belief that Dharma is all about following the path of righteousness as defined by tradition; rather, he endorses the view that righteousness is not an absolute concept but has to be rooted in reason - Dharmah Matibhyah Utgritah.
Vidhu Vinod Chopra takes the idea from a well known tale from the Mahabharata, gives it a distinctly Shakespearean flavour, and comes up with a fascinating multi-layered saga of duty, honour, loyalty, intrigue and deceit - and above all, the true meaning of Dharma. He takes a potentially melodramatic content and presents it in a largely undramatic style. Well....that's not entirely true. Let me put it this way, he deliberately makes his actors be less theatrical so that the he can create drama through other means - music, camera, visuals, etc. At times he completely goes against popular conventions. Scenes that one would expect to be dramatic are laid out subtly, whereas melodrama finds centre stage in scenes that would otherwise be routine. That's the most interesting part about Eklavya.
The protagonist, Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan) is a man of unmistakable honour. He is a 'royal guard' who would do anything to protect his royal masters because that's his Dharma. He would sacrifice his emotions to guard a royal secret because that's his Dharma. In that respect, he is in some sort of a time warp - the world around him has moved on but he still lives by what tradition dictates. This contrast is brilliantly depicted in the film by the character of Pannalal Chauhar (Sanjay Dutt) - an untouchable who questions the traditions because in today's time he probably has more 'power' than the royal family and thus demands respect that his ancestors never got.
The beauty of Eklavya does not lie in its theme; nor in the visual opulence that the theme demands. Rather it's the director's vision and the actors' sincerity that make it stand out. The director pushes the envelope here and conjures some brilliant, sometimes even surrealistic and abstruse, imagery. Forget the travesty called Kareeb, with Eklavya Vidhu Vinod Chopra gets his groove back. Remember his first film, a documentary called An Encounter with Faces, was nominated for an Oscar (I don't think many people even know this fact).
It's clearly not the director's intention to make a crowd-pleasing film. His desire to do something out of the ordinary is evident all through the film, but he is particularly audacious when he chooses to blank out the screen completely for a full 90 second. Imagine watching an extremely 'visual' film in a dark theatre and the screen going completely blank for such a long time! The director pulls it off so well that this scene becomes the film's highpoint.
I have one problem with the film though. The ending seems to belong to an entirely different film. There's no place for a neat, crowd-pleasing wrap-up in this dark and grim tale. Why the maverick director should succumb to pleasing the audiences in the last 5 minutes of the film, when he has defiantly stood against it in first 100 - I just don't understand. My other problem is that they're promoting the film as an "edge-of-the-seat dramatic action thriller" which is like doing gross injustice to this gem of a film - 'dramatic' is probably the only word in this phrase that applies to Eklavya. If people walk into the theatres expecting an action thriller, they'll be disappointed big time.
Eklavya is marked by some great performances. Amitabh Bachchan in the title roles comes up with a really Rolls Royce deserving performance. His character demands reticence, but he uses his expressive eyes so effectively that he's able to convey what even pages and pages of dialogue would fail to do. Saif Ali Khan seems to get better with each film, and has learnt the art of subtlety and underplaying for dramatic effect. In this film he is effectively restrained, even in the scene when the real twist in the tale comes in. If your attention flags even for a moment, you would miss the revelation because the drama is contained and there are no high-voltage theatrics here. That, in my opinion, is as much a credit to Saif Ali Khan's performance as it is to the director's conceptualization of the scene.
All through its 107 minutes, Eklavya kept reminding me of Vishal Bhardwaj's Omkara and Maqbool because of its Shakespearean quality. Any comparisons would be fallacious, for Chopra and Bhardwaj are two very different directors, with very different sensibilities. Vishal's approach is earthy and raw, while Vidhu Vinod Chopra goes for more polish and bigger scale. But they have one thing in common - whatever they serve is delicious and hugely satisfying!