Eklavya remains in our popular imagination as the embodiment of guru bhakti. Yet there is no denying the fact that it is a cruel story portraying the excesses of a rotten caste system. Eklavya stays true to his dharma unhesitatingly, unquestioningly, even though it ultimately destroys him.
It is this unhesitating and unquestioning pursuit of dharma that Chopra calls into question in his movie Eklavya. At heart, the movie subverts a lot of what Hinduism holds close to heart. Was Eklavya right, Chopra asks, in doing what he did. And the movie’s resounding answer is no.
Chopra sets the story in a modern day feudal state – where Eklavya is a royal guard, guarding a Rana. He unquestioningly performs his duties protecting his master, just as his father did when he died protecting the current Rana’s father. However he is growing old, and with his failing eyesight, he is not the guard he once was. The Rana is killed and the rest of the story is about Eklavya’s pursuit of his dharma and the moral dilemmas it leads him to.
The cast is apt. Amitabh makes a powerful Eklavya, though one wishes for fresher faces in Hindi cinema. Saif portrays the torn son well. And Jackie Shroff, Vidya Balan and Jimmy Shergill play their parts competently. Boman Irani as the fey Rana is, as usual, pretty good. Sanjay Dutt has a great cameo as the local police officer. The setting is opulent and visually quite stunning. All in all, the ingredients are probably right.
Yet, the movie falls flat. The premise of the movie is powerful and subversive. Yet it is a flat rendering of the story. The drama is not drama enough and there is very little that touches you. As someone who freely cries even in a Karan Johar film, I felt a bit cheated. There was not a single tear drop. The parts add up to less than a perfect whole.
It is a brave effort none the less. The film is unlikely to light up the box office – the premise of the film is a bit too subtle, the story drags in places and even the normally dependable Amitabh sometimes sleepwalks through scenes. Yet it is a good film to have been made – it calls into question a few basics of stories that we have been brought up on. Was Eklavya right in what he did, was Rama right in going off into the forest, was Arjuna right in sharing Draupadi with his brothers, all in pursuit of the unquestionable personal dharma?
One only wishes these questions were confronted in a more dramatic manner. Perhaps the setting is a bit off (the transportation of the Eklavya story into modern-day Rajasthan is less credible than that of Othello into UP or Macbeth into the Mumbai underworld), perhaps the script is not gripping enough, perhaps Amitabh overwhelms the character. Whatever the missing link, the movie is disappointing.