Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eklavya: The Royal Guard. Just Don't Bother

The hype has been building for the last few weeks on Eklavya – The Royal Guard. It has a star-cast to rival most “multi-starrers,” not to mention a director on the hilt known for “great” past work. Press also reported that La Tagore and Saif were replaying their real life roles on screen for the first time – a casting coup that would make cinematic history!

Recent stories in the press suggested that producer and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra of the film was sooooo impressed with the performance of his lead star, Amitabh Bachchan, that he gifted him a Rolls Royce Phantom sedan, priced at approximately 800,000 USD (after import duties). Moreover, Chopra has gone on the record saying he took five years to write the film. After watching the film, one really wonders why?

Beyond the hype of course, Chopra has – at best – been a patchy director. He has created amazing work like Parinda and Mission Kashmir, but also delivered clankers like Kareeb and half-clankers like 1942: A Love Story. But still, when a director of his stature presents a new film, especially one packed with an exciting cast – with all present having proven their star status as well as acting abilities - expectations are bound to be high.

Imagine the horror then of finding yourself with itchy palms, wishing desperately for a tokri of rotten tomatoes that you could hurl at the screen! And yes, they would have been hurled at very aesthetic images, because that is one thing Chopra knows how to get right – the plush interiors, the vast Rajasthan desert-scapes, the sun gleaming through clouds of sand. But his is a jaundiced, cynical and dated eye, missing much of the verve and edge of another recently shot-in-Rajasthan film like Dor.

So what is wrong with this movie? Well, “let me count the ways,” since Mr. Chopra is so fond of the bard that he makes Boman Iran repeat Sonnet 18 twice. In the opening sequence, an irate husband strangles his queen, after romantically reciting the aforementioned poem at her sick-bed. It could have been a great screen moment – full of shock, horror and pathos. Instead the scene is bizarrely played out: the mentally challenged daughter looks on while a be-wigged Boman Irani appears to dry-hump a-devoid-of-all-emotion-but-elegant-as-always Tigress Tagore.

Mr. Chopra, if you must have spouses strangling each other in beds, can you please take a look at the recent Omkara variation!

Next: In a post Black and Sarkar world, one expects the Big B to deliver a great performance and not regurgitate the bored attitudes of his mid-1980s bilge, but Chopra seems to get no more from the thespian than a sort of Coolie-like ennui. Yes, the Big B is dignified and noble on screen, but surely sleepwalking his own star persona around doesn’t qualify as acting? And what was that bit of humbly back out of the door, and then “Superman-takes-off” jump beyond the doorway? The entire theatre doubled up with laughter! The Big B weeps, he looks heavenwards, he holds up his hand to ward off bright lights! His tears fall in slow motion only to sizzle and evaporate on the hot train track under a scorching desert sun (see I can be as self-indulgent as Chopra!). But none of the motions add up to anything more than prettily shot but meaningless sequences.

Vidya Balan is beautiful and expressive but has little to do except simper and coddle Saif and Raima Sen at various points of the film. Raima Sen is annoying with her little-girl style, mentally challenged princess act. Parikshit Sahni has little to do, which is a shame! Saif – after proving himself with Omkara – does little more than play the pouting princeling. His constant addition of English lines destroy all possibility of drama in his scenes: “I can’t express myself” and “wait” in romantic sequences with Vidya Balan were bad enough, but when he declared that he is prepared to die and follows it up with the English, “I am ready,” the audience was in splits. Jackie Shroff and Jimmy Sheirgill (another one with an extra letter in his name!) are competent but have little to do. Sanjay Dutt provides a few (intentional for once) laughs, although there was little need for comic relief given the unintentional gaffs in performance and script.

And finally, there is the blatant Orientalism! Chopra seems to pack in every trope he can manage, in a desperate attempt to cash in on the growing international market for commercial Indian cinema. So out come the royal palaces that sit atop wretchedly poor villages; despite the revolting caste histories and apparently ongoing exploitation of farmers, the “masses” are quite happy to go back chanting “Rana ki jai” (albeit particularly disheartedly); the women in the narrative never seem to leave the household and devote their lives to being doormats, or peeking out on jharokhas and dropping silk scarves; the palace interiors seem to be lifted either from the Gujarat handicraft emporium on Delhi’s Kharag Singh Marg or from Bhansali’s kotha sets of Devdas; and just in case, you had missed the point – we get an loving aerial shot of wailing rudalis clad in pastel chiffons!

Mr. Chopra – a word of advice: stop reading circa-1998 commercial Hindi film scholarship junk! Commercial Indian cinema works internationally because it offers a counter-narrative and alternative, not because it fits into the Western stereotypes!

But in all fairness, there are a couple of scenes that reveal Chopra’s innate cinematic talent and abilities: the sequence with the pigeon is beautifully shot although a bit clich├ęd. The screening room sequence is interesting for its self-referentiality - a key scene from Parinda plays on the projector, although the choice of the scene suggests it was imagined by a gang of film scholars rather than the director. The innovative use of a visual black-out where sound becomes the key component is intriguing and effective, mostly because of AB’s magnificent voice. But unfortunately two scenes are not enough to save an entire film.

Sadly (and I speak as a one who watched Parinda eight times in a row when it was released!) Chopra’s best work appears to be behind him; perhaps a fate he shares with other major directors of the 1980s who can’t seem to either catch the pulse or pull of innovative scripts anymore.

For his part, the Big B would be better served in his current run to stick with younger directors who seem to extract better work from (specially by not allowing him to sleep-walk Coolie-style through their movies).

All in all – don’t bother with this one!