The shadow of the Bard hangs heavy over “Eklavya: The Royal Guard,” a Shakespearean tragedy in all but name transposed to a palace in modern Rajasthan. Strongly cast tale of royal scheming, family skeletons and healthy slaughter is an involving mood piece that should have appeal on the international fest circuit, beyond the normal constituency for more mainstream Bollywood fare. Pic opened encouragingly Feb. 16 in India and overseas, though its long-term fortune with average auds still hangs in the balance.
Film reps a comparatively rare directorial outing by writer-producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose last helming chore was the slick actioner “Mission Kashmir” (2000), and who’s since produced the Sanjay Dutt-starring “Munnabhai” comedies and the classy period meller “Parineeta.” Using several of his regular actors (Dutt, Saif Ali Khan, Vidya Balan, Raima Sen, Boman Irani), Chopra aims several thousand ticks higher than “Kashmir” with “Eklavya,” which is hardly a mass crowd-pleaser.
Also, unlike other direct Shakespeare adaptations (“Omkara,” “Maqbool”), “Eklavya” notably doesn’t use a gangster setting. Instead, the yarn takes place within the netherworld of disenfranchised Udaipur royalty, a lingering remnant of the bad old days in modern, democratic India.
Using a rich color palette and breathy closeups, the film plunges into the claustrophobic setting of Devigarh, a hilltop fort-cum-palace. There, Queen Suhasinidevi (Sharmila Tagore) lies dying, watched by her bonkers daughter, Princess Nandini (Sen), and husband, King Jaywardhan (Irani). She repeatedly croaks “Eklavya,” the name of the palace’s veteran royal guard (Amitabh Bachchan), who hovers nearby.
Prince Harshwardhan (Khan), who’s been away in London, arrives for the funeral, to the displeasure of the king’s brother,Jyotiwardhan (Jackie Shroff) and the latter’s nasty son, Udaywardhan (Jimmy Shergill). It’s soon revealed why the queen was croaking Eklavya’s name on her deathbed: It was he who fathered both Harshwardhan and Nandini when the king wasn’t up to the job.
Title character takes a back seat during the first half as the royals fester in their juices and Harshwardhan renews his love affair with childhood friend Rajjo (Balan), daughter of the royal driver (Parikshit Sahani). But when, just prior to the intermission, there’s an assassination attempt on the king, Eklavya strides into the main drama, rooting out the guilty parties with an unbending sense of dharma (duty).
Within its extremely tight running time, by Bollywood standards, there’s only one song (a charming ditty sung by Rajjo) and one action set piece — the superbly edited assassination attempt, by a railroad crossing with a camel train trotting by. Rest is largely charged dialogue sequences between various factors of the royal family plus melancholy tableaux that make full use of the exterior of Devigarh (actually a renovated boutique hotel) and the imposing Rajasthan landscape.
As such, the pic often plays like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer movie: Pacing and continuity aren’t choppy, but there’s enough material here for a full-length drama that would go deeper into the characters and their backgrounds. “Eklavya” is good as it is, but lacks tragic heft.
Performances range from OK to good, with the nuanced, photogenic Balan again proving she’s an actress to watch; Khan negotiating the tricky role of Harshwardhan with skill but less depth than he’s capable of; Bachchan bestriding the action as the bleary-eyed Eklavya; and Dutt introducing a lightly comic, plebian practicality as the local police chief.