5 October 2022

Ekalavya (2007)

Directed by: Vidhu Vinod Chopra
Music: Shantanu Moitra
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Sharmila Tagore,
Boman Irani, Saif Ali Khan,
Vidya Balan, Jackie Shroff,
Jimmy Shergill, Raima Sen 
Parikshit Sahni
I have just concluded a month-long Rajesh Khanna retrospective (though this will not be the end of RK reviews on my blog). Rajesh Khanna passed the baton of superstardom to Amitabh Bachchan in real life, the latter striding in like a colossus and maintaining his superstardom for far longer than his predecessor. I have already chronicled my Bachchan love with reviews of several of his iconic films – Zanjeer, Deewar, Trishul, Satte pe Satta, Shakti, Sholay (among others). Now, as Amitabh Bachcchan turns 80 this month, I offer a tribute to my first love with a month-long retrospective of his later films. This month will also host watchalong reveiws, as Shalini, my partner-in-crime joins me in admiring (and regretting) some of AB’s later roles. As Shalini notes, we have to choose judiciously because Amitabh certainly didn’t. We have carefully eschewed his ‘grumpy patriarch’ roles and have chosen films that – to us – showcase his evolution as an actor in the third phase of his career. The first of these is a film that we have both loved, irrespective of its box-office fate. 

The film opens with the narration of Ekalavya’s story from the Mahabharata – how, Dronacharya, his quest for vengeance still fresh in his mind, and determined that his favourite pupil, Arjuna remain the ‘best’, demanded Ekalavya’s thumb as his ‘guru dakshina’. The child, hearing the story, asks breathlessly, “He didn’t give up his thumb, did he?” And the storyteller says, “He did.” Whereupon the child exclaims, “Ekalavya was wrong!”

The present-day Ekalavya (Amitabh Bachchan) is the nearly-blind personal bodyguard of Rana Jayvardhan (Boman Irani). The ageing king is reading to his dying wife, Rani Suhasini Devi (Sharmila Tagore), but when she repeatedly whispers Ekalavya’s name, the grieving king is provoked to madness.

The only witness is their mentally-challenged daughter, Rajkumari Nandini (Raima Sen). The king is devastated, not, as you expect, because of what just happened, but because he realizes that his royal bodyguard, the man who bows and scrapes to him a hundred times each day, knows a humiliating secret! 

And as he collapses in his younger brother, Jyotivardhan’s (Jackie Shroff) arms, the latter is furious. Their honour is at stake. Jayvardhan orders Ekalavya’s execution but what the Rana does not know is that Jyotivardhan  and his son, Udayvardhan (Jimmy Shergill), hate him more than he hates Ekalavya.

Meanwhile, Prince Harshvardhan (Saif Ali Khan) returns from London for his mother’s funeral, his only source of comfort his driver (Parikshit Sahni), Rajjo (Vidya Balan), the driver’s daughter, and Ekalavya, who has always been a father figure. 


None of the male royals are happy to see him.

Me: Saif also says a lot without saying anything. His body language when Jimmy Shergil keeps hugging him…
S: Saif can carry off the aristocrat beautifully.
Their joy at the reunion is mixed with their grief at the death of the queen. Only, Rajjo has a letter for the prince – his mother had given it to her with strict instructions to hand it over only to him. The letter’s contents shock him.
S: Wise Sharmila, to have written directly to him.
Me: The earlier scene between Saif and Raima was so full of emotion, without underlining everything.
S:  And that was a nice exchange of looks between AB and Saif.
Me: AB is in an untenable position, isn’t he? Not knowing that Saif knows…
S: Do you think he struggles a bit here? Not quite able to express his dilemma?
Me: But that’s the way his character is written, isn’t it? Forget expressing his feelings, he isn’t even allowed to have them.

Meanwhile, there’s been a death threat against the Rana. And he wants police protection. Enter DSP Pannalal Chohar (Sanjay Dutt).

S: I’d never considered Sanjay Dutt to be a particularly good actor, but he did grow into a fine performer, didn’t he?
Me: “Meet Karwa Chohar.” It’s both amusing and horrific!
 S: Yes, he’s playing it for jokes but what he’s talking about is horrific.
And outside the palace, there’s rising unrest. The farmers are rebelling because their lands have been unjustly seized, their leader murdered, and the death staged to appear a suicide. Inside the palace, the royal family treads warily around each other – the secrets they each carry are not easy burdens to bear. 

But soon, there’s an assassination attempt – an innocent die, and another innocent is blamed. What is Ekalavya’s dharma now? And will he be able to act on it?

Ekalavya was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s passion project. He took five years to write it. Modelled along the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy (indeed, one of the characters quotes the Bard’s sonnet), at the heart of the story is a damning question – what is dharma? And how far must one go in pursuit of it? With a very short running time – a mere hour and three quarters – and no songs or dances or comic side plots to divert our attention, Chopra demands that you pay attention.

Chopra transposes a tale of love, intrigue, revenge, and murder into the desert landscape of Rajasthan, a land with one foot firmly rooted in age-old traditions and the other tentatively stepping into the modern age. Luxury cars jostle with camels; the traditional punkahs inside the palace fight a losing battle with the heat of the desert sands. Foreign educated young princes and uneducated villagers who still know their rights jostle for supremacy. It’s a world where the kings hold no power at all yet can still usurp commoners' lands, they can still kill anyone at will. The relationships in this film are all fraught – and complicated. Yet, you understand each one’s motivations, even when you don’t condone the behaviour.

Ekalavya is also, visually, a feast to the eyes.
S: Unlike in SLB’s films, the visual opulence here does not overwhelm the emotions. I care about the people in this film.
Me: That’s because VVC’s opulence is grounded in reality.
S: Agreed. VVC’s films are almost poetic in their visuals.
There’s also a sense of ‘show, don’t tell’ in VVC’s film making. From the first scene, a mix of animation and illustration with a voice over, you are drawn into what seems like paintings come to life. As Ekalavya slices off his thumb, the redness of the spilt blood transforms into Devigarh against a setting sun. Or take the scene where Pannalal Chohar asks Ekalavya to demonstrate his skill as an archer once again subtly underlines the latter’s aim. It is brought out organically – as a child, Pannalal had seen Ekalavya shoot blindfolded. Now, meeting him as an adult, he wishes to see that skill demonstrated again. 
The desert is captured in all its glory (courtesy cinematographer Natarajan Subramaniam).

An assassination attempt takes place against the rush of an oncoming train and a passing caravan of camels.  Shots are staged like tableaux within the palace, but the opulence is real and not shiny prop. Chopra is also audacious: there’s a bold shot of a killing – the screen blacks out and like the character on screen, you have to depend on sound to tell you what's happening; scenes in the present segue into almost mirror images in the past; and he dares to use music sparingly. There’s no heightened BGM to tell us what we must feel. The characters are subdued, the settings are vivid, and this goes for the dialogue as well – the speech is everyday speech, not high drama. More importantly, many of the scenes are wordless. What the characters do not say becomes as important as what they do.

Mahabharata’s  Ekalavya might be a myth told and retold over centuries to explain what dharma means; what Chopra is doing is debunking the myth. Is blind obedience to what you are told to do a virtue, asks Chopra. Should we do something because it’s tradition? Or should we do what we think, feel,  is right? And what about collateral damage?

With a phalanx of the biggest stars of the time, it is a pleasure to see non-starry performances. As the eponymous Ekalavya, Amitabh Bachchan straddles the fine line of showing us his internal conflict when his character is not allowed to express any feelings at all. Ekalavya is blind not just literally but also metaphorically – despite the changing times, he lives only to protect his king and the palace. In doing so, he’s following the footsteps of nine generations of ancestors who have lived and died for the Ranas of Devigarh. And then, suddenly, everything that he holds dear is in ashes, and his understanding of his world is turned upside down. Those deep set eyes still speak – and eloquently. In the scene where he tells Jyotivardhan that he’s killed someone dear to him, he says it most casually, but his eyes are chilling. At that moment, you don’t want him for an enemy. At other times, Amitabh’s eyes reflect his haunting sadness.

S: Man, I can’t deal with AB being sad. No one should make AB sad.
Me: True. He still has the power to make me melt.

Sanjay Dutt, as DSP Pannalal Chohar leavens the film with humour – but it is humour that reveals  horrific truths. Saif Ali Khan, as the heir who learns two bitter truths himself, acquits himself very well indeed. It was interesting to see him hold his own in his scenes with AB, though he hasn't yet come to the peak of his acting prowess (that would be Omkara).
This was one film which I wish were longer – it would have been interesting to see the JS duo’s (Jackie and Jimmy) characters fleshed out a little. They were both very good with the scenes they did have, but one is left wanting more.

Raima Sen was surprisingly good as the mentally challenged Nandini (the actor is a hit or miss, depending). Her scenes with her brother display her vulnerability as well as her fear. 
The one person who disappointed us is the usually reliable Vidya Balan. She played Rajjo with a coyness that was irritating, playing ‘simple’ as ‘simpleton’ and her turnaround at the end was wholly unsatisfactory.

The film is not without its flaws, but the emotional beats are spot on and Chopra ensures that you care for these people and their problems. Do watch the film to see how India’s rich tapestry of myths, folklore and history can be retold well in the hands of a master film-maker.

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